Women in decision-making positions improve outcomes for all of us

Op-ed by Victoria McKenzie-McHarg

Originally published in Women’s Agenda

Women in decision-making positions improve outcomes for all of us

After a COVID ravaged summer following two years of pandemic lockdowns, many of us are feeling a mix of exhaustion and uncertainty about what 2022 will bring.

We know that something has to give.  

Meanwhile, our ongoing climate and environmental crisis continues unabated. Since the start of the year we’ve already seen flooding in central QLD, and 50-plus degree days in WA. And we continue to wake up to headlines of misogyny and racism in our parliaments and workplaces followed by very little action on gender and racial inequality. It’s a lot to take on board.

But rather than bury our heads in the long Summer days as more of us get stuck into the work year, what if we could achieve real progress on each of these challenges today?

Increasingly, Australians are realising how diverse women’s leadership can help provide the answers we need as we face the challenges of 2022 and beyond.

Few issues matter or rate as highly for Australians as climate change and our environment. In fact, despite the distractions of the pandemic, the Climate of the Nation report found that in 2021 82% of Australians were concerned that climate change will result in more bushfires, more droughts and flooding, and animal and plant species extinction. The same percentage of Australians support a phase-out of coal-fired power stations. 

When assessing the views of young people last year, Mission Australia found that the top three concerns for Australians aged between 15-19 were Covid, our environment, and equity and discrimination (including gender equity and racial discrimination). As one of the demographics whose mental health and future prospects are most impacted by these challenges, the rest of us have an obligation to listen up.

The high levels of concern but lack of action on these issues indicates a leadership crisis in Australia. And we’re not alone. In recent years, the annual Edelman Trust Barometer has demonstrated nothing less than a global crisis of leadership – with trust in leadership dropping further across all societal leader categories in 2021 – government leaders, CEOs, journalists and even religious leaders. 

Faced with this disappointment, people are seeking far more from their business leaders. In fact, 86% of employees believe CEOs should step in when governments do not fix societal problems, and 66% believe CEOs should take the lead rather than wait for the government to impose changes on them. 

Never has this been more important in Australia than on the issue of decades-long federal government failure – climate change. And while the shift towards corporate leadership on climate is now well underway in some sectors, it falls far short of what the times demand.  

If we want different outcomes on the key issues that matter to our young people, our employees, and our communities, we need different leaders at the table. And by supporting diverse leadership, specifically diverse women’s leadership, organisations will see changes across the board. 

International evidence is clear that having women at the decision-making table improves environmental outcomes. A study of the European Parliament showed that women elected to Parliaments around the world are more likely to support environmental legislation than men. But women make up only 31% of the House of Representatives and 33% of our federal Cabinet. The upcoming federal election is a chance to reflect on who should be representing and leading our nation at this crucial time. 

It’s a leadership trend that doesn’t end at the doors of Parliament House. Studies have shown similar effects in business, where firms with female chief executives produce less air and water pollution and less greenhouse gas emissions compared to firms with male chief executives. Companies with more women on their boards are also more likely to have stronger environmental and climate policies. Furthermore, research from the University of Adelaide demonstrated that companies with more gender-balanced boards are less often sued for breaching environmental laws. Greater cultural and other diversity can further strengthen these outcomes, with evidence showing that diverse teams create better solutions to complex problems (and there’s not much more complex than our climate and biodiversity crises).

Unfortunately, diverse women’s leadership won’t happen without action. COVID-19 has further set back women’s leadership at a time when we need it more than ever. LinkedIn data shows a marked decline of women’s hiring into leadership roles since the start of the pandemic, creating a reversal of one to two years of progress across multiple industries. 

So if the year ahead looks challenging, don’t despair. In 2022, let’s step up to the immediate challenges facing us. That starts with creating more opportunities for diverse women to take the lead in ensuring we arrive at a better place for this year and beyond.

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