Katriina Tahka
April 10, 2023
Diversity & Inclusion, Gender Equality

Firing the big guns at gender equality

The appointment this week of Senator the Honorable Marisa Payne as the Minister of Defence has been the single most exciting and symbolic step towards gender equality that I have seen in a long time. It sends such a loud and irrefutable message about the equal ability of females and males to work and lead in what ever field they are passionate and skilled in.

Add to this the Prime Minister’s public call for a cultural shift in Australia to become a country that is internationally known for respecting women and I have rediscovered my hope that achieving gender equality is possible and that my young daughter may have a different experience to me when she enters the workforce.

I can vividly recall the day in 1995 when I nervously sat down as a young, law school graduate before a very senior, powerful partner in a law firm I was interviewing for. He stared down his red wine engorged, veined nose and with maximum derision asked me “Why the Fu*@k should I hire a woman for this job?”.   I sat there stunned in my brand new navy suit and white shirt purchased just for this job interview.

After some stammering and stuttering my response to this unbelievable question was “Well Finland has a woman as its Defence Minister so if a woman can be in charge of a nation’s armed forces I believe a woman can be a great lawyer too”.

It’s probably not the response you were expecting and it’s certainly not the response I would give that ugly individual today… but I answered that way due to my Finnish background. Elisabeth Rehn was Finland’s first female Minister of Defence leading from 1990 to 1995 followed by the second female Minister of Defence, Anneli Taina from 1995 to 1999. As a young woman entering the workforce in 1995 this was an incredibly powerful symbol to me of gender equality.

I have to admit that over the last 20 years I have often thought that I would not see the day that Australia appointed a female Defence Minister. Not because I’m too old! But because I did not think that with the glacial rate of progress we’ve achieved in gender equality in Australia, we could overcome deeply held biases and beliefs about the capability of women to lead traditionally male dominated positions. And let’s face it, there are few more traditionally male images than leading armies into battle.

Of course there is still a very long way to go. Deep culture change such as that which is required now doesn’t happen quickly. Decades of bad behaviours and limiting beliefs will take along time to change. However setting a new national standard to become known as a country that respects women and men equally,  and re-enforcing that with key appointments of senior women is certainly a huge step forward.

This weekend I feel like I can look at my daughter’s beautiful young face and believe there’s a real chance that when she enters the workforce nobody will ask her ‘Why the Fu*@k should I hire a woman for this job?’.  There’s nothing respectful about being treated like that in a job interview and let’s hope those days are over.

Needless to say I didn’t get offered that job, nor would I have taken it, but it certainly did contribute to me ending up in a career focusing on anti-discrimination, diversity and making real change happen in work places.

There are many things that individuals and organisations can do to ensure that they are consciously cultivating a respectful culture for all people in the workplace. If you would like to know more, connect with us at A-HA! and we’d be happy to share some of our most effective strategies with you.

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