What can we learn from Michelle Payne's win at the Melbourne Cup

Wed, Nov 04 2015

In this opinion piece, I am arguing that we are not doing enough to give women the opportunity to hold leadership positions across every sector. As Justin Trudeau said last week, "It's 2015" and something needs to change.

I have to admit, I got goosebumps when I realised that Michelle Payne, the only lady in the field, had won the 155th Melbourne Cup. Receiving international acclaim, this result was a first in the cup's long history.

But what does Michelle's win mean? To me, even as an non-racing fan, I can still appreciate it was an amazing achievement. What I did take from it though, with particular thoughts around our own PR industry and a 75% female membership demographic at PRIA, was wonder how she did it? In such a male-dominant industry, what did it take for her to rise to the top of the racing world? 

In this 'modern' society, boys clubs still seem to be a thing, but how and why? It's detailed in the list of Fortune 500 companies that women account for just 17% of board members, 15% of C-Suite executives, and 5% of CEOs from their data and these numbers don't seem to be improving. In contrast, If you look through the eons of time, regardless of the great efforts to keep women powerless, women have been paramount to the development of human society since its inception, and rightly so. 

Queen Victoria is arguably the British Monarchy's greatest female influencer with her impact on its vast colonial empire, and Catherine II, known as 'Catherine the Great', empress of Russia, was able to lead Russia into the political/cultural life of Europe. Cleopatra, queen of ancient Egypt, influenced great writers like Shakespeare. Angela Merkel (pictured), the first female chancellor of Germany and a pivotal architect and leader of the establishment of the European Union, is one of today's most influential political leaders.

But has this power of historical influence waned over time? In a study by Business Insider, it reads that women are statistically better in overall leadership effectiveness yet only 4% of global CEOs are female. This same issue can be seen here in the PR industry both at home and abroad. As industry professionals climb the corporate ladder more women seem to drop off as their career progresses, but why? Maternity leave may be one area that is having an effect on this.

Professionals who take leave to start a family tend to struggle to retain the same career stature and projection prior to leaving the office. If a workplace doesn't support flexible working conditions, or even if it does, there still seem to be gaps between female representation at the C-Suite. But how can companies fix this issue and are enough companies embracing modern work life balance cultures? The answer frankly is no. You hear about Google, Adobe and others at the top of the class but not enough companies are providing this flexibility. The knee-jerk reaction of, "Well, we aren't Google and don't have the budgets for that sort of thing," simply doesn't cut it. 

So what are the solutions and where are they going to come from? I don't buy for one minute that you can't introduce flexibility into your office, culture change does not have to cost you. For example, you could empower more men with improved paternity leave. Better flexibility around leave for men within families would have a positive impact on a household. Perhaps the answer lies in better working conditions for those starting a family: i.e. flexibility around working from home, bringing your children to work, or increased holiday leave around school holidays. These are just some simple examples that could be implemented by an organisation - trust me, the good ones already have these in place and are reaping the rewards.

Michelle's win at the Melbourne Cup shows that the majority of industries are still dominated by males and having only one female in an internationally recognised race, such as the Melbourne Cup, proves that it is time for all industries to do something about it.

I would love to hear your thoughts and/or your issues around career progression, particularly if you work in PR. You can contact me on marcomms@pria.com.au.

Author: Neil O'Sullivan, National Marketing and Communication Manager, Public Relations Institute of Australia.  


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