It was as a first year lawyer, looking at the gender imbalance at partner level, that I vowed to become a strong supporter of women as I advanced my career. So it was a great privilege to moderate a recent panel discussion held by Women @JLT (Jardine Lloyd Thompson) to discuss the challenges faced by women in business.

The panel comprised:

  • Josephine Sukkar – Principal and Co-Owner of Buildcorp
  • Liz Ann McGregor – Director of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and
  • Lynne Anderson – CEO of the Australian Paralympic Committee.

Each of these women revealed the challenges they faced in reaching their current heights of achievement in their respective industries (construction, the arts and sport), and their experience as leaders of organisations on a journey of gender equality. The resounding message from the panel was that it’s the culture of companies, regardless of the industry, which influences gender diversity in the workplace and promotes ambitious women to reach their potential.

The conversation was an extension of JLT’s recent launch of its Women@JLT program, following the release of its JLT UK survey on gender diversity. The results of this important survey confirm that gender pay transparency and correcting gender pay gaps, as well as flexible working, are key elements to increasing workplace equality and gender diversity.

Insights from the panellists

Josephine Sukkar sees a big challenge in opening the dialogue to encourage young women to break into careers and industries that are stereotypically male, and which have few visible female role models.  Attracting women to these industries is a massive challenge, although Buildcorp is forging ahead by holding diversity committee seminars with schoolgirls to introduce them to the construction industry.

For those already in these industries, the challenge becomes encouraging women and men, from the board down, to abandon gender stereotypes that dictate flexibility or expectations in the workplace and to normalise shared roles.

Liz Ann McGregor’s international experience in the arts field was that stereotypes and subtle unconscious bias pose a big challenge, particularly in Australian culture. Liz Ann considers that being female and ‘artsy’ can present as a ‘fluffy’ double whammy, making it particularly difficult to challenge associated stereotypes and build a gender-diverse leadership team.

When Lynne Anderson began her career, there were no female CEOs in the sporting industry and it’s still the case that there are very few. Now, in her ‘dream job’ as CEO of the Australian Paralympic Committee,  Lynne has also experienced stereotypes and unconscious bias relating to both gender and age, and says that her passion is what gave her an edge.  In her experience, the biggest challenge for women in business is trying to ‘do it all’. Lynne says that  a way forward to encourage equality and ease this pressure – while difficult to put in practice – is equal access to flexibility in the workplace and at home, for both men and women.

Letters to Myself

At Norton Rose Fulbright, in a program called ‘Letters to Myself’, senior women write a letter to their younger self and deliver that to a group of senior high potential women.

When asked what their letters to their younger selves would be, Josephine’s message was for women to be kinder to themselves and to dial down the noise. Liz’s message was to make sure you have supportive friends who genuinely believe in equality and Lynne’s was to get on with the job and not listen to negativity.

When I am asked to write a letter to my younger self, my message is this: You do belong, so stop criticising yourself and enjoy it more.

Each of these messages is different, but equally important:  be kind to yourself, surround yourself with like-minded supporters, don’t listen to negativity and be confident.  These are timely reminders for all of us in business, irrespective of our sex or stage of career.

Tricia Hobson is Chair and Global Vice Chair of Norton Rose Fulbright and Partner and Head of Insurance – Australia and Asia.

Elizabeth Kordic assisted Tricia with the drafting of this article.