Australasian Housing Institute: International Women's Day Webinar
Thursday, 24 March 2022
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC
Diyn Babana Gamarada Gadigal Ngura
Greetings from Gadigal Country. In greeting you in the 'Sydney language' of the Eora Nation, I pay my respects to the Elders, past, present and future of this land and to Elders of the land from which you are joining today.
To the traditional owners, the concept of home means ‘country’. It is connection to country which is their heart, mind and soul. Oodgeroo Noonuccal, activist and poet, used the word belonging. She wrote: “We belong here … We are the corroboree and the bora ground, We are the old sacred ceremonies, the laws of the elder”. American writer, poet and activist Maya Angelou wrote: “(Home) is the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned”.
Many people do not have a place to which they belong. Many don’t have a safe place to which to go.
Of the 278,300 clients that Australian Specialist Homelessness Support agencies assisted in 2020–21:
- 6 in 10 were female
- 1 in 6 were children under the age of 10
- 1 in 8 were children and youth aged 10–17
- The largest age group of adult clients were aged 25–34
- About 13,300 were women aged 55 or older (8% of total female clients).
- 42% - or 116,000 - had experienced family or domestic violence.
This is damning but critical data, essential in pinpointing areas of need. Without it, planning and provision of services would be haphazard and certainly inadequate. But data doesn’t tell the whole story, even when you drill down into it to look at demographic indicators of gender, ethnicity, socioeconomics, location and education. Behind every one of those statistics that I have mentioned is a unique human being with a story that needs to be heard, understood and responded to.
Here in NSW and in Queensland, thousands of people of all ages have been made homeless by recent floods. I have just returned from the flooded Northern Rivers region of NSW, which has been declared a disaster area.
The NSW State Emergency Service had recently determined that 3396 homes are uninhabitable and 6708 are inundated, mainly in the Northern Rivers region. It is estimated that some 15,000 people, a third of the population, are homeless – some temporarily, some permanently. No one knows yet.
Almost 1500 people are living with relatives and friends, in cars, vans, garages, carports and evacuation centres, and these are the ones that have reported or registered their situation. Many are too shocked to function adequately. It is a crisis of unimaginable proportions.
The Local Aboriginal Land Council - Ngulingah LALC - lost three community houses. Heartfelt House, part of the Northern Rivers’ Women and Children’s Services, lost their only women’s and children’s shelter. The local member of State Parliament, had to swim out in muddy waters carrying incalculable pathogens, to be rescued. She made no bones about the gravity of the situation and what was needed for recovery. She said: “(We) don’t want a hand-out, (we) need a hand up. This is a human security issue.”
Lismore and surrounding areas were already ‘home’ to many homeless people. When a disaster like we have just witnessed is added to the already compounding effects of economic, social, health and environmental crises, the impact is huge. I was in the Northern Rivers for two days and I felt crushed by the enormity of what I saw. But that is not my lived experience, nor am I a member of the professional workforce who look after people who are, or on the verge of becoming, homeless.
Yours is a highly challenging profession. You are tasked with assisting people move into social and affordable housing as well as facilitating the support they need to live a dignified and sustainable life. The impacts of these vicissitudes of life on so many members of our community are huge.
I have said yours is a challenging profession. That itself comes with impacts on your emotional well-being, often as you are called upon to bear the emotional load of your clients. As one of the speakers in an AHI webinar highlighted: ‘she had become the accidental counsellor.’ It is essential therefore that we recognize that ‘a work(force) that is caring for people’ also needs to be supported.
This brings me to another topic which is of fundamental importance. It is the economic ‘value’ we, as a society, place on ‘care’. At least 65% of social and affordable housing sector professionals are women.
Added to that is the bias that many face in a sector dominated by women, often dealing with large corporate organisations that have been traditionally fronted by men. It is well-documented that when women comprise the majority of a particular workforce, two phenomena emerge. First, positions at the top are often dominated by men. Secondly, the general salary scale of the workforce whose responsibility it is to care for vulnerable members of the society, is relatively low compared to other disciplines which have similar tertiary entry requirements, such as a Bachelor’s degree.
In this regard I am making a different point from the underrepresentation of women in key decision-making roles, although that is still an issue which still calls for redress. The figures from the 2019-20 Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) dataset reveal that women comprise only 32.5% of key management positions and 14.6% of Board Chairs.
Change is certainly happening, although a comparison with a snail is not inappropriate. The reduction in the gender pay gap - on average now sitting at 13.8% or $255 a week less than men (a mere half a percentage point less than last year). Giving some impetus to accelerating the pace of change, more sophisticated analysis is now being undertaken as to why change isn’t occurring at a rate commensurate with female workforce participation and early success.
Various studies indicate that commitment to female leadership is the most significant driver of gender equality outcomes. However, analysis indicates that there is still a “broken rung” at the first step up to the manager level for women - sometimes referred to as problems with the management pipeline – often because women concentrate in the wrong part of the pipeline – especially human resources. For this to change, women need to have a place in all parts of an organisational structure and leadership skills across all parts of an organisation have to be recognised and rewarded by management.
Another inhibiting factor that has been identified is the self-deprecating way women position – or don’t position – themselves for promotion. Most promotion systems, including at manager level operate on an ‘opt-in mechanism’, a system which, in practice, tends to favour males.
If that system was turned on its head, so as to be an opt-out system, then everyone of the required performance ability goes into the candidate pool by default, with the onus then placed on individuals to opt out.
Just as important, is the recognition of bias, in particular unconscious bias. A recent LinkedIn seminar on ‘Leadership Strategies for Women’ quoted the results of an Implicit Associations Test which showed that 74% of participants, both men and women, were likely to associate men with careers and women with family.
How do we break those assumptions? How do you navigate through or work around the bias ‘roadblocks’ when they emerge along the way? How do you “build a brighter future” for you and your clients?
My legal career started just under 50 years ago. Support systems were non-existent – so to succeed, it was a matter of ignoring the obstacles. That was a very singular approach, not only for me but for women lawyers generally. It wasn’t easy. Raising an issue of bias was a recipe for ruination.
We can of course continue to tell our stories, but we have told them too many times. Today, a systemic, data-driven and analytical approach is needed. It also needs to be recognized that leadership is not easy. It is demanding and unless proper structures are put around it by an organisation’s board and senior management, it can be lonely.
So let me conclude with some personal insights of what I think is demanded of leadership.
- Once you take on a leadership position, as I have said, it inevitably demands more of you. There is an upside: It also enables you to give more back.
- As a leader you have to support downwards as well as seek to engineer change upwards. The present generation of leaders can and must provide support to new young professionals.
- Likewise, this generation of leaders knows what needs to be done at the structural level to change things for the better. That is what I mean by engineer upwards. Take the steps to ensure that change is engineered.
- Remember that it is not sufficient just to be in the room. It is not sufficient just to have a place at the table. You must be a voice at the table. Women, often touted as good listeners, have to speak as much as they listen. It is up to each of us to speak up and be a voice at the table.
- Leadership is not only reflected in the work that you do; it is reflected “in the people you do it for who matter more than anything else”.
- Finally, everyone, at some time, has to make a bold or difficult decision. It can be lonely when you have to do that, but that is the time when you need to call on your support systems.
 ‘We Are Going’: https://www.nfsa.gov.au/mervynbishop/oodgeroo-noonuccal-dawn-is-at-hand
 Only 18 women are among the CEOs of Australia’s largest 300 companies, or 6.2%, according to the 2021 Chief Executive Women Senior Executive Census:
In the 2019-20 WGEA dataset (50.5%), women comprise only: 32.5% of key management position; 28.1% of directors; 18.3% of CEOs and 14.6% of board chairs
 Ibid - page 21
 ‘We all have gender bias’ - NASBA Continuing Professional Education: leadership Strategies for Women:
 Motto: https://www.theahi.com.au/
Hood Feminism: Mikki Kendall, Bloomsbury Press, 2020, Page xiii and page 256