Why workplace equity matters

25 Nov 2020 | 5 mins

Jacquie Hutchinson has spent decades fighting for equity in the workplace.

Whether overseeing the first merit-based promotions for high school teachers, introducing Edith Cowan University’s inaugural women in leadership program, or heading up human resources at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), she’s always championed social justice and equity.

Now, as a lecturer at the UWA Business School, she’s passing the baton on to the next generation of leaders.

Within the human resources curriculum, she focuses on diversity and inclusion. But it’s not all theory; in fact, she’s found her most valuable lessons are derived from the students themselves.

In one exercise, she presents a 2015 study from the Australian National University, which showed candidates with Indigenous, Italian, Chinese or Middle Eastern names would need to submit up to 64 per cent more job applications than an Anglo applicant to secure the same number of interviews. Then, students discuss their own experiences.

“We need to prepare our students to not only engage with research, but also to apply it to their own lives and beyond,” Jacquie said.

“Our students – especially international students – have rich experiences. They’ve lived, studied and travelled all over the world. I want people to feel confident to be curious about each other.”

Today, gender equity is front and centre of many organisations, including UWA, where the Athena Swan program aims to encourage more women to advance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) roles.

“Workforce planning needs rigour and buy in at the highest levels, with a strong plan for increasing diversity, along with targets and key performance indicators.

Too many approaches to equity in employment are passive and rest on good intentions, rather than an understanding of how employment policies and systems work to either advance or hinder the opportunities of a whole range of people, including women.”

Dr Jacquie Hutchinson
UWA Business School
Dr Jacquie Hutchinson

Jacquie’s first encounter with gender equity was in the 1980s when, as a State School Teachers’ Union elected official, she sat on the State Industrial Commission’s Government School Teachers' Tribunal and the Promotions, Review and Advisory Board for education.

That was the first year of merit based promotions, in which teachers were not promoted to principal positions based solely on their length of service. The new system offered greater equity for women, who in the 1980s had to resign when they married and then re-start their teaching service from day one.

“A lot of people were excited by the idea of merit based promotions but when we put the idea into practice, we suddenly realised it wasn’t very clear how we measured merit,” she said.

“For example, one of the criteria for promotions was community leadership. The women listed things like organising family reading groups, netball training, the Country Women’s Association, and parent teacher associations. The men listed Rotary and coaching the football team.

“What became very clear is how, as a society, we value those experiences.”

In the first round, three of the five promotions were awarded to women. Unfortunately, this resulted in members of the five person, majority male board, receiving anonymous letters accusing them of ulterior motives and pandering to women.

A number of people – many of them teachers – didn’t believe a woman could deserve a promotion. More than 30 years later, women make up only 41.7 per cent of Australia’s secondary principals, despite comprising 58.4 per cent of secondary teachers.

With progress under way, Jacquie’s next fight for gender equality took place at the Western Australian College of Education. In January 1991 the college became Edith Cowan University (ECU) – and as a result, needed more leaders and researchers.

As Head Organisational Development, she established the women in leadership program – which was subsequently adopted by UWA – offering upskilling opportunities for both academic and professional staff.

Although wildly successful, attracting external and internal funding with a spin off lecture series and related research, it was only part of a broader approach to gender equity.

“Programs around development are good, but we also need advancement opportunities and organisational change – or otherwise, we’re whistling in the wind,” she said.

“The push for gender equity at ECU was successful because it was led by senior management. They put money into developing a supportive environment and providing structural opportunities and affirmative action – one year, they mandated that three out of five promotions must go to women, or otherwise the roles would be left vacant.

“Workforce planning needs rigour and buy in at the highest levels, with a strong plan for increasing diversity, along with targets and key performance indicators.

“Too many approaches to equity in employment are passive and rest on good intentions, rather than an understanding of how employment policies and systems work to either advance or hinder the opportunities of a whole range of people, including women.”

Jacquie’s next move was to the ABC in Sydney, where she spent six years as head of human resources.

From there she returned to Perth, embarking on a PhD in workplace bullying. She’s since consulted to dozens of organisations, and undertakes research, looking at topics such as how to engage more mid-career female engineers, and how local government councils can better reflect the diversity of their residents.

What she enjoys most, however, is teaching. It’s an elegant piece of symmetry, bringing Jacquie full circle from her early days as a young teacher in Gnowangerup, where she worked with the local Noongar Association to engage Indigenous students with formal education.

“As a university with a diverse population, UWA is in a unique position with lots of opportunities to build relationships – and especially when we can attract people who don’t think they have a place here,” she said.

“I always take a relational approach to teaching and aim to make all my students feel comfortable talking in class. We also celebrate the end of each unit with food, so people know me as a great cook (and eater)!

“It’s daunting being a university student today – there’s pressure around work, family, money and isolation. I want my students to leave here feeling better about themselves and more confident in an uncertain world.

“Above all, I hope my students learn to use intellectual rigour when making decisions and to be kind to themselves and each other.”

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