AS a twenty-something year old woman just getting a start in the working world, the idea of gender equality is something of a natural interest to me.
It’s hard to escape the stories of gender imbalance - every few weeks there’s a new study on pay-gaps, a new scheme to encourage balance and, of course, the every-sooften sexual harassment report; all raising serious questions about the nature in which society is progressing and the relevance of modern day feminism.
Just last month the SMH reported that women working in high-ranking positions in the US are more often fired than their male counterparts.
A 2012 study by the Bureau of Statistics found Australian women continue to be underrepresented in positions of leadership - scoping politics and the corporate world.
The statistics indicated in the Top 200 companies on the Australian Stock Exchange there were just seven female CEOs in comparison to 195 males.
So, when given the opportunity for a sit-down with BDCU CEO Jan Edwards to discuss the matter I leapt at the chance for some insight into the wide, corporate world and how we, as females, fare.
Ms Edwards is well equipped to muse on the subject; she is after all a CEO of an important regional financial organisation, has worked in five different countries and, obviously, is a woman.
She’s also raised four children without sacrificing career progression in one of the most divisive eras for working women.
In all her experience in corporate circles, Ms Edwards has come to observe gender imbalance; not so at the hands of an ‘evil’ patriarchy conspiracy set-up but rather one of long-standing cultural behaviour.
She said while the workplace has become more women-friendly in the past generation, a glass ceiling still exists.
“To a certain level it is about capability and ability to manage relationships,” Ms Edwards said.
“Beyond that level it does become more of a cultural issue… I suspect it comes from very long-standing paternalistic societies.
“In the year I graduated graduate school in business I was one of only two of the first women in that class ever.
“You’ve had one generation to improve more than several of paternalistic attitudes towards men’s and women’s roles. Our generation was the one who tried to crack that glass ceiling, so you get to a point in your career where you do start to hit your head a bit due to cultural mores and beliefs about roles.”
She believes the focus should not be of declaring a woman’s right to a job but rather on the development of an entire gender’s capability and shifting widespread cultural attitude structures to accommodate the idea.
This not only applies to women but to all minority groups.
Education is the key to creating a level plane for women striving for higher corporate roles, she says.
“I don’t espouse that we have the right to be equal, I never have. I espouse the value that if you are the most competent person you should be doing the job. If you can’t cut it, then you shouldn’t be doing it,” she said.
“It’s a cultural situation that will only change through female higher education, through changes in support systems and with some change in attitude structure… “The relevant argument is how do we move the attitude structure forward? And you can only really do that the way it is happening - it’s evolving.
“Females are becoming better educated in the areas that are important to business, so they themselves are starting to move in that direction.
“In my view it’s an evolutionary process. You can write it into law but if a company doesn’t really want to have a balance of females for whatever reason that may be, they will find a reason.”
Statistics released from the federal Education Department last year showed more women enrolling in university than their male peers.
The number of female students in higher education had risen by 33.5 per cent between 2002 and 2012, compared with a 22 per cent rise for males.
Women also now outnumber men from bachelor degrees to the top doctoral studies and are also in the majority in seven of the 10 main subject areas.
BDCU CEO Jan Edwards has worked with the company for some 16 years.
Originally from Canada, Ms Edwards has worked in five separate countries including the US and Middle East. She, her husband Tim and family came to Australia in 1989.
“If you’ve ever been to Canada it’s an absolutely stunning country, but if you’ve ever lived in Canada it’s cold and the winters are very long,” she said.
“When we had three tiny little boys we decided there’s got to be a better place to live - we were both well educated and had good jobs in international firms… and so we made a pact with each other that we would take turns getting roles in countries around the world.”
From Canada, Ms Edwards worked in the US for a couple of years before venturing into a great unknown – The Middle East.
“The Middle East was an experience. It was actually in the 80s which was not a good time over there,” she continued.
“The Middle East was an unknown for me because I knew that it didn’t accept females in any real role at all so I went over not going to a job.”
Eventually Ms Edwards picked up work with the University lecturing in Business Admin before soon rising to become Head of the Department.
The family then moved to England for a number of years until arriving in Australia. She took up a role as Head of Superannuation for Prudential Insurance before opting out of the big-city corporate role and joining BDCU.