Queensland’s Parliament was 150 years old in 2008, so it was built in 1858, which is not that long ago. But it was built without any female toilets, which tells you something about who they thought were going to be walking the corridors of power. I could feel that when I was elected in ‘95. They did have ladies bathrooms by then, but it was nevertheless – and particularly on my side of politics, the labour party – a very blokes kind of male-dominated environment.

Anna Bligh.

Anna Bligh was the 37th Premier of Queensland from 2007 to 2012.

In February 2017 she was appointed CEO of the Australian Bankers’ Association.

She delivered this rousing speech when she was Chief Executive, YWCA NSW.

Anna Bligh speech on diversity in Australia

I wanted to talk a little bit about some of the work that some people will be familiar with, but if you’re not, I want to give it more prominence. The work is being done in the area of the correlation between diversity in companies and productivity, profit and performance.

I want to talk to you about three pieces of research: one done by Credit Suisse. Credit Suisse looked at 2360 companies globally over six years. They found that it would’ve been much better for investors in those six years to invest in companies who had women on their board because companies with one or more women on their board:

  • Performed consistently higher on return on equity;
  • Had lower gearing;
  • Had much better average rates of growth; and
  • Had a higher price book value multiple over the six years of the study.We’re not talking marginal differences. They found that companies with one or more women on their board – this is out of 2360 companies – saw a return on equity on average 16 per cent higher than those that had none, and growth rate four per cent higher than those that had none.A similar study by McKinsey, a study of 180 publicly traded companies in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States between 2008 and 2010 found what they described as results that were startlingly consistent where they saw that companies that ranked in the top quartile on diversity – so they created a measure of diversity that included both women on boards and in senior executive positions and people from other cultures in those positions – so those companies that scored in the top quartile on diversity saw a return on equity 53 per cent higher than those that were in the bottom quartile, and they had EBIT margins that were 14 per cent higher than those in the bottom quartile.While both of those studies make the point that they can’t really establish causality, it is such a startlingly consistent correlation that, in their view, it simply can’t be ignored.

    It’s not just companies that see those benefits. Recent work by Goldman Sachs JBWere in an Australian context shows that since 1974, the closing of the gap between the rates of employment of women and men in the workforce has contributed 22 per cent to Australia’s gross domestic product (GDP), and if we could close the remaining gap, we would see a further lift of 11 per cent in Australia’s GDP.


Anna Bligh speech on diversity in Australia

So, why am I telling you all of that? Well the last time I looked, Goldman Sachs JBWere, Credit Suisse and McKinsey were not run by radical feminist collectives. They are run by some of the most respected corporate minds on the planet. If they had put out those reports with those data and said, “We investigated these companies because they’re using this kind of software, and they got those kinds of results”, I put it to you that people would be queuing up to buy the software. Everyone would want to be an early adopter and those that failed to adopt would be seen to be acting un-competitively or totally irrationally. The fact is that people are not queuing up to put women in their C-suites and on their boards, particularly here in Australia.

I think it’s one of the reasons why we continue to see work being done by people like (Dr) Jennifer (Whelan) and others to try to understand what is driving this really quite irrational behaviour in that context. So it is like they’re understanding stereotypes, unconscious bias, is about trying to understand that some of those very human things about all of us – men and women – and why it leads to this sort of behaviour.

I wanted to put some of that in an historical context. All of us, every single person in this room, is living at this moment in history at a time when the 50 years post-war to now, what we’re seeing is the largest single movement of women out of the domestic sphere into the public and work sphere ever before in human history at an unprecedented rate and scale.

Because we’re all in the middle of doing it, a lot of us I think often can’t see it. But in 200, 300 years’ time when people are looking back at this moment in history, it will be astonishingly clear to them that this was one of the biggest social and economic features of this point in human history. Women out of the private sphere and into the public sphere in every shape and form.

It’s changing everything: it’s changing economies, the buying power of working women is driving a lift in GDP not only here in Australia but in most developed west economies. The outlier on that is Japan, and you will hear a lot in the G20 about the stalling of Japan’s economy, the correlation of that and their failure to promote women into the workplace and their failure to use those skills and productivity growth of women in the workforce.

It’s changing economies. It’s changing social structures: child care, school hours, domestic service industry. It’s changing our workplaces: exible hours, issues to do with industrial relations, the way that we manage workplaces. Who would’ve thought in the 2013 Federal election that the two contenders for the Prime Ministership of the country, what was one of the biggest issues that they argued about through the entire campaign? Maternity leave.

 Anna Bligh speech on diversity in Australia

It is changing everything, it is changing family structures. Men and women, we are now older on average when we have our first child and go on to become parents, and we are having fewer children. So it is changing the relationships between men and women. It is changing the way that we think about ourselves, the way that we think about each other and the way that we think about our relationships.

So if you sometimes feel really sick and tired of this issue, it is because you are navigating it in every single sphere of your life. You’re navigating it at breakfast, you’re navigating it at work, you’re navigating it when you pick up the newspaper, you’re navigating it in election time, and it is happening all at once on all fronts.

But you’re not just navigating it, you’re inventing it. You are reimagining it and reinventing the shape of everything as women move out of that domestic and private sphere and start being players in this other space that they haven’t got a lot of history in doing.

It means that the women who are doing it are trailblazing – and I don’t just mean the prominent high-profile women in leadership – every single woman that walks out of the front door every morning, puts on her lipstick and goes into paid employment is doing something that was unimaginable for women not that long ago in human history. And many women are doing it in entirely uncharted territory, they’re either the first in their company to take on a particular position that they’ve got, or they might be only the second or the third. It is still relatively new territory.

But it’s equally true that those who are standing beside them while they’re doing it, those who are reporting to them while they’re doing it, often – for them – it’s the first time they’ve had a woman in that position. It’s also true for those who are on the outside watching women do it. So in my case, it was the first time for the electorate that they had seen a woman being a leader, and they don’t have a lot of frame of reference of understanding what that might mean and what it might be like, and they are going to be intensely curious about it.

So it means for all of us that we are pioneering this big social and economic shift. When I use the word ‘pioneering’ I don’t mean sitting around in a white bonnet baking pies while waiting for a barn raising, I’m talking about the kind of pioneering where you have to get a machete out and sharpen it every morning and cut away these densely growing vines that annoyingly reappear overnight just so that you can see the path ahead, just so you can make even a modicum of progress every day.

Anna Bligh speech on diversity in Australia

So, I thought I’d just make a few comments before I conclude about my own personal experience on some of the issues that Jennifer raised. The phenomenon that she talked about – “Think manager, think male” – the image that we have in our minds about what a leader looks and sounds and dresses and walks and talks like is a very male image. It’s such a ubiquitous image that it is engrained in all of us, and including in myself.

When I search in my mind for what a leader sounds like, I can hear Nelson Mandela, I can hear John F Kennedy, I can hear Paul Keating, I can hear Winston Churchill, but I can’t hear a voice that sounds very much like mine when I think about what authority sounds like. Because it’s the job of leaders to command authority, to walk into a room and for people to know they are the ones that you are going to be listening to and complying with. You have to be able to command authority and it’s a combination of everything: how you walk, how you talk, what you sound like, what you say. And there’s always a conversation going on in your head: “have I got that right, do I sound like I’m the real deal”, when you don’t have a point of reference for it.

So in question time, you know when I’m in the middle of throwing lines across the chamber and arguing a point that needs to be argued, there’s also part of me thinking, “Is my register getting too high,  am I sounding too shrill, is this sounding like someone who knows what they’re talking about”. It is because there isn’t a point of reference to do that. It also means that when you’re one of the minority or the only one or the first one, it’s impossible to forget your gender.

When I became Premier, the day I was sworn in and for literally months and months – nearly the whole time but particularly in those early days – one of the most frequent questions I got was: “What’s it like doing it as a woman”. I’ve never done it as a man so I don’t know. It was a really impossible question, you know, how is it different being a woman? I don’t know. I don’t think it was a bad or a sexist question, I think it was driven by a very genuine curiosity. It just meant that it was always part of my landscape.

Particularly on the first day, you get sworn in as Premier; everybody, male or female, what do you want to do? You want to set your stamp, you want to say this is my vision for my state, this is what I want people to know about me and my government, these are the three things that I want to get cracking on. And while I’m trying to have that conversation, everybody is commenting on what I wore, talking about my shoes and asking me what it’s like to be a woman. You’re trying to actually escape that gender frame at the same time wanting to say women can do it; young women should be dreaming these things. This is a position that I feel very honoured to hold and acknowledging all the history that’s in that, but at the same time wanting to quickly put it to one side so you can get on with what you think is actually really important.

But I think for a lot of people in the electorate, just the fact that I was female was important to them. They were curious about it, they were watching to see whether I was up to it, they were watching to see whether women – you know, because I represent every single woman, I’m the same as every other woman. But it is true, you do see all that weight that, if I got it wrong, I would not only have been judged as a personal failure, but that I would be confirming a lot of the prejudices and stereotypes that are deep-rooted in people about whether women are up to the job.

You can feel that weight on you when you’re doing that. I felt it in the very public environment, but there’s lots of women in this room who are doing it in their organisations, doing it in their companies, and they’re the first or one of the first in the positions that they hold and they feel that weight of what it’s like to be carrying the entire reputation of your gender in your handbag every day.

I suppose the next point that really caught my eye in some of Jennifer’s work is this quote about unconscious thinking: that unconscious thinking is a pattern recognition system and these systems are inheritably stable. A pattern of associations, that is, the things that form our stereotypes, will not be altered until a critical mass of contradictory information is overt.

So if we have deeply held views about what the shape and size and sound and look of leadership is, and if that’s a very male vision, it’s not going to change until we see lots of examples of women doing it and sounding like it and looking the real deal. What that means is that critical mass matters.

The Parliament that I was elected into in 1995 in Queensland had less than five per cent women. We were very much a numerical minority. Queensland’s Parliament was 150 years old in 2008, so it was built in 1858, which is not that long ago. But it was built without any female toilets, which tells you something about who they thought were going to be walking the corridors of power. I could feel that when I was elected in ‘95. They did have ladies bathrooms by then, but it was nevertheless – and particularly on my side of politics, the labour party – a very blokey kind of male-dominated environment.

In the 17 years that I was a member of that Parliament, it went from less than five per cent to almost 45 per cent, so in that time I had the experience of what happened when you get critical mass. It doesn’t change everything overnight, but it does become a very different environment, an environment where you become normalised. It was not a place where I felt like a minority anymore. I could at times entirely forget my gender and just get on with the job.

Numerically, it meant you physically could not put together a parliamentary committee that was made up entirely of one gender. It meant that people, both men and women, were in a real environment, not one that was devoid of the other side of the human race. It was important because it also meant that you got to see women in all sorts of positions, so suddenly they were sharing parliamentary committees. That meant that there were up and coming players that you could start to think could make it to the ministry, and as I got into various more senior positions, people learnt what it was like to have women making decisions on quite an important high-stakes level, and getting more used to that.

I really wanted to conclude my comments today by making, I think, an obvious point, and that is that progress is in our hands. I am very dissatisfied and impatient about the pace at which this agenda is moving, and I think the more we understand it, the more quickly we can see more progress in it.

One of the things that Jennifer recommends in the end of one of her papers is that gender bias – an unconscious bias – is so entrenched that companies who are serious about this agenda really need to put resources into training and at every level talking about this issue and bringing it to the forefront. And I absolutely agree with her. But I would also say that the sooner we can get the critical mass, the sooner that we can get this agenda resolved, the sooner we can see more women in more leadership positions at executive and board level, the sooner we can stop spending money on diversity committees and diversity training and lunches like this where we’re talking about the issue, and we can start to see the bene ts of having more women and diversity driving productivity, productivity and performance.

Anna Bligh was speaking as part of the CEDA Leadership series in Melbourne, August 2014.