Is this thing cracking yet? I can see clear skies but there seems to be a bit of a barrier in the way. Huh. What is that? Oh … the reinforced steel that is the old boys club. Spoiler alert – gender inequality is alive and well in New Zealand and it will be in your country too. Second spoiler – we all have the individual agency to move our workplace’s to a position of gender equality. Read on.

In 2017 when I saw My Year with Helen – the film that follows Helen Clark on her bid for the United Nations top job in 2016 – and frankly, I left the theatre irate. I was prompted to tweet my frustration but, more importantly, motivated to dedicate more of my attention to wielding a gender glass smashing hammer every day of the week. Putting aside the likelihood that Helen Clark was, and is, too much of an independent and transparent operator for the P5, in my opinion, it is going to be a very long time before we see a female Secretary General. Why? Because the P5 want the most qualified candidate AND someone congenial who won’t rock the boat. To gain the right experience, a woman candidate will have had to push boundaries and back herself resolutely. Ergo, she’s going to rock the boat.

New Zealand ranks ninth in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2016 scoring 0.781 (1.00 equals parity), and that’s how a fair amount of attention and effort is diverted. New Zealand is less bound by gender – it’s simply not visibly crushing women here like it is in other countries – however looking at the data, it really is. Global Women estimate women are only 20 percent of senior management and 17 percent of the boards of listed companies in New Zealand. When I add 0.781 and 20 percent, what I get is that New Zealand women are doing a great job of getting themselves educated and pursuing professional careers with success to middle management, but then the glass ceiling kicks in and the trajectory flattens. Is that the message we want 50.8% of New Zealander’s hearing? Thanks for all your effort but the men will take it from here.

Lest you think I’m being unfair to those in positions of power, I should be clear that this is not a lack of goodwill for parity by either gender in New Zealand. But it is a lack of action. Balancing the numbers of gender diversity is going to take direct and affirmative action by our people leaders, and women need to get stuck in and promote themselves. As Helen states in the film, “no-one is going to roll out the red carpet for you.”

So what does a Millennial do to promote gender equality in the workplace?

By virtue of my age and subsequent stage in my career, I am not holding the pen on organisational policy or making decisions on hiring. But I am equally responsible for agitating for change. Influence is accessible when you think of your efforts as sitting on a sliding scale of supporting change to leading change.

  • Know who is leading action on gender equality in your organisation and support them. Is there anything more discouraging than trying to lead change but your efforts get no feedback? Some of the lowest hanging fruit has to be getting in behind your equality leader and just participating. Join the conversation, suggest initiatives, and ask your organisation for its policy and data on the gender pay gap. It’s quite simple – get engaged and stay engaged.
  • Set your career aspirations high and ask for the professional development opportunities that will assist you on that path. The female millennial represents a growing portion of the global talent pool and yet, if the status quo continues, so few will rise to senior management levels. The PWC report The female millennial: A new era of talent shows 49% of female millennials characterised as ‘career starters’ believe they will be able to rise to the most senior levels of their current organisation. In seven short years, and now characterised as a ‘career establisher’ that percentage falls to 39%. The malaise develops in parallel to an increasing belief that employers are too male-biased on developing employees and promoting from within – those rocket from 23% and 36% respectively to 38% and 52%. Here is where the red carpet is conspicuously absent. Make a plan, present your business case, get your career development. And while you’re doing that, share successes as well as failures. Make your work visible so that when you reach the door to senior management, you find you can open it.
  • Challenge gender bias when you hear it and see it. Speak up. I’m not talking ‘naming and shaming’ here, but if you don’t highlight gender stereotyping then you are reinforcing the glass ceiling. Deb Liu asks colleagues to unpack what they mean when they use gendered language to move away from falling back on loaded terminology. The #FlipItToTestIt test shows how subtle bias can be – or absurd. Would you interrupt male colleague X? Is that joke still funny? Sometimes the best strategy is to be direct. Please don’t say that. It’s derogatory.
  • And if you are a people leader, I argue your role is not primarily to support other women in your workplace. It is to BE BOLD. Drive accountability. Push for new initiatives. Apply for the big jobs and the even bigger jobs.

Achieving gender equality is tricky. The steps from male privilege to female empowerment to female privilege are few and fraught with fine lines. Women need to be in senior leadership roles because they are the best candidates, not because they are women. But there is no shortage of formidable females in the world. There is, however, a shortage of equal opportunity. Women are still knocking on that glass ceiling. Go smash it.

This was originally published on LinkedIn in September 2017. Sad how current this conversation is, right?

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