Driving positive solutions to workplace challenges faced by career mums

Gender equality in the workplace – 3 crucial principles for achieving breakthrough


Article updated May 2018.

Looking at the statistics for workplace gender equality in New Zealand makes for dismal reading. New Zealand ranks in the bottom ten countries surveyed globally for women in senior management roles [1]. The dial has barely moved for the past eight years.

Globally, progress is too slow for us to reach gender equality within our lifetimes; we are over 200 years away [2].

Yet the passion, effort and rationale for pursuing gender equality are stronger than ever, and the opportunity is large ($28 trillion to the global economy according to McKinsey; $881 million to the New Zealand economy according to a study by Westpac [3]). Numerous initiatives exist to support gender equality in the workplace – from supporting women in leadership and governance roles, to attracting young girls into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Business prosperity, and better health and wellbeing for men and children, as well as women, are among the many other reported benefits of reaching gender equality.

Why therefore are we struggling to make headway, and what will it take to achieve a breakthrough? Here are three crucial principles.

 1. A goal is not a strategy

Reaching gender equality represents the achievement of something that no country in the world has achieved. What does it look and feel like? We hear much about how gender inequality feels, in its different shapes, forms and arenas. We see and feel inequality every day, whether we realise it or not.

Breaking through this will challenge us both professionally and personally – the way we work, think, make decisions, our perceptions, and how we raise our children. It will influence the rhythm of life, and alter our subconscious ways. It simply has to.

Reaching gender equality, therefore, is not about chasing a numbers goal; it is about identifying and breaking down the obstacles – the routines, processes, behaviours – that are preventing equal opportunities for men and women.

For example, instead of asking, “how do we increase the number of women in senior roles?” we should be asking, “what obstacles are preventing women from progressing their careers, and how do we overcome these obstacles?

Focusing on the latter is far more likely to drive a sustainable breakthrough in gender equality, whereas chasing numbers, whether by genuine intent or tokenism, has the potential to evoke adverse effects. A declining fertility rate among educated women is an emerging trend that gives one such example of the need to take a holistic view towards gender equality [4]. The ‘motherhood penalty’ (the gender pay gap for mothers)  is another.

Developing a strategy is therefore crucial to achieving breakthrough – one that:

  • enables visualisation of what gender equality looks and feels like
  • thoroughly identifies the obstacles that are at the root of inequality, and presents an action plan to overcome them
  • sets ambitious targets, and assigns accountability
  • is visible and accessible, and sends a strong signal about the importance of gender equality.

2. Seeing is believing

Much research has shown that the lack of women in senior roles negatively influences the aspirations of girls and women. Conversely, the prominence of women in senior roles has been shown to positively influence the aspirations of young girls and women[5].

Recent US-based research has shown that dramatic shifts in gender beliefs start as young as six years old. This age group predominantly identified men to be the “really, really smart” members of our society – a vast change from the beliefs shown by children at the age of five, when they were most likely to choose a member of their own gender[6].

Six years old! But when we look at the landscape around us – images in magazines, messages in books, film and television, the lack of visibility of women in senior roles, the prominence of mums as the stay at home or part-time working parent, and the subconscious cues in everyday life, it is not that difficult to believe.

Focusing on positive visibility is therefore crucial to achieving breakthrough. It must enable visualisation of what gender equality looks and feels like – in much the same way that leading athletes ‘visualise to actualise’. It must also serve to dispel the myths and misconceptions that are curbing the aspirations of women and girls, for example by:

  • portraying women as ambitious and successful leaders
  • showcasing women in STEM
  • demonstrating support for parents – both men and women – to successfully manage career and family
  • presenting a bold and ambitious stance towards gender equality
  • increasing visibility of gender equality initiatives – what are we genuinely doing, and what progress is being made?

3. Marginal gains are the stepping-stones to success

For Steve Jobs, in his pursuit to create a ‘dent in the universe’, success was not about reaching higher standards than the market leader; success was about reaching his own high standards – being the yardstick of quality, and then aiming higher again.

Jobs went to painstaking lengths to perfect every component of the Macintosh – the lines, the fonts, the packaging. Even the circuit board – a component that would never be seen by the end user – came under scrutiny, for Jobs ‘knew it would be there’.

When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” Steve Jobs

His tenacity, and discerning vision demanded ten seconds to be shaved off the boot-up time of the Macintosh, for the additional wait time could “equate to more than a hundred lives per year.” [7]

Yes, the additional wait time could equate to more than a hundred lives per year. 

Few would deny that Jobs was successful in putting a dent in the universe. The height of his ambition knew no limits, his perseverance was relentless, and his approach was deliberate and thorough.

The All Blacks have a similar philosophy. Winning is not enough. Neither are they driven by commentator remarks, or newspaper reviews. Instead, they benchmark their performance against their own high standards, and strive to continuously improve, as individuals and as a team[8].

It was this continuous drive for improvement that led them to turn their world cup misery, and reputation for choking, into back-to-back world cup victories.

The improvements may have seemed small, and required considerable effort to achieve, but as with Steve Jobs’ example, their approach was deliberate and thorough. Importantly these improvements, or marginal gains, combined to give a crucial edge.

As with the examples above, and so many more (Kate Sheppard, Billie Jean King, J. K. Rowling, to name a few), breakthrough was not achieved at a comfortable, everyday pace.

Similarly, a breakthrough in gender equality will not be achieved at a comfortable, everyday pace. And neither will it be achieved by a single, or handful of entities. It will take a bold stance, and concerted effort, individually and collectively, by government, businesses, educational establishments, the media, key influencers, and you and I to strive for higher standards, and to be focused on achieving marginal gains.

Time to channel our effort

A goal is not a strategy. This must start at the top.

A lack of national strategy for gender equality is bewildering, and serves only to underestimate the effort required to achieve breakthrough, and to undermine the importance of reaching gender equality.

On the upside, we don’t have a strategy that’s failing; we have an opportunity in waiting.

The development of a national strategy is therefore crucial. It must represent our yardstick of quality, and drive the coherent development (or re-development) of gender equality strategies across the wider community – businesses, media, educational establishments, and so forth. No entity is void of responsibility.

Seeing is believing – we need more positive visibility

Within our strategy we must place strong emphasis on positive visibility as a key factor in instilling belief and enabling self-fulfillment.

If the visible achievements of a person we can identify with instills belief that those achievements are attainable, then the visible achievements of several more people has the potential to be game-changing – those achievements start to become perfectly normal, and widely accepted.

What parent doesn’t want their six year old to dream big – and to go on to achieve that dream?

Marginal gains are the stepping-stones to success

We must also focus on the achievement of marginal gains. Simplification of the gender pay equity principles is an example of an important marginal gain. By itself it will not achieve breakthrough, but supplemented by marginal gains across the wider community, working towards a coherent plan, opens up the potential to achieve great things.

Achievement of these gains will require continuous effort, and will challenge our status quo. What great achievement doesn’t? But they will also provide visible action and motivational wins, and will serve to inspire and lift the actions of others around us.

In response to the challenge, Jobs’ engineer achieved an improvement of 28 seconds to the boot-up time of the Macintosh.

We should bear in mind that a slow boot-up time for gender equality equates to even more lives.


Key Statistics [9]:

  • Only 20 percent of ‘Senior Officer’ roles, and 17 percent of governance roles were held by women among NZX listed companies for the year ending 2016. The figures for 2015 were 19 percent and 17 percent, respectively.
  • The rate of childlessness among educated women in New Zealand (with Bachelor’s degree or higher) is 18 percent. This figure is 13 percent for all other women, and 10 percent for women with no qualifications.
  • The percentage of mothers not in the labour force is 27.7 percent. This compares with 12.7 percent for women with no dependent children.
  • From the 909 New Zealand businesses who participated in the bi-annual Diversity Works survey, 25 percent of businesses stated they have a policy or programme in place to support gender diversity in the workplace. Thirty-nine percent stated they have a policy or programme in place to support flexibility in the workplace [10].

CareerMum offers fresh, New Zealand focused perspectives on the topic of gender equality, and aspires to improve the working landscape for career mums. www.careermum.co.nz 

Keen to contribute? Get in touch to share what your organisation is doing, or looking to do, to support gender diversity.

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[1] Human Rights Commission – Tracking Equality at Work 2016: Key Findings

[2] World Economic Forum – Global Gender Gap Report 2017

[3] Madgavkar, A., Elingrud, K. & Krishnan, M. The economic benefits of gender parity. McKinsey & Company, 8 March 2016.
Westpac New Zealand. Diversity Divident report. December 2017. Available from www.westpac.co.nz.

[4] Educated women, in this case, are referred to as women with a Bachelor’s degree or higher.
For statistics see: Career or family – a predicament for all New Zealanders, published on CareerMum.co.nz

[5] The role model effect: women leaders key to inspiring the next generation. By Eva Pereira, published 19 January 2012, on Forbes.com.
See also: Thousands of kids were asked to draw their ideal job – with surprising results. By Nick Chambers, published 21 January 2018, on weforum.org (Davos article).

[6] Girls start doubting their own brilliance as young as 6, researchers say. By Nick Visser, published 26 January 2017, on Huffingtonpost.com.

[7] Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. London: Little, Brown

[8] Kerr, J. (2013). Legacy: What the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life. London: Constable

[9] Gender equality key performance measures, published on CareerMum.co.nz

[10] See Diversity Works Bi-annual Survey results for October 2016, published on diversityworksnz.org.nz.
Note: the published statistics relating to the number of businesses with a gender or flexibility policy or programme in place were updated on 22/3/17 following clarification from Diversity Works New Zealand.

Recommended reading: The perils of bad strategy, by Richard Rumelt – published on McKinsey.com, June 2011

A goal is not a strategy: Phrase adopted from The New Zealand Institute: A goal is not a strategy: Focusing efforts to improve New Zealand’s prosperity. Discussion paper, August 2010.


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