It will be a great pleasure to join the Women in Life Sciences Lunch for International Women’s Day today at Doltone House to review progress with equality and gender balance. While the debate continues on whether a day to recognise women is necessary – I believe it is critical to have these milestones, to ensure momentum is maintained and progress made.

From a personal perspective – I wasn’t a direct witness to the rise of feminism in the 60s/70s. In fact, it was quite a passive backdrop to my school and university years in England.  Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch was rarely raised and was not a defining publication for my generation.

Instead, everywhere I turned I was presented with strong, capable female role models. Popular culture and the rise of punk made me believe women were invincible and could do anything. Deborah Harry, Siouxsie Sioux, Annie Lennox, Polysterene heralded us on TV. At a galactic level Carrie Fisher and Sigourney Weaver showed me women were born to defy dark forces of many kinds. Even our Iron Lady – Maggie Thatcher – led us into battle and won the Falklands war! Women were strong, confident and capable of anything!

This was reinforced in the workplace. The first company I joined in London was led by an Anna Wintour style Public Relations guru. She was brilliant! My second, a cool, calm ‘Helen Mirren’ style Managing Director. We wore Working Girl ‘power suits’, stockings from Marks & Spencers and high heels.  We worked hard.  I wanted to succeed. I wanted to lead.

In contrast, when I arrived in Australia I stepped into a world led by men – becoming the only female on a senior management team in a large agency. It was different – but I embraced the opportunities I was given and channeled ‘Maggie’ to forge ahead in my career.

Like my female mentors in the UK, in Australia the male leaders were generous with their guidance and supportive of my determination to develop my skills. They actively recognised my contribution to their teams and businesses and gave me significant responsibility and leadership. They also equipped me with the ultimate in communication skills – crisis and issues management, political lobbying, reputation management and strategic communications. These colleagues and male leaders made me the consultant I am today.

But while my skills were extended and I felt supported, the day came when I discovered my pay was significantly less than my male counterparts.  And when my daughter arrived attitudes towards my professional capabilities also changed. As a new mother, I was no longer afforded the kind of progression I had strived for. It was frustrating and ultimately prompted me to step away from the corporate world to set-up my own business.

I don’t see myself as an active feminist, I am more a ‘womanist’! But for International Women’s Day I do believe we need to take time to assess how far we have come – but also how far we need to go when it comes to equality.

We must secure equality in the work place – equal pay and equal opportunities. Like Public Relations and Communications, Life Sciences has a relatively balanced representation of women and men. However, in the STEMM fields, female representation decreases as seniority levels increase. This trend is seen more broadly across Australian businesses with men making up 95% of ASX200 CEOs.

Clearly we need to do more. Fundamental to this is to establish gender balanced parental leave. Less than 5% of Australian dads take primary parental leave in Australia.   It is our established stereotypes of women as the primary carer vs the male ‘bread winner’ which continue to provide barriers to career progression and equal pay. Women and men should be able to share the care for their children in the early years – while both develop their careers, businesses and earning potential.

Although initiatives such as International Women’s Day shine a light and encourage conversation on gender inequality, change is proving slow. Research released just last week shows parity for men and women at the CEO level remains 80 years away.

The time for talking is over. It is up to women in industry, like those at today’s lunch, to inspire change and activate the younger generations coming through – encouraging them to expect equality in their career, to ask the questions, to aim high and walk tall.

Happy International Women’s Day 2019!