Recently I was asked to answer some questions from the President of the National Council of Women of Queensland, Noela O’Donnell, regarding increasing the participation rates between men and women in the workforce. Here are my thoughts, and a link to the original newsletter:


Elise Stephenson

Do you think improving the equality of participation rates between men and women is desirable? Have you experienced yourself, or know of situations where being female counted against you in obtaining a job?

I believe that improving the equality of participation rates between men and women is not just desirable, it is critical. Women’s empowerment and equal opportunities in employment are as crucial to women as they are to men, our economy and our society. With greater female participation we are able to tackle a wider range of issues, from different points of view, and deeper than we would have the capacity to do so were they not in the workforce. Economically, the benefits are clear, with the Grattan Institute estimating that if Australian women’s workforce participation was increased similar to a level of women in Canada, Australia’s GDP would be $25 billion greater per year. Alongside this, the societal benefits are incredible, from helping to dismantle out-dated notions of women’s capabilities, to empowering communities and typically disenfranchised groups, to promoting understanding, reflection and greater opportunities for those who evidently have something to offer our society, but perhaps have not always had the ability to do so.

As a young woman, I don’t want to ever think that I am being discriminated against or held back simply because of my gender. However being well-educated, and studying gender equality and women’s leadership as part of my honours degree, I know that the statistics tell another story, even in our relatively egalitarian society. Fortunately, I am just at the beginning of my career path and onto studying my third degree, rather than working right now, and so I haven’t experienced difficulty in being female and going for a job. I’ll let you know how I go!

Do you believe it is do-able for all countries, or that it would be more difficult in developing countries?

In developing countries the fight for equal representation of women in work is compounded by many other issues of gender equality and gender relations often embedded in that type of  society.

As we know, education is key to the empowerment of marginalised, oppressed or otherwise constrained groups. However often in developing countries, access to education is limited and daily needs for survival trump systemic change, particularly when it comes to gender and issues which are centuries old and so taken for granted. With that said, I believe it is do-able for all countries. As much as I might not like the slow nature of change, I believe that by working bit by bit, radical change on gender equality and women’s workforce participation can happen over time.

Someone once told me that if you are travelling east, it is a direction you are going in, rather than a location you are arriving at. Likewise, perhaps by thinking of gender equality and women’s equal workforce participation as a direction we are moving towards, developing countries can gradually improve, even if perhaps they started moving a little later than other countries or their compass sometimes plays up.

Do you think that social norms will change to allow for greater equality in participation rates?

Social norms will absolutely change. They have to. I am not sitting back and neither are my friends, male and female. Apathy and a belief that we are doing okay as we are really limits our possibilities to improve and change, however I believe that by inspiring and instilling a passion in our society to correct past injustices, outdated beliefs and unhelpful notions of femininity/masculinity/women’s work/men’s work, we can change to allow for greater equality in workforce participation. I believe that key to this is, as always, education and an ability to be mindful and reflective of our current norms and where we can improve them, as well as a commitment to pass on our observations to our friends and family, and open debate with those who perhaps have more learning to do than others. We must all work forward confidently and with a willingness to challenge, educate and lead.

Where do you see yourself and your role in 2025? What plans can you make to bring this to reality?

In 2025 I hope to be as passionate and mindful (if not more) as I am now. At this stage, careers elude me, as I believe that rather than striving for a particular career, I would like to strive for a particular lifestyle, in which I am balancing my personal development and enjoyment with my ability to make a tangible positive effect on women and leadership. I would love to be working for an organisation like UN Women in a position of leadership within the Asia-Pacific region and I have already started working towards this by completing my honours in women’s empowerment and leadership in Hong Kong this year as an Inaugural New Colombo Plan Scholar of the Australian Government. At the end of the day, as long as I am open to taking as many opportunities as I can to develop personally and professionally, I am sure that I will be involved in a lot of influential and interesting causes which will help me live a meaningful and useful life.

NCWQ – Newsletter 228

There’s always a lot to do, but fortunately there are many of us to do it, too.