We need quotas for women
In the 2019 International Women’s Day Lecture at ANU, Dr Sam Mostyn, HonLLD ’18, LLB ’89, BA ’86, spoke about her experiences in male dominated boardrooms. This is an edited extract of her speech.
I've been asked by the University to speak about what change feels like when you're put in a position of bringing gender diversity into difficult environments.
There are significant structural barriers that we all need to engage with and understand if we are truly to think about gender parity, gender equality and what I call bridging the respect gap.
We talk about the gender pay gap, the gender superannuation gap, but for me the gender respect gap sits at the heart of all the things that I'd like to share with you. And in my career since leaving this wonderful institution, I have learned that hoping, wishing and praying for gender equality outcomes is not a great strategy. It simply doesn't work.
My experience over many years has taught me that gender barriers need very specific responses – targeted and purposeful reforms that address the core issues. And that it is required in almost every sector and industry. The issues of gender inequality sit in every part of our economy.
When I reflect personally on those structural barriers, I think about the angry, highly charged opposition we continue to face when successful interventions like quotas are implemented. I am unabashed about this. I'm a big quota supporter.
I've been the beneficiary of formal and informal quotas on many occasions, and seen the dramatic impact merit-based quotas have in addressing structural barriers to progress for women. So you could say I am a number one fan, I'm a ticket holder for quotas!
A quota appointment
There is no other way of saying this – I was a quota appointment to the AFL Commission when I was appointed in 2005 – the first woman invited to sit on the most senior governing board of the Australian Rules Football industry.
In 2004 the then Chairman of the AFL, the late Ron Evans, said it was unacceptable for the governing body of a national sport with strong female support to have no gender diversity on the Commission. And so he engaged in a purposeful, targeted response, and initiated a search process for a woman to be appointed to the board. Despite some opposition from within the industry – those believing change would occur naturally over time – Ron and his colleagues pursued a woman-only candidate process and an amendment to the AFL’s Constitution to ensure that a woman could be appointed to the Commission.
To this day, I believe that it would be unlikely that there would be the three women serving on the AFL Commission today, had that first quota appointment not been made. Hoping, wishing and praying for a system to deliver a woman into that boardroom was always destined for failure.
I wore that badge of being the first woman on the Commission with pride, because it was the result of a purposeful act to create change. Many men in the industry at the time did not support the move, unable to get around the fact that there were no men candidates included in that appointment process. But it was the reaction of some women in the football world that surprised me most.
At a number of events after my appointment, quite often women would approach me to share their disappointment in the quota nature of my directorship. Some indicated they would have refused to be appointed in such circumstances, and others challenged me on whether I would ever know if I was the best candidate, having not been tested against men.
That was a hard part of purposeful change that I experienced at close, personal range. My heart sank, realising that the women who I thought, as a group, would be supportive of a deliberative, merit-based process of addressing historical bias, in fact were not comfortable with such action. It was a stark realisation that the issue of quotas and being the recipient of a quota remains very difficult for many people, particularly some women.
A women’s competition
When I first raised the idea that the AFL could support an elite women's competition, the responses I received from the men in the industry were generally dismissive. Most had never seen a woman play at the highest level, nor grasp the extent of desire by women to compete in a competition the equivalent of the men’s game.
As I reflect on my sports experience as a young woman, I wish I had grown up at a time where I could have played footy, using my body fully in a contact sport – experiencing the full power of my body. I didn't get to do that, and nor did many of the women I met around the country who simply wanted the same playing rights as their fathers, brothers and uncles. The sports I played made me feel restricted, while I loved watching men playing footy in all of its thrilling, exciting dynamism.
And while I wasn't playing football as a young woman, a lot of women in the footy states were. But, by the time they got to 15 or 16, there was nowhere to go. So they either gave up the sport or chose other sports where many went on to excel. In basketball, in soccer, in cricket and beyond. They went and played the sports where there was a pathway to playing at the highest level.
It took a decade of persistent, hard work by the advocates of a women’s game to ultimately see the launch by the AFL of the hugely successful inaugural AFLW season in 2017. But that change started with the decision to invite women into the boardroom of the AFL, and the boardrooms of the AFL clubs. A pathway opened in such a way as to ensure that the voices of women players and coaches, and their supporters, could be respectfully heard.
We had to be persistent about how the AFLW was developed and show great respect to the women involved. And, to give you a sense of what has happened, today over 550,000 girls and women play AFL. Women and girls’ participation is one of the most significant growth engines for the future of the game. The inclusion of women in all parts of the AFL is no longer simply a question of finding a space for gender equality in the game, but about the very future of the sport – a phenomenon we are witnessing in women and girls’ participation in all sports across the globe.
Call to action
I want to leave you with a call to action.
It starts with engaging enthusiastically with the place of quotas – both as a purposeful act of change by those who control access to roles and opportunities, and as a reinforcement of talent and merit experienced by those offered those opportunities.
Don't be frightened of quotas. Don't be frightened of being singled out. Even if you don't think you're the woman who can do it – when someone else has seen something in you, believing in your potential – trust that judgment and proudly take the role.
It will be in the commitment you give to the role where others will see the rationale for your appointment. That is the promise I have made to myself and to those who have supported me, throughout my career, and I hope I have lived up to those expectations.
For the men, understanding that our lives are different, and when we join you to do things together, that we do bring different perspectives, and we have to find a mutually respectful language and trust where we can achieve great outcomes. But, most importantly, that by embracing our differences – by being truly inclusive – our organisations will benefit from the power of decision-making enhanced by different perspectives and experiences.
And it starts with events like this on International Women’s Day, sharing stories of challenge and success. I hope you leave today with your own calls to action, wherever you are, in all of your communities, and taking up all the challenges and opportunities that your University is providing, whether it's the Mentor Walks, whether it's the feminist events, whether it's the flexible work arrangements or new superannuation contributions.
We have to just grab these opportunities and run with them, with confidence. And then, I have great hope that the celebration of International Women's Day is doing its job.
Watch or listen to this speech here: bit.ly/SamMostynlecture