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The Gender Politics in Eye Health

Melanie Kell | 5 October 2011
It's 2011. Gender equality shouldn't really be an issue. After all, we have a female Prime Minister and Governor-General. Yet, allegations of gender bias continue to surface - you hear it in much of the commentary on Prime Minister Julia Gillard's leadership style, and in discussion on gender quotas on boards and in senior management.
mivision chats with leaders in the optical industry about gender politics, how they made their way to the top of the profession - and how they maintain their success.

In June 2010 women around Australia - regardless of their political persuasion - embraced the news that for the first time, Australia had a female Prime Minister.

For a fast moving, highly developed country, we women thought it was about time. After all, the empire had Maggie Thatcher as far back as 1979 and across the ditch, the kiwis have only recently moved on from Helen Clark. She was the country's 37th Prime Minister and held the position for three consecutive terms from 1999 to 2008.

It's a different story for Ms. Gillard. In just over a year, the knives are out. While members of her team refer to her steely resolve to move Australia forward, media and public alike are criticising her leadership style as well as her political decisions and moral authority. Many are asking whether she will still be here for Christmas. Questions are also being asked about whether an apparent lack of respect shown to the PM (look to the antics of right-wing radio shock jocks if you're after an example) is influenced as much by her gender, as her politics.

One blogger recently typed: "I feel that no woman will ever be trusted again to 'do a man's job' and that we, as women, have all failed. I was so proud and used Julia as an example of the future of this country's 'girl power' to my daughters and now.

It's a comment I for one, have heard bandied about a few times in recent months and it makes me wonder. How many women are of the same opinion? How many men? And how could this impact the male/female workplace balance that we, and our mothers before us, have been striving to achieve for so long?

What's the Fallout?

According to women at the top of the optical profession, Ms. Gillard's conundrum may be a cause for concern for the country, but as professional females, there's nothing to worry about.

"Julia Gillard's performance affects us all, not because she is female, but because she has our economy in her hands, so I am very concerned about the impact her decisions have on all members of our community," Kelley Mirabello, Director of Global Marketing at Bausch and Lomb.

She continued, "I had the same concerns when Kevin Rudd and John Howard were Prime Ministers. Their actions or inactions did not change my opinion of men in business so it is unlikely that Ms. Gillard's actions will favourably or unfavourably impact our opinion of today's female business leaders."

Tailoi Chan-Ling, Professor of Neurobiology and Visual Science, Department of Anatomy at University of Sydney agrees that Ms. Gillard's performance will have little impact on other female business leaders. "What really matters is that there is a stream of high performing female business leaders coming through the ranks. Even though they might not have as high a profile as the PM, these women will pave the way for the next generation. It is these quite achievers that will make the biggest impact," she said.

Prof. Chan-Ling is certainly one of those "quiet achievers" who is already leading the way. She heads an international research effort to understand the cellular mechanisms by which new vessels are formed in the retina and choroid during both normal development and in various disease processes. Prof. Chan-Ling is regularly invited to speak at international symposiums and has been extensively published in the world's leading science journals.

Managing the Juggle

As well as maintaining a successful career that takes her around the world, Prof. Chan Ling juggles a teenage family and takes time out for exercise, to garden, enjoy great food and fine wines. It's often hectic and requires flexibility. "Irregular hours become the norm and work fits amongst everything else," she says.

As head of global marketing for Bausch and Lomb, Ms Mirabello agrees that flexibility is key. "To get to the top of the profession you need talent, perseverance, integrity and self belief. It is a commitment and it is hard work no matter who you are... For me, balance in life is critical. With good planning and flexible thinking I believe women in business can have whatever it is they want."

Professor Fiona Stapleton broke new ground for women in academia when she was appointed the Head of the School of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of New South Wales in 2007 - the first female to lead an optometry school in Australia. Widely respected for her visionary approach to leadership, as well as her academic and research qualifications, Professor Stapleton said she believed the keys to success are not something that are gender specific.

"Be a considerate and generous collaborator and always give appropriate credit; don't be afraid to ask for help; try to engage with and communicate with stakeholders and try to understand their drivers; and take time to see the big picture - too often we get caught up in the operational minutia and lose the sense of what we are trying to achieve."

An Economic Issue

While many families today rely on double incomes just to get by, women's participation in the workforce is also increasingly important for economic growth, especially in a period of high employment.

Yet surprisingly, the gap between women and men in the Australian workplace has widened in recent years. According to estimates prepared by Tim Toohey, chief economist at Goldman Sachs, closing that gap would increase economic activity by AUD$180 billion.1

Mr. Toohey's report warned that the gap between men and women in the workplace will narrow only if governments introduce policies to encourage more highly educated women to move into careers beyond traditionally female dominated areas of education, training, health and social services. It also recommended that government should commit to a timetable to increase female participation on the top 200 boards and executive teams, with a minimum of two women on each board and an audit on female representation at executive level.

In March this year, the federal Government itself put gender equality firmly on the agenda, with the Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, announcing a suite of reforms to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency and the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act.

Ms. Ellis announced that an additional AUD$11.2 million over four years would be provided to give the Agency the powers it needs to drive gender equality.

Under the reforms, businesses will, for the first time, be required to report on the actual figures of gender composition of their organisations and their boards, on their employment conditions, and whether they have flexible work practices for men and women.

Where businesses were previously required to establish and report on workplace equity plans, they will now report on tangible outcomes about how women and men are faring in the workplace.

Pay equity will be enshrined in the objects of the Act and businesses will be required to report against it. Robust new powers for the Agency would ensure that businesses comply with the legislation, Ms. Ellis said.

The Stats

So what are the statistics that prompted this government action? When you look at the numbers, it is apparent more needs to be done to achieve gender equality in Australian workplaces:

  • Australia has a declining rate of women's workforce participation. According to the World Economic Forum 2010 report, Australia ranks poorly in workforce participation, coming in at 44.
  • 59 per cent of women in Australia are in paid work, compared with 72 per cent NZ, 69 per cent in UK and 76 per cent in Norway.
  • The percentage of women on ASX 200 boards rose from just 8.3 per cent in 2009 to 9.2 per cent in June 2010.
  • In the first six months of 2010, 24 women were appointed to ASX 200 boards, compared to a total of 10 in 2009.
  • Only four of the top 200 Australian companies had female Chief Executive Officers in 2008.
  • And women hold just 10.7 per cent of all executive managerial positions in the private sector.3

Government Making Efforts

Nicola Roxon MP, Australia's federal Minister for Health reinforces the comments of Ms. Ellis that the Government is indeed working towards greater female participation in the workforce. "Labor has a strong track record in delivering practical support for women and their families such as Australia's first ever paid parental leave scheme and increases to the child care rebate," she told mivision.

"But we have a long way to go. We can't pretend that all women have quality at work, in their families, amongst friends and particularly their portrayal in advertising and the media... but I am immensely optimistic about how much things have changed even during my own life."

Finola Carey, Executive Director and CEO of the Optical Distributors and Manufacturers Association (ODMA) has noticed a change in the attitude towards professional women in the workplace. "I experienced both sexism and sexual harassment while doing business in my earlier career. Returning to work after my first child was born was probably the biggest challenge I have faced, as my boss was not particularly sympathetic at the time... but I think business in general has become more professional."

Nevertheless, Ms. Carey says women must work hard at their own professional development to succeed. She gained a general business degree before going on to study and be admitted as a solicitor in 2007 because "undertaking vocational professional qualifications can help gain credibility sooner".

Mentoring Important

As well as attaining academic qualifications, Prof. Chan-Ling says that to build a successful career, it is important for women to find their own mentors.

"There is typically no framework of succession planning for women, as men tend to train protégés in their own image. As a woman, you've got to get out there and find your own mentors. It doesn't really matter if they're male or female, but what does matter is that they are inclusive and able to offer sage advice and willing to help you move forward in you career," she said.

Additionally, she said, you have to have the confidence and determination to create your own opportunities. "Women often lack these traits but it is a psychological barrier you need to overcome within yourself."

Professor Stapleton agrees that mentors and networks are a "really important" aspect of professional life.

"One of the most valuable things we can do is to actively mentor and support the next generation of leaders," she told mivision.

A Growing Pool of Talent

While Goldman Sachs has reported a widening gap between men and women in the workforce, according to Ms. Mirabello's observation, "the future is looking bright for our industry".

"I see talented female leaders in optometry across the country, in clinical practise, academia, industry, professional support and trade media. You only need to look at the professional education meetings and see there is a healthy balance of men and women on the podiums. There is a strong, vibrant and diverse group of young optometrists coming through the universities, the majority of which are women."

In Australian universities, women account for 55.7 per cent of all higher education students and 47.6 per cent of all vocational education and training enrolments. In 2009, women made up a massive 64.2 per cent of graduates.4

A Different Career Path

According to female professionals we spoke to, the majority of these graduates will face a career path that differs from the paths followed by their male colleagues.

Cathy Foley, Chief of the Material Science and Engineering division at CSIRO said she has noticed that women " often have a different career path to men - until their 30s there's a very similar career path, and then they split. Women tend to plateau or go backwards for about 15 years".

"But I've noticed that women's careers kick off again in their late 40s and early 50s. So if they can hang in there, women tend to do really, really well," she said.

"What we've found is that many women don't realise this, and get frustrated that their career is going backwards. So they leave the workforce or get jobs in other sectors."

Based on her experiences and observations, Prof. Chan-Ling agrees that women often take a slower path to the top, especially those who choose to have children. "Women who choose to develop a career while raising a family have to make sacrifices in both their work and life balance as well as their earnings - particularly in the early years of parenting.

"If you want a family, and a career, there could be a point in your career that you feel like you're only working to pay for childcare, but that time in continuing your participation in the workforce will give you valuable experience and the seniority to move up the career ladder. You might not feel like you're getting ahead financially, but the fact that you're still there and learning, gaining skills, and staying in the network in your chosen field are all very important.

"It might sound clichéd but success typically will take a longer and more convoluted path for women. You can't expect things to be handed to you on a platter, you must be willing to put the hard yards in and make sacrifices when it comes to your work/life balance," she added.

A Different Approach

Regardless of whether a leader is a man or a woman, issues will always arise with staff, colleagues, clients and suppliers. For some, the difference is in how those issues are approached and dealt with. While Ms. Mirabello believes "gender should not make a difference in working relationships", there is no doubt that in some environments, it does.

Speaking of her own experience, Gail Hoole, who, along with her husband Ian, owns and operates the eyewear distribution company Mondottica Australia, said:  "I have had instances when the person I am dealing with does not believe I have the final world on a situation or task or request and will look to a male for the answer."

Ms. Hoole says in an effort to counter this, her approach is to find a common ground with the people she does business with. "While this can lead some people to believe that I am softer than I actually am, the reward is that people find it easier to approach me."

Above all, the leading women in optics that we spoke to stressed that building relationships with colleagues, client staff and suppliers, requires integrity and respect.

"In my opinion integrity is the most important characteristic for doing business irrespective of whether you are male or female," Ms. Carey told mivision.

Ms. Mirabello added, "The most successful and enduring relationships I have are based on mutual trust and respect. I treat people the way I would like to be treated  - it's not rocket science or particularly unique, but it has worked well for me throughout my career."

New Possibilities

While Prime Minister Gillard holds on desperately to her position of power, and faces accusations of poor leadership and moral authority, she has at least cracked the glass ceiling for those women aspiring to run the country... and reinforced the scope of possibilities for all of our young daughters.

On that note, we leave the final word to her colleague, Ms. Roxon who says, "I hope that our kids and grandkids inhabit a world where gender doesn't determine the roles we play in society. I hope that by the time our kids and grandkids are running the country a female Prime Minister isn't exceptional, it's expected," she told mivision.

Here's to it!

References
1. http://www.smh.com.au/executive-style/executive-women/hidden-gems-a-180b-untapped-resource-20110826-1jehx.html
2.www.humanrights.gov.au/about/media/speeches/sex_discrim/2011/20110429_women_boards.html
3.www.fahcsia.gov.au/sa/women/pubs/general/factsheet_women_issues/Pages/facts6.aspx
4.www.fahcsia.gov.au/sa/women/pubs/general/factsheet_women_issues/Pages/facts3.aspx

Tips to Get to the Top

With such a pool of talented, successful and highly professional women in the optical industry, it would be foolish to conclude a story of this nature without a few tips from the top for those climbing the ladder to success...

• Have a thick hide - don't be afraid of failure;

• Learn from your errors and do it better the next time around;

• Be willing to ask carefully considered questions - if you did not understand, it is likely that others also need clarification;

• Don't be afraid to ask for help - the worst that can happen is that people say "no" - but you'll often be pleasantly surprised;

• Aspire to be the best qualified candidate in everything you do, and to gain the skills required to do the job, not just be selected because you're a woman;

• Success generally comes from being a part of a dynamic network of talented people you can collaborate with and learn from - so foster a network of like-minded, determined, talented peers (both male and female) when you're young;

• Be generous with your expertise - what goes around, comes around;

• Be confident, involved and true to yourself;

• Find a work environment that brings out the best in you;

• Take responsibility for driving your own career forward;

• Set a new list of career goals every year and tick them off as you achieve them;

• Learn from your competitors' successes and failures;

• Stick to your principles but be flexible at the same time;

• Smile and be happy, life is too short, not to enjoy the journey.

  • Finola Carey
  • Gail Hoole
  • Kelley Mirabello
  • The Hon. Nicola Roxon MP
  • Tailoi Chan-Ling
  • Professor Fiona Stapleton

' ..take time to see the big picture - too often we get caught up in the operational minutia and lose the sense of what we are trying to achieve '