Creating A Bigger, Better Story For Australian Women

In the opening address of our first ever executive summit, FW founding director Helen McCabe celebrates the wins for gender equality and calls out the shortfalls.

By Helen McCabe


In the opening address of our first ever executive summit, FW founding director Helen McCabe celebrates the wins for gender equality and calls out the shortfalls.

By Helen McCabe

Good morning and welcome to the first Future Women Executive Summit.

This is what Future Women is about – a room of smart, strong, ambitious women, dedicated to helping one another achieve personal and professional success. And by the way, I’m really glad to see a few future men in the audience as well.

This time last year, the first Future Women newsletter went out. Last July, the Future Women website went live. Since then, thousands of women have attended Future Women events. And now, here we are today waiting to hear from Kerryn Phelps. From Wendy McCarthy. From start-up founders to industry leaders and trailblazers.

We are here today because so many brilliant, diverse women have embraced the mission of Future Women.

Women’s Progress at the Crossroads

In Australia and around the world, women’s progress – women’s empowerment – has reached a crossroads. I think all of us here sense this. We rightly celebrate the growing numbers of inspiring women leading their fields across business, sport, media, the arts and philanthropy. The new generation giving feminism new energy and new direction.

Yet for every story of progress advanced, there is a depressingly familiar tale of progress stalled. We know about the stubbornly large gap between men and women in workplace seniority and pay. We are all too familiar with the ever-increasing pressures on men and women trying to balance work and family.

But what about the Me Too backlash?

What about the revelations of sexist bullying and abuse in our federal parliament?

And how is that in 2019 it has become routine to read about football players treating women with contempt at best – and subjecting them to the nightmare of domestic violence and sexual assault at worst?

We cannot celebrate women’s success without also confronting the forces holding women back – and that too is part of Future Women’s mission.

The Need for a New Voice

I’d like to take you back to September 2015. The ‘Women of the Future’ awards – a red carpet into the Art Gallery of NSW. Malcolm Turnbull had just rolled Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. On the panel that night was Annabel Crabb, who’d just written The Wife Drought. Jesinta Franklin, the model and entrepreneur who at the time was being defined by her husband’s mental health struggle. And Peta Credlin, Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff, who had been ferociously criticised – in part, for her take no prisoners style in pursuing Abbott’s agenda.

Fairly or not, Peta had become a lightning rod for the resentment of Abbott’s opponents within the Liberal Party. And I want to quote what she said that night.

“If you’re a cabinet minister or a journalist and you’re intimidated by the chief-of-staff of the prime minister then maybe you don’t deserve your job. If I was a guy, I wouldn’t be bossy, I’d be strong. You want women like me in politics. And if we do not stand up and put women in the epicentre of decision making, whether it’s boardrooms, government boards, politics, cabinet rooms, wherever, if you don’t have women there, we will not exist.”

As I left the event that night, I thought about these three strong, accomplished women, wrestling with issues of work-life balance, mental health, and the corrosive idea that the more successful you are as a woman, the less likeable you become.

I was convinced that we needed a new voice in Australian media, Australian business and Australian public life. Not just a new publication or website, but a forum connecting forward-thinking professional women. A community – for debate on the issues that matter – in all our lives. A discussion led by women, for women and about women.

A Seismic Shift

On almost every front, we have experienced a seismic shift in what is possible for women in this country.

I remember how significant it was at NewsCorp in 1999, when I was appointed Europe correspondent alongside my colleague Christine Middap. It was the first time there’d been two women in the London bureau at the same time. Since then, we’ve had Australia’s first female Prime Minister. Women have been Foreign Minister and Defence Minister for the first time, and we have had a succession of female Premiers. Women have led major companies from Westpac and Macquarie to Carnival Australia and A2 Milk.

At the same time, the image of women in the media has begun to change – becoming less airbrushed, more real. At the Australian Women’s Weekly, we put the marathon runner and burns survivor Turia Pitt on the cover – and sales went up.

Slowly but surely, we are tearing down old stereotypes of what female success is meant to look like.

In the workplace, in popular culture, and yes, even in sport. In fact, especially in sport. A couple of weeks ago, Future Women held an International Women’s Day event with a panel of Australian sportswomen – and they lit up the room. The WNBA star Liz Cambage spoke about how she took inspiration from Serena Williams’ show of anger at the US Open final last year, when she lost to Naomi Osaka. Don’t forget, Serena’s response was vilified by journalists and cartoonists. Yet for Liz Cambage, that show of emotion was empowering. Women in sports no longer have to feel bound by unrealistic, outdated and frankly sexist standards of behaviour. Standards that men abandoned the first time John McEnroe broke a wooden racket in anger, long before Liz was even born.

Closer to home, it was disgusting to see trolls target the AFL player Tayla Harris on social media, after Channel Seven posted a photo of her breathtaking athleticism – before then taking it down in response. But it was heartening to see the fierce defence of Tayla from both women and men – another sign that gradually, inevitably, things are starting to change. To their credit, Seven subsequently apologised and re-uploaded the photo.

An Unstoppable Force

To be part of Future Women is to know this: women’s ambition is an unstoppable force reshaping the Australian economy and society. According to McKinsey, advancing women’s equality could boost the Australian economy by 12 percent. We could do this simply by matching the record on equality of the leading countries in our region – the likes of Singapore and New Zealand.

Australian women today are graduating from university in higher numbers and building wealth faster than men of the same age – with 27 percent of women under 35 already on the housing ladder, compared with 21 percent of men under 35.

Young women in Australia unequivocally have their shit together. The question is are we, as a society, doing enough to clear away the obstacles to their success? A recent report from Conrad Liveris had mixed news. The number of women holding CEO roles in the ASX 200, 11, has now overtaken the number of Marks, 10. We have drawn level with Michaels. And we have Andrews – who hold 14 CEO positions – well and truly in our sights.

Jamila Rizvi has written about the ‘second glass ceiling’ facing senior executive women: the fact that even when they reach the highest rung, they are paid around $160,000 less than men at the same level. And that is before we get to the bottleneck of female ambition at middle management levels – or the ever-growing pressures on professional women’s mental health.

One in three Australian women suffer from anxiety at some point in their life – compared with one in five men – with the highest incidence among young women aged 18 to 35.

And then there are the darker corners of women’s experience in Australia – the horror stories of violence and assault, so many of them still untold. It is a scar on our nation that on average one Australian woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner, and that one in three Australian women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15. The shame and trauma domestic violence inflicts on women is impossible to quantify- but our failure to move the numbers is not. We can – we must – do more.

Yes, there are global parallels for the challenges I’ve just described. But these are Australian problems that we must confront as Australians – because too often, we lag rather than lead when it comes to women’s progress and equality.

A Bigger, Better Story

At Future Women, we believe it’s possible to celebrate extraordinary progress and success, while at the same time demanding we aim higher and move faster.

That’s what Future Women is all about.

The Role of Men

What is Future Women not? It’s not anti-men.

We need male leaders to dismantle structural discrimination and unconscious bias in their organisations. And as Annabel Crabb argued so eloquently in ‘The Wife Drought’, we have to normalise men working flexibly and spending time with their children. We cannot afford for men to disengage from this discussion. The more men who withdraw into social media resentment at movements like Me Too, the worse off we all are.

Where Next?

So where to from here for Future Women? Next month, we will launch Her Vote, – elevating her voice, Informing her opinion. This is an initiative to engage more women in the federal election in May.

When exceptional women like Julie Bishop choose to leave parliament or abandon the mainstream party system altogether, then clearly, we have a problem.

It’s not exactly progress that whereas Julia Gillard was called ‘deliberately barren’, someone like Gladys Berejiklian is criticised more implicitly – with the subtle message that perhaps she doesn’t understand families because she is single.

Over the past 10 days, as we have mourned the victims of the terrorist atrocity in Christchurch, Jacinda Ardern has led New Zealand’s and the world’s response. As so many people have said, her style of leadership – strong and decisive, compassionate and inclusive – is the leadership we need in these dangerously polarised times. But here in Australia, we have to ask whether the political system and culture is enabling our own future Jacinda Ardern’s, or holding them back?

We have to champion women as leaders and role models across every part of society. Not every woman for herself, but every woman for every woman.

I hope the ideas that emerge today will help chart the path ahead for those of us in the room and for all women in business in Australia.

And I know that through world-class journalism, events, discussion, debate and advocacy, Future Women will continue to lead the way as a new voice, telling a bigger and better story, for and about Australian women everywhere.

This is just the beginning.


Hear from those shaping politics

Tanya Plibersek, Dr Katie Allen,
Shireen Morris, Zali Steggall & Hollie Hughes.

Hosted by Allison Langdon.

Friday 5th April, 6pm-8pm
The Darlinghurst Theatre