Gender equality in the workplace isn’t about just fixing the balance of working men and women. It’s about realising equality is better business for everyone.
Rose Kerlin is one of 4 female executive leaders at AustralianSuper. Some early life challenges and some strong female leaders taught her resilience, and she’s learned that respect, communication and pragmatism are key to her personal growth and success. Here, Rose shares an insight into her journey so far.
We sat down with AustralianSuper Group Executive, Rose Kerlin, who knows from her experience leading diverse teams, as well as her own personal experiences over the year, that gender equality is about more than just tokenism – it makes commercial sense and correlates to better economic performance.
Rose shares her story.
‘When Justin Trudeau became prime minister in Canada, all the media wanted to talk to him about was that 50% of his cabinet were women. He was asked why he felt such a gender balance was important and he replied, “Because it’s 2015?” Well come on – it’s 2020.’
‘While I’m incredibly proud to be one of AustralianSuper’s 4 female executives, alongside 4 men, women are still drastically underrepresented in leadership roles in corporate Australia.’
‘And while equity and fairness are at the heart of my personal values – gender equality is not about tokenism,’ says Rose.
Women need to be empowered – in all areas of their lives
Rose highlights that there’s a common cultural expectation that women should prioritise the care of children over their career – which she disagrees with. ‘In my view, men and women need to be supported and empowered both at home and in the workplace to fulfil whichever role they chose.’
‘When I met my husband at university we spoke about the role of men and women in the home early on. We were never going to slide into traditional gender roles. We made practical decisions and supported each other’s passion and ambitions in a relationship as equals,’ she shares.
‘Mutual respect, good communication and a pragmatic approach have worked for our family – and it’s how I got to where I am today professionally and personally.’
Gender roles and role models
Rose grew up in Wagga Wagga as one of 5 kids. ‘My family was very traditional, dad worked 6 days a week running a business, while mum stayed at home and was involved in every facet of our lives,’ she says.
‘But when I was 5 everything changed. Mum died of cancer and we all struggled. My dad took on both gender roles; he was the one who came to the school, attended the fundraisers and got us to sporting events, all the while running a business. Seeing dad fulfil both gender roles was inspiring. It showed men can play more of a role in raising kids and have more involvement in their lives.’
At the age of 14 Rose was working 3 jobs; the family business, McDonalds and babysitting. She knew then that what she really wanted to be financially independent.
The influence of strong female leaders
Looking back at her schooling, at a catholic boarding school, she says that feminist nuns helped her find her passion and voice.
‘I distinctly remember the Principal, Sister Margaret Byrne from St Vincent’s College saying: ‘This is a school focused on education for girls, and we encourage you to be anything you want to be. The only thing woman can’t do is become priests in the catholic church, but we ’re working on changing that too.’’
After university Rose started her career in the union movement - Finance Sector Union. There she worked on getting people better wages and conditions, pay equity for women and making sure women gained access to paid parental leave.
‘I progressed through the ranks while juggling a young family. I made sacrifices, but so did my husband and we made it work,’ she shares.
‘After 17 years, the timing was right to pursue another passion; equality and dignity in retirement. Personally, and professionally, I’d seen women’s retirement savings suffer because of time out of the workforce, and I wanted to do something to close the gap.’
Rose joined AustralianSuper in 2010 and her career moved quickly. Within 6 months she had been promoted and made a move to Western Australia with her husband and young family. A few years later she was promoted again, and the family moved to Melbourne.
‘I couldn’t have done it without my husband’s support,’ Rose comments.
A partnership with the right balance
Rose believes that finding the right balance between work and parenting is a personal balance for each family.
‘Initially, I took 10 months of maternity leave for both of my children, and my husband Matt took paid parental leave for the remaining 2 months,’ says Rose.
‘Matt was the first man at the ASX to have ever taken paid parental. He then came back on a graduated return to work program and was asked to champion the cause. It was so important to me to have that one on one time with our children while they were babies, but it was equally important that Matt had the opportunity to do it too.’
‘Initially, we both went back to work 4 days a week and we had equal care of the children, but when we moved to WA my husband took a 12-month career break. In the end, he took 5 years out of the workforce to care for the children. Now, he’s permanent part-time and continues to do all the heavy lifting with the kids. It just made sense for us,’ she says.
‘My career was moving quicker and quite frankly he’s better at that job. He’s a better cook, a better cleaner, a better gardener, he’s more patient with the kids, and he’s more organised with their activities.’
Removing the glass ceiling for women at AustralianSuper
In the 2018/2019 Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WEGA) dataset, just 17.1% of CEO roles and 30% (approx.) of key management roles were held by women.1
‘It’s mind-boggling that this is the situation we’re in’ says Rose. ‘It’s largely because of career breaks and ongoing commitments to care for children and other family members,’ which are traditionally taken on by women.
When it comes to working at AustralianSuper and her role as a leader, Rose says: ‘At AustralianSuper we don’t just want women to break through the glass ceiling - there shouldn’t be one there in the first place.
‘We have all these fantastic, productive women at work. Just because they take leave or go part-time because of caring responsibilities, we don’t want to lose them. AustralianSuper embraces diversity and inclusion, and that’s why we offer a lot of parental leave support for men and women, paid super through maternity leave, flexible work practices, we have genuine diversity objectives and programs to identify and foster future female leaders,’ she says.
‘We also advocate outside of the workplace, for example, we do a conference panel pledge, which means we won’t have any of our people go and speak on an external or internal panel that’s all men.’
‘It’s about diversity, not just of gender but of thought. The greater the diversity, the more we can learn from one another,’ Rose says
Rose says: ‘We have taken a leadership position in this space and it’s one of the reasons I’m so proud to come to work every day. The executive team I sit on has an equal gender split - 4 men and 4 women, reporting to the CEO.'
Acting as champions of change
‘In 2017 we wrote to 17 of the top 200 ASX companies that had no women on their boards saying if you don’t do something about it we are going to vote against the re-election of most senior male director up for nomination. Since then,16 of those companies have acted, and only 1 (of the original 17) remains without a woman on their board,'2 says Rose.
‘Advocating for one woman on a board was the first step. Now we’re writing to ASX 200 companies to say AustralianSuper needs at least 2 women in board positions.”
This strong focus from AustralianSuper is driven by a strong belief that investing in companies and assets with good environmental, social, and governance (ESG) management provides better long-term returns for members. This is why we integrate our comprehensive ESG & Stewardship program across our investment process, in all asset classes and investment options.
Rose says: ‘We will continue our journey to improve gender diversity. In the medium term, we would like to see a minimum of 30% women represented on each company board. That is where we believe you will start to see real change. And that’s what AustralianSuper is striving for. The Fund is a long-term investor, and it’s been proven that when you have diversity on boards, the performance of the company improves.’
‘Our culture, position and actions to fight for equality isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s also about getting the best possible return for our members,’ says Rose.
‘That’s what AustralianSuper members deserve and that’s why we’re going to keep advocating for change.’
- Correct as of January 2020.