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Breaking down the gender barriers

julie mckay julie mckay
Julie McKay 14 minute read

WOMEN IN FINANCE MONTH: At the fourth annual Women in Finance Awards, which was held virtually for the first time, PwC’s chief diversity, inclusion and wellbeing officer, Julie McKay, delivered a thoughtful (and somewhat hopeful) speech, leaving viewers with plenty of food for thought. Acknowledging the unprecedented challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Ms McKay noted that the pandemic provided industries with an opportunity to change, too. Here’s what she had to say.

Good evening, everyone. Thank you for having me. I would like to firstly acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet all around the country this evening and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.

I would also like to acknowledge that today is a very important day on the national calendar, it being R U OK? Day, a day where we take away the mental health stigma that still exists in our communities and make it safe for each of us to lean into those conversations with our friends, colleagues and family members about whether they are OK and whether they need any additional support, particularly in these challenging times.

Mostly though, I want to recognise that tonight is all about you. I actually got completely distracted, when I was preparing for this speech, looking at the amazing stories of some of our finalists from all around the country, from organisations big and small. And I think, particularly in 2020, it’s really important that you all take a moment to celebrate your leadership, your courage, your innovation and your fortitude, being recognised as a finalist for the Women in Finance Awards in 2020 is no small feat. And tonight is really about celebrating all that women bring to this incredible industry.


Secondly, I suspect there are very few occasions in our lives where we get to wear black tie, slippers and a headset. And so, I hope that you also spend a moment just thinking about whether we could bring slippers into the black-tie occasion formal wear as a permanent feature because I am enjoying mine.

Gender equality still pertinent in 2020

Friends, in this virtual room, it would be hard to believe that we still had a challenge in this country around achieving gender equality. Just today, I was having a conversation with a CEO in the finance industry who said: “Julie, I’m totally supportive of advancing gender equality. But the issue is we haven’t got the talent; we’re going to need to grow them, and that’s going to take 10 to 15 years.”

I wish he was here tonight. Because I think when you see the names, read the stories, hear the announcements about the winners – it would be very hard to ignore that this sector is growing in part, and in large part, because of the amazing women that work within it.

That said, we still have, in almost every industry, a leadership gap when it comes to gender equality. We still have a pay gap that persists. Women will typically retire with half the superannuation savings as men. And what that means is that they’re more likely to live in poverty in retirement.


We continue to face an incredible prevalence of sexual harassment, all the way through the spectrum to domestic and family violence in our society. And these issues tend to still be ignored, pushed to the side, or put into the category of “very difficult to solve”.

The number of times I’m told that “that issue is very complex Julie”. Absolutely, a lot of issues in our society are complex, but until we can face into the fact that we still have fundamental gender inequality in our society, we’re not going to realise the potential of all of our people.

That said, I think it’s also important to acknowledge that none of us would have chosen the path that 2020 has put us on, starting with bushfires, the health and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the acknowledgement again of systemic racism all around the world through the Black Lives Matter campaign.

And that moment of pause for the Australian community to say: “Actually these issues exist here, too, but we’re less comfortable addressing them and facing into them than we are being outraged and shocked when they happen overseas.”

The ongoing stories of businesses and organisations not addressing sexual harassment and the consequences for that continues to be something that is in our hearts and minds when we enter the workplace. Very few people would have chosen 2020 as a year.

The silver lining of 2020

But that said, there are also some really significant changes that I think are going to set us on a completely different trajectory for the future. And I wanted to just flag those because it’s very easy, I think, this year to get very caught up in the negative stories to really face into the personal challenges, the societal challenges, and to start to feel overwhelmed by just how significant some of those things have been.

For the first time in 2020, we have CEOs and leadership of just about every organisation imaginable working at home by force or by choice.

We have leadership teams who eight months ago would have said to me: “Oh Julie, our jobs are too important and too big and too challenging for us to work at home.”

But they are now saying: “Actually this is fantastic. I’ve got more time with my kids. I’ve got more time to do the things I love doing, whether that’s running or swimming or cooking.”

We’ve got teams coming together in each other’s bedrooms, studies, lounge rooms, getting to know each other, asking about that picture on the wall, or the plant, or the pet, or the child, talking about what it feels like to live alone in isolation. Talking about what it’s been like to live in a share house in an environment where maybe you wouldn’t have chosen to spend 24/7 with the six people that you’re currently sharing a flat with.

All of those experiences make our teams and our organisations stronger. They are fundamental to the core of psychological safety, which we know underpins high-performing teams and we know underpins inclusion.

We also know that organisations are investing in the technology that’s going to be required if we’re going to truly have flexible working as part of our suite of tools and ways of working into the future. It’s been amazing how many leaders I’ve spoken with in the last six months who said, “Oh wow, you know, these video conferences, gosh, they’re hard to get all the equipment at home”.

And I just have to keep in the back of my mind, yes, said every woman who has ever tried to work from home or work remotely or connect in to a team meeting and feel that sense of belonging, when you are alone.

But those things I think are game changing, and they’re changes that we will make forever. We’ve got companies now saying the office is optional into the future. We’ve got people rethinking fundamentally the way we work, and that whole conversation or narrative about the future of work is now our today.

And so, there’s this moment for each of us in our organisations, in our communities, in our lives to actually hit that pause button and try and reset, get off the treadmill of the way we’ve always done things and that feeling that we all have from time to time, that is, we’re just racing from one thing to another in our personal lives, into work and back, and start to really think about if I put my own oxygen mask on first, how would I build my day and my week and my role? What role do I play at home and how does that balance against the responsibilities I have in the workplace?

What are some of those opportunities to study and advance your career, that financially might have been a barrier too difficult to overcome when they involved a fee, potentially travel, time away from family and work?

Now those courses are online. The potential for us to think about different ways of working and investing in ourselves is very significant and exciting. We’ve also seen communities come together differently. These amazing stories of streets coming together to support the elderly, or putting teddy bears up on the fence to put a smile on the faces of children. All of these little symbols are actually symbols of a community that is strong, resilient, hopeful. And I think when you have that strength, that resilience and that hope in communities, the power of what you can achieve is really significant and shouldn’t be underestimated.

So, I actually have a sense of hope and optimism that 2020 will be a marker, where we no longer say that gender equality is too hard to achieve, one of those complex, systemic, wicked problems that we simply can’t achieve. I actually hope that we have enough leaders in the country pausing, resetting, rethinking. And if each of us take that responsibility to have the conversations, to share our stories, to challenge to disrupt, we might see a future for this country that looks very different to the present.

Ingrained bias

But fundamentally, what would that look like and what would that take? I think the first thing for me is that we actually have to acknowledge that we all have bias. That bias is something that’s ingrained in us, that’s built over decades. And that no training course, no online click-through program can actually fix this, but acknowledging bias, accepting that it influences our decision making and starting to think about ways to disrupt it can be game changing.

For me personally, I know that I have a very strong gut feel when I’m hiring someone. As soon as I was able to understand that that gut feel was my bias kicking in, I was able to disrupt it. So, I have a post-it note. If you ever do a job interview with me, I have a post-it note on my notebook that says “choose the other candidate”. And for me, that’s about when you get to that shortlist and you know that actually any of the candidates could do that role, they’ve got great referees and you’ve got a gut feel telling you to go with one, pick the other. Because the other will bring the diversity and the challenge in to the team, and it’s been game changing for the teams that I’ve formed since I got that little tool in my toolkit.

Legislating quotas

Secondly, educating, placating and waiting for gender equality to be achieved isn’t working. We need government-legislated targets – and I know that’s a really big topic and it’s probably not one for tonight’s dinner – but the reality is that there is no country in the world that has achieved gender equality in leadership roles without a government-legislated quota. I wish that wasn’t true, but we talk about all the reasons not to put in place a quota and they largely come back to people feeling uncomfortable – men feeling angry.

And to be honest, the experience of countries that have implemented quotas is that that backlash, that anger, dissipates after about six to eight months. And I think we’re strong enough. I actually think if we want a step change, we need to be brave enough to think about a government-legislated quota.

We need to face into the affordability and accessibility of childcare issue. We all know that. But until we can actually ensure that there are financial incentives for men to take on different caring responsibilities, a system that can support women to go back to work that is financially viable, we’re not going to achieve gender equality.

And so, when you see the campaigns and the advocacy and the organisations talking about this space, lean into them. Support them. Because actually, regardless of whether or not you have children or want children in the future, childcare is a barrier that we all face in terms of that advancement and progression of women.

Breaking down barriers

We need to do a lot in our organisations to address the ongoing structural barriers that exist for women. And that’s about ensuring that our performance and reward processes are fair, that our recruitment processes are fair, that we invest equally in onboarding growth and development, and that we’re transparent about that.

Organisations that publicly report on their gender pay gap, on their discretionary bonuses, end up being the organisations that make the progress. So, encouraging your organisation to actually be bold and make some of those key decisions transparent will be game changing.

Finally, we need to stop having coffees with each other. Ongoing mentoring coffee relationships aren’t getting us where we need to be.

We need to open doors for each other. We need to share business with each other. We need to refer opportunities to each other. Each of us needs a sponsor and should be sponsoring someone. And that might be something to think about tonight: who in this virtual room might be able to help you get your next opportunity, and who in this virtual room can you help get their next opportunity?

To everyone who’s joined the awards this evening, thank you for being here. Thank you for leaning into the advancement of women in the finance industry. Thank you for what you do every day to build a sense of economic security, financial security for women, for families, for communities, for our country. Enjoy the awards tonight. Enjoy the stories of each other’s success. And I look forward to walking alongside you in this journey to accelerate gender equality. Thank you very much.

Breaking down the gender barriers
julie mckay
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julie mckay
Annie Kane

Annie Kane

Annie Kane is the editor of The Adviser and Mortgage Business.

As well as writing about the Australian broking industry, the mortgage market, financial regulation, fintechs and the wider lending landscape – Annie is also the host of the Elite Broker and In Focus podcasts and The Adviser Live webcasts. 

Email Annie at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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