Women CEOs join call to scrap ‘unconscious bias’

She runs the Australian arm of global tech titan Microsoft, managing about 800 people and the needs of 14,000 software vendors – but Pip Marlow said a man was surprised she had time to make it to a recent breakfast meeting.
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And it wasn’t because she was a busy chief executive.

“He said ‘thanks so much for coming, it must have been hard for you as a woman to make a 7.30am meeting’,” Ms Marlow said. “I don’t think there was any ill intent but I’m a big believer there is an unconscious bias.”

Her comments came a day after former prime minister Julia Gillard said the unconscious bias against women needs to be fought and the pay gap between the sexes was only the “start of a cycle of financial equity that becomes harder and harder to rectify”.

An ANZ study this week found women earn $700,000 on average less than men over their lifetime and one in five who are yet to retire have virtually no retirement savings.

Speaking at a Melbourne Press Club luncheon on Thursday, Ms Marlow said crushing unconscious bias would help achieve gender equality. “We have got to look for bias and tackle it everywhere it exists,” she said.

Ms Marlow participated in a discussion with Rea Group chief executive Tracey Fellows and Pandora Australia chief executive Jane Huxley.

Ms Huxley said “we need to draw a line in the sand and say we are not going to perpetuate the issue” of gender equality, so “future generations are not having this same conversation”.

She said solving the problem didn’t mean giving women more cash.

“It doesn’t have to be a financial decision that stops us from closing the gap. There’s education, there’s mentoring, there’s coaching, opportunities, benefits, balance – all of these things can be traded to close the equity gap.” Ms Huxley said.

She said Australia faced a bigger problem than maternity leave, which is often attributed at fuelling gender imbalance.

“The carer’s-leave issue will dwarf any issue around maternity leave from about 2018 onwards. We will need to completely rethink a full-time employment workforce versus a contingent workforce,” she said.

She said an ageing population meant decades-old work practices needed to change.

“We are going to bring back or rethink the sabbatical … how we put on contract workers, because this issue is going to make maternity leave and all of the subsequent impacts that we are discussing now … look like a walk in the park.”

Ms Huxley said a sabbatical could be used to have a baby – maternity or paternity leave – care for an older relative or further study, such as completing an Masters of Business Administration degree.

“We need to think about what extended periods of leave look like from work, and simply slot maternity leave into a list of things that we need to think about as the population ages.”

Ms Fellows said mothers were expected to be the “default” to care for sick children or fix family difficulties.

“If women want to have more senior positions there has to be a sharing of roles and responsibilities,” she said.

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