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How gender inequality inspired my leadership

This was originally published on Women's Agenda and SmartCompany.

Until I entered the workforce, my gender was not something I ever thought about. Growing up in a predominantly female household and attending an all girls' school, there was no 'fastest boy' or 'smartest girl', only the 'fastest' or the 'smartest'.

Facing gender inequality for the first time as a professional was confronting, but it also inspired and drove my career.

When I saw the lack of women in senior roles it made me realise I had an opportunity to change what I saw. I needed to develop my skills to become a strong leader and work towards shifting that balance.

I studied my Master of Business Management part-time whilst working. I had a great mentor and he told me point blank that if I wanted to excel professionally I needed to get qualified.

While there wasn't a huge discrepancy between the number of men and women taking the course alongside me, the reality is, that fifteen years on, my executive peers are predominantly male.

The lack of women in senior leadership positions is something that business schools are taking seriously. As the Australian Financial Review recently reported, only seven of the top 200 ASX companies have female CEOs and fewer than 10 per cent of the top 500 directors are female.

The report also showed that fewer women than men take on postgraduate courses in business and management, and it appears that as a result fewer women are taking on senior executive roles.

Of course there are always other factors at play: unconscious gender bias, which sees men put forward ahead of women; 'mum guilt', where women hold themselves back because of the guilt they feel in pursuing work alongside family; and inherent differences in the way women and men approach work, which often finds women holding back while men push forward.

So how have I used this to inspire my leadership?

  • I made 'mum guilt' my friend. It's there and there's nothing I can do about it, so I have accepted it and learned to work with it rather than push against it
  • I go out of my way to help other women. I find opportunities to mentor or accept opportunities to inspire. I believe we must help each other.
  • I have created a culture where people are encouraged to balance their competing priorities. If you have to leave right on 5pm to pick up your kids, I'm not looking at my watch worrying about deadlines, I'm looking at my watch to make sure you get out on time.

Although the imbalance is still prevalent, steps are being made to influence the workplace overall and shift thinking when it comes to gender.

In the end, I have learned it is about aligning your own values with the organisation - and if you don't like the existing values, get the right kind of experience or qualifications so you can come in and create new ones.

Denice Pitt is CEO of Swinburne Online, Australia's first fully online tertiary education provider. Denice holds a Master of Business Management from RMIT.