Posted: 12 Mar. 2016 10 min. read

Interview with David Morrison AO

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

As Australian of the Year in 2016, Chair of the Diversity Council of Australia and Deloitte special advisor on leadership to the CEO, David Morrison AO has been recognised time and again for his commitment to gender equality, diversity and inclusion. In his former role as Australian Chief of Army, David hit the spotlight in 2013 when his video went viral ordering troops to ‘get out’ of the Army if they couldn’t accept women as equals, clearly demonstrating his personal courage and passion for equality. The cultural shift within the Army since the video aired has been significant, including a greater focus on diversity and inclusion and a 2% rise in the number of women joining the Army. Two percent may seem small but is significant in actual terms: An addition of 700 women to a workforce of 34,000 in 3 years.

Tuesday March 8th is International Women’s Day: a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women.  We recently spoke to David to find out more about what International Women’s Day means to him.

David’s insights focussed on storytelling. He challenged us to think about whether the stories we tell subtly support or undermine equity. Not one to shy from controversy, David also shared his views on pay equity and quotas. Finally, David puts his weight behind the shift to diversity of thinking, noting the relationship between gender-balanced teams and high performance.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

International Women’s Day has been held for a number of years now, and it raises an interesting question – why do we need one? Surely there are means by which we can recognise women’s contributions to the way we all live, in whatever field of endeavours you want to name, without actually designating a particular day? But of course that’s not the case. Around the world there is still a lack of recognition for women’s achievements in all walks of life.

We can describe our culture as the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves. These stories are very important then for the way we instil perspectives of our society on the people who are brought into our community. It seems to me that while there are millions of successful women in Australia, many of their stories are told in a more muted way. They are folded into the greater Australian narrative. Whereas stories about men’s achievements such as the dashing sportsman or the stoic pioneer, they are told in a different way.  

So I think International Women’s Day is very important, because it does provide all of us, men and women, pause for thought about what women actually do within our society. What they are achieving, what stories we are telling about them, and I think it goes towards starting to have a better gender balance in the way we view all of our community.

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is #PledgeForParity, where men and women are being asked to pledge to take a concrete step towards gender parity. What will your pledge be?

You look at something like the gender pay gap in this country and its eye watering. We talk about ourselves [in Australia] as an egalitarian country. That we are all about giving everybody a ‘fair go’ – it runs very deep in our DNA. And in many respects we do, we are a successful, multicultural country and in comparison to similar countries we are doing exceptionally well, and there is much to be celebrated. And yet, we have a situation in Australia, where across all professions, we have a gender pay gap of about 17.8%, and in some professions (mining and construction for example) it is well over 30%. Now, I think that without doubt that would be a very good place to start.

Money is important to us all; it furnishes the means by which we live. When you think about the pay gap that occurs in this country at the moment, currently throughout her working life a woman earns hundreds of thousands of dollars less in superannuation as a result. And that’s just unacceptable in a country like ours.

When we talk about #PledgeForParity a very good place to start would be for employers to look at what they pay men and women in their organisation, and work towards parity.

You mentioned the fact that there are more men in leadership positions across Australia, which leads into the debate around gender quotas and merit-based selection. What are your thoughts on this? 

On merit, I think there needs to be an assessment done – almost on first principles — as to whether the criteria by which you are judging merit in any particular organisation is fair across genders, and indeed across different racial backgrounds, or sexual orientation for example. In the Army when I was serving there, when we started to look at the issues around making better use of women’s talent, we came to the conclusion that we weren’t judging merit appropriately, and that we were emphasising masculine skills more than feminine skills. So that needs to be addressed.

My jury is still out on quotas. I have really good friends who have said that quotas are the only way that we are going to actually shift the dial, in a meaningful fashion, in a relatively short space of time. And I understand their perspective. Certainly when you look at the Scandinavian countries for example, they have introduced quotas across the board, not just within the public sector. Sweden, for example, has mandated that boards have 40% women.  This has worked to a reasonable degree in the Scandinavian countries that I am aware of.

We did not impose quotas in the military. What we did instead was set targets and achieve them. I think targets are certainly less contentious. I believe that setting a quota in a country like Australia, based on gender or for any reason, will draw a lot of quite aggressive criticism. There will also be a lot of women who will feel quite uncomfortable about this, because they will feel that whatever appointment they have obtained has come as a result of the quota rather than on merit – however that merit is designed.

But, (I am hedging my answer here) when you look at the fact that we have been trying to increase the number of women on our ASX 200 boards for a considerable period of time now, and in the latest data that I saw (February 2016) there seems to have actually been a reduction in the number of women across all 200 companies. Although it is only a relatively small reduction, it is still going backwards and not moving forward despite all of the talk around better gender diversity on boards. It does start to raise some interesting questions as to whether we need to impose a higher level of accountability on those who place women and men in executive positions and on boards. I just think that it would be very difficult in Australia to implement quotas successfully.

We had the case in the Army, where once we started to increase the number of women joining the Army, and increase very significantly the number of women going into more senior positions, there was the inevitable backlash. ,. It got to a point where women being promoted, even though they were the best person for the job without a doubt, were given the label: “Oh she’s being ‘Brodericked’. Liz Broderick’s name [former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner] had become a verb due to her review of the treatment of women within the Army. This was highly offensive and completely untrue. The trouble is you are always going to get people who are well off under the existing order of things feeling that they are being disadvantaged by any changes. And, it’s human nature to find a way to be critical and work against it.

So I can’t see quotas being put in place in Australia. I think it would be a very bold government, either at state or federal level that sets them. Although interestingly, some of the Male Champions of Change are recognising that the issues of improving gender balance are becoming really sticky and very hard to achieve. And so there is perhaps going to be another push for it. But, watch for the fireworks to go up if, and when, the quotas are put in.

What are your thoughts on shifting the conversation away from targets and quotas, and towards looking at the value that women and men create together from a diversity of thought perspective?

I couldn’t agree with you more. From my experience in the Army, one of the big steps we took was to stop talking about giving everybody a fair go – appealing to levels of altruism and appeasing everybody. Rather, we recognised that people don’t do things for your reason; they only do it for theirs.

So we started to talk about the fact that a more diverse workforce is a more capable workforce, and gave examples as to why. We don’t want women to have to look, sound or think like men to be successful.

This was very important, and if you look at industries, like professional services, the conversations by senior leaders are now more about diversity of thinking and making use of a different approach, different perspectives and getting a better balance. Having said all that, even with a lot of discussion about the benefits of diversity, we are not seeing a particular increase in the number of women being given opportunities in Australia.

And so I think that while you need to have those very positive discussions with your workforce, you still need to recognise that unless you name a target and stand by it publicly you haven’t set goals, and you don’t know whether you are succeeding or failing.

Do you have any closing comments?

My closing comment would be back to the first question you asked. I do think that International Women’s Day is absolutely a requirement on the calendar every year, in Australia and indeed globally, because we are making far too abject a use of the talent in 51% of our population. But, International Women’s Day does provide a very important focus as it says to men and women that we have a journey that we need to continue on, because, at the moment, the statistics show that we aren’t achieving what we need to.