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Revolt over all-male events

Published by the Australian Financial Review on 9 August 2013.

By Mathew Dunckley

THE days of three men in suits dominating prestigious conference stages could be numbered after some of Australia’s top male executives vowed to take a tough line on appearing at events that lack women on the bill.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has obtained the agreement of 21 top executives and public servants to sign a “panel pledge”. They will ask which women will appear with them at an event before agreeing to participate.

Events seeking sponsorship from their companies would have to demonstrate the promotion of women.

Public speaking events were an important part of building profile which helps with the process of getting women into more senior roles, Ms Broderick said.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” she said. “I think often when you see conference advertisements or the brochures, it becomes very stark. The message that it sends is that this is men’s business and women don’t have a part.”

Unlike some options promoted overseas, the Australian version of the pledge will not immediately trigger a boycott of all male panels. Organisers will be “asked the question” about what they have done to secure female talent.

“These men are asked to speak at tens and hundreds of conferences. They are all in high demand at the very same events where we need women.”

She said other prominent speakers, male and female, would be encouraged to take the pledge and the commission was working on that process.

The pledge was one of a series of initiatives that would be launched at a Champions of Change event in early November, she said.

Ms Broderick said her own career surged after she was invited to speak at a legal conference when she worked at law firm Blake Dawson, that led to further speaking offers.

She said she might not have been named Telstra’s Businesswoman of the Year without that boost to her profile. “When I started to speak at events, that is when I came on the radar,” she said.

Qantas Airways chief executive Alan Joyce said three of his eight direct reports were women and many were born or have lived overseas.

“I’m not a big believer in mandatory quotas but I do think there are steps that we can take to change behaviours and raise awareness of diversity,” he said.

“I see the benefits of diversity in action every day,” he said.

“If you can tap into diversity and use it properly, your business can have a huge strategic advantage.”

Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ian Watt, said more than half of his department’s senior leadership team were woman and he encouraged them to speak. “I am committed to the panel pledge initiative because I believe it is the correct thing to do, and because I see that some pockets of the public service still have some way to go to achieve what we have,” he said.

Goldman Sachs chief executive ¬≠Australia and New Zealand Simon Rothery said: “Conferences and panels provide a platform to share experiences and perspectives. You can’t do that without incorporating the views of women.”

Ms Broderick said attendees should ask before buying tickets if a conference dominated by men genuinely offered the best available talent.

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