On 22nd July 2015, Autopia and the Australian National Committee for UN Women hosted a panel discussion in Melbourne entitled 'Driving Gender Diversity in the Workplace'.

Oversubscribed, and eagerly anticipated, the event did not disappoint. In this sneak peak video, Air Commodore Alan Clements, Commandant Australian Defence Force Academy reveals the moment he discovered there was a problem in our society with gender inequality.



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Julie McKay
Executive Director
Australian National Commitee for UN Women

Robert Wood
Centre for Ethical Leadership

Dimity Hodge
Australian Practice Leader
Leadership Advisory Services
Spencer Stuart

Air Commodore 
Alan Clements

Commandant Australian Defence Force Academy

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Julie McKay

We are all biased.  From the moment we are born, we are influenced by the people in our lives, by our experiences and by our surrounds.  Little girls are rewarded for nurturing behaviours when they take care of their toys, while little boys are encouraged to be tough, to enjoy ‘rough and tumble’ activities and to lead.  Our experiences frame the way we make decisions, and the assumptions we make, consciously and unconsciously.

Societal norms have a role to play as well.  In Australia, whether we like them or not, there exist strong gender roles – perpetuated by our media, our communities and in our education system.  You only have to open a children’s book to see pictures of men who are doctors, being supported by women who are nurses.  These subtle messages reinforce to us from an early age that there are choices and behaviours that are ‘acceptable’ and some that are not, depending on whether we were born a woman or a man.

The problem is not necessarily that we have biases; the problem is that we pretend that we don’t, or we simply don’t think about it.  How this plays out in nearly every organisation in Australia is that masculine behaviours and norms are preferenced in recruitment and promotion decisions, leading to the current state of male dominated leadership teams in nearly all sectors.  For whatever reason, we are comfortable making excuses for the pathetic representation of women in leadership roles – we talk about the choices women make, their ‘natural preference’ to be primary carers.  We talk about time out of the workforce, about a lack of ambition and about the commitment to hours worked.   Rarely though, do you hear a conversation in corporate Australia about the personal biases that may be preventing women reaching senior leadership roles – that male leaders often promote candidates who are similar to themselves – men.  I think this is because we are more comfortable explaining away the current state of play.  It is easier to think that women made choices to work in lower paid, more precarious roles and have no desire for promotion than to address the more systemic issues.

Gender bias is not necessarily deliberately discriminatory - people can even be consciously committed to equality, and work deliberately to behave without prejudice, yet still possess unconscious biases. Nevertheless, these hidden biases create invisible barriers that continue to hold back top female talent. These include both barriers to access to workplaces, and barriers to inclusion and success within those workplaces.

Autopia and the National Committee for UN Women are trying to ignite a new conversation in Australian businesses.  One that seeks to dispel the ‘merit myth’ where employees believe that there is some objective process that will ensure that if they work hard, they will be rewarded.  We hope to create a conversation where leaders share their own personal experiences of promotion, and the aids and opportunities that may have given them a helping hand.

The literature is rife with stories of gender bias. For example, equivalent men and women obtain different salary increases over time, even after they receive identical performance evaluationsand women’s perceived workplace competency falls by 35 per cent and their perceived worth drops by over $15 000 when they are considered ‘forceful’ or ‘assertive’. 2

Recently I shared my own story, calling out the fact that I did not get my role with the National Committee through an objective merit process.  I recognise that my mentor sponsoring me through the application process, my willingness to accept the risks associated with a start-up not to mention the initial salary and my previous experience as a volunteer with the organisation all played a role in my appointment.  At 23, I know for sure, that I couldn’t have been the most experienced candidate to be the Executive Director of a start up NGO.   Was I the right appointment? Well 8.5 years on, I hope so.  But my point is that very rarely, is there an objective way to determine who is the strongest candidate.

I don’t actually have a problem with sponsorship and other strategies that help to raise the profile of certain candidates, in fact, I encourage these strategies.  But what I do worry about is the fact that men and women often cannot access these opportunities equally.  There is evidence of people being more likely to sponsor a ‘Mini-Me’ than to support someone who is nothing like them. When those in positions to make these choices are cut from a certain cloth – white, male, heterosexual and able bodied, it’s no surprise that generations of Mini-Mes become leaders and the cycle of inequality continues.

Since publishing the article declaring that I had not been appointed on merit, I have enjoyed conversations with colleagues and friends where almost everyone assures me that, unlike me, they were in fact appointed on merit.  It seems that our personal pride, associated with being recognised as the ‘best person for the role’ runs pretty deep.

I encourage you to take some time with a coffee to watch the video of the Melbourne launch event.  The panellists share ideas and challenge each other’s assumptions of merit.  Most powerful for me, was hearing Commodore Alan Clements speak about the moment when he realised that the system that he lived and worked in, and deeply respected, was not giving equal opportunities to men and women.

I challenge each and every one of you to think about your own journey.  Where were the moments where you got an opportunity because you knew someone, or because you were in the right place at the right time, or because another candidate couldn’t take the position?  Change starts small – being aware of your own biases, and even writing them on a post-it that you take into interviews can help you to start overcoming your biases.  Sharing your stories will help raise awareness and ultimately challenge attitudes, which perpetuate the merit myth. 


1. Emilio J Castilla, ‘Gender, race and meritocracy in organizational careers’ (2005) 1 Academy of Management Proceedings G1. 

2. http://www.vitalsmarts.no/uploads/9/4/6/7/9467257/women-in-the-workplace-ebook.pdf


Enter your details to watch the full discussion, and receive the whitepaper 'Re-thinking merit - Why the meritocracy is failing Australian businesses' where you'll find out:


​How long it's going to take to level the playing field

How to avoid unconscious bias

How diversity increases productivity

What we can do to advance the cause 

The conversations we all need to have

and receive a copy of the whitepaper launched on the day

  • Very well thought out. A great panel of experts. Practical ways to improve diversity.

  • Really well facilitated, knowledgeable panel and very lively discussion and debate.

  • The panel discussion was great - the right balance of information, personal experience/views and Q and A.



Check the highlights of the day at Storify
or tweet #DrivingGenderDiversity

Executive Director, Australian National Committee for UN Women

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