This Insight is based on a speech I made at the launch of the UNSW Science alumni portrait exhibition showcasing equity, diversity and inclusion.
In my youth, I didn’t think about diversity, much. My Hungarian father came to Australia on a boat with his resilient and resourceful parents in 1949, but that wasn’t unusual in our neighbourhood. At school, I was the only girl in my engineering science class of 30 students and I accepted this as normal. At university, my ethnically diverse chemistry and chemical engineering classes were roughly 50:50 male to female, which made a nice change. However, I noticed that there weren’t many senior female academics. I recall only one, to whom we all turned if we had any issues.
When I started my first full-time job, I saw the negative impact of a lack of diversity and equity in the workplace but didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. A female colleague had a child and returned to work part-time, as a single parent. It was understood that she came into work, did just what she had to do, and went home. She was not included in any strategic meetings, given training, put onto special projects, or promoted, and we all accepted this as normal.
Later, I had a daughter. 19 years ago, I returned to work part-time and woke up to the prejudice that part-time workers face. It was then, and is often still, assumed that if you want part-time or flexible work, you are less serious about your career, less professional, less committed to doing your job well, and less interested in learning how to do it better, than any full-time employee. The false perception is that your focus is elsewhere, and you are just at work to earn an income.
Therefore, many employers assume that it isn’t worthwhile to invest in part-timers’ professional development. Consequently, many part-timers struggle to build their resumés so they can compete for promotions. Fearing that I might be prevented from climbing the career ladder, I rushed back into full-time work way too early, to maintain the momentum of my career.
This experience enlightens my reflection on statements made to justify the male dominance of boards or senior management. The argument is frequently made that because women take time out of the workforce to have children, they lack the professional experience required for these roles, and quality should not be compromised just to have women on boards or in management. But part-timers are disadvantaged not by the quality of their work or their commitment to it, but by the inherent bias in many workplaces that stunts their professional development.
I have been on interview panels for organisations that espouse equity while the male panel members hesitate to appoint female candidates because they will presumably have kids and take maternity leave. Since awakening to this bias, I have stood up for the female candidates and assured the rest of the panel that regardless of whether the interviewee may have children or not, if they are the best candidate then we should employ them. Mothers coming back into the workforce, part-time or not, have been the most hardworking and loyal employees I’ve known. If we had more men taking parental leave then this would be a non-issue.
When I had my second baby, her father and I both took six months off to care for her and my husband, who was employed in a male-dominated environment, was also discriminated against. A technical expert in his field, he had been expected to travel overseas to inspect plants. After announcing that he would use some of his long service leave to spend time with our daughter, he was taken off the trip and told to brief a junior in his stead. This type of behaviour harms us all as it discourages parents from spending time bonding with their young children and supporting their partner in adjusting to changes in family life.
These experiences have influenced me greatly, so when I founded gemaker, I vowed to run my company equitably. I knew many women who wanted to care for their children (or their parents) while doing meaningful work that utilised the STEM education and work experience they’d invested in. They represented a huge untapped pool of talent. I understood their frustrations and respected their expertise and professionalism. I asked some of these women if they were interested in working with me flexibly, from home, to grow the company together. I offered training, support, trust and respect, with competitive remuneration. They jumped at the opportunity and together we have built a successful business.
My team includes students, parents, carers and semi-retirees. They come from diverse cultures, are mostly female (unlike most of our sector) and are aged from their mid-20s to 70s. Though our team is dispersed geographically, our collaborative work mode promotes inclusion and I ensure we connect in-person through training, conferences and events, workshops and planning sessions, and to celebrate achievements. This builds team morale, respect, understanding and trust, enhancing gemaker’s capacity to deliver superior results for clients.
I need a diverse team to provide a broad range of perspectives and expertise, facilitating lateral thinking and finding innovative solutions to clients’ problems. I measure work value in terms of output and quality, rather than time spent in an office. I provide professional development equally to all employees and contractors.
From their formal and informal feedback, I know my team is proud to help commercialise innovations that improve lives and to participate in gemaker’s pro bono community work. They feel their work-life balance is correct and are growing as professionals. In return, they deliver high quality, cost-effective results and strong company loyalty.
Recently, my husband pointed out to me that we needed gender diversity in our all-female leadership team. So, I invited one of my senior male staff members to join the leadership team and I also seek advice from both male and female mentors. I am doing all I can to create truly equitable employment. I believe every business has a moral duty to provide flexible, meaningful work with professional development as I do, and stop treating part-time workers like second-class citizens.
I use all means at my disposal to communicate the benefits of a more inclusive work culture to our clients, our sector and the wider community. Please share this Insight to promote equity and diversity in other workplaces.
About the Author
Natalie leads the gemaker team with over 17 years commercial experience developing new products and services for market across the education, financial, scientific and engineering consulting sectors. A commercialisation whiz and a talented manager, Natalie believes in building a deep understanding of customer needs to drive market success.