As UTS Executive Director of Social Justice, and a former Minister for Women and Minister for Education and Training, Verity Firth is a true champion of gender equality and diversity.
During her career in politics and now in higher education, she has experienced first-hand the effectiveness of active intervention to drive a critical mass and increase female representation in professions dominated by men.
SheStarts Director Nicola Hazell sat down with Verity to unpack the barriers for women in leadership and the best ways to break them down.
How do you change a male-dominated industry to make it appealing to women? What are the tools we can use to design for diversity? Will we ever achieve gender equality… seriously, ever??
These were the questions I had on my mind when I sat down for a conversation with Verity Firth to talk about SheStarts.
Our conversation started with a flashback to Verity’s early days as a political staffer in Canberra in the 1990s…
“I was quite depressed, like, I actually thought, “Oh my god, I don’t actually know if I want to this. This environment is so genuinely sexist and so awful that I don’t even know if I want to keep going,” Verity recalled.
But with the introduction of affirmative targets for women in 1998, Verity said things started to shift and suddenly a whole lot of women got elected to Parliament.
“I’ll never forget sitting in the coffee shop in Canberra and suddenly the whole table next to me was filled with brand new women MPs. Literally, my heart lifted like I just thought, ‘Oh my God. They’re here. They’re here!’ And you could even see, almost overnight, the attitude of the men started to change because suddenly they had to deal with women in their caucus.”
Verity said this shift was the start of really strong mentorship from a whole range of senior women who wanted to encourage young women like her to be involved in politics.
Having gone through this experience, Verity realised that this critical mass and active intervention played a large part in her capacity to not only enter Parliament, but to actually succeed. When looking at the technology and innovation field being a driving force in our economy right now, she sees a similar need for action.
“It’s a space where women can’t see themselves. It’s not going to fix itself. And the pattern will keep repeating and women will choose simply not to go into that industry,” she said.
It’s for this very reason Verity is excited to be part of the leadership team at UTS supporting SheStarts.
“If you want to do something about it, you have to actively intervene. And that can be programs such as SheStarts where you actually seek women out, actively find them, bring them in, train them up, educate them, give them confidence, give them mentoring. Tell them they are wanted and tell them they are going to succeed. Because without that active intervention, I don’t actually think it will change by itself.”
In her current role at UTS, Verity takes a similar approach and actively designs for diversity and inclusivity.
“We have quite a diverse student body at UTS; 48% of our students are from non-English speaking backgrounds. And when you walk around our campus, you really do see it. Like, you really see that there’s students from all over the world.”
However, like any university, the next question is how do you make your leadership and broader staff base more diverse? This, Verity says, is a bigger challenge, but one UTS is taking action to address, for example, through unconscious bias training for senior leaders.
“All of the senior management have undertaken unconscious bias training to ensure that in the recruitment drives, a lot of these unconscious biases aren’t there as we drive forward. Like any organization, you’ve got to have that upfront and center because there’s a recognition that there will always be bias.”
Verity said designing for diversity is a conscious ongoing effort.
“I think it’s extremely important not to just decide, ‘All right, we’re going to make all of our recruitment processes really, really good. We’re going to recruit all of these diverse people’ and that’s the end of it, because that isn’t necessarily the end of it. You don’t just recruit all of the diverse people and say, ‘Okay, now, fit into our pre-existing culture and it’s all really, tick, done.’ You’ve also got to make sure that it is a conscious ongoing process of making sure that voices are heard and that, again, that sense of systemic intervention and being very aware of when you’re sitting around a table, even if you now have got a lovely diverse table full of people, if all the white blokes are still the only ones doing the talking, you’ve got a problem.”
Verity said she does get a lot of hope out of the energy and enthusiasm of younger generation of women, and that social media platforms and technology have helped young feminists to find a greater voice and wider audience.
With the current big push around how to get more women in STEM, Verity said it’s also important to use those social platforms to send out the message that you don’t need to be a technologist to thrive in an innovation-driven economy.
“Like, you and I, we don’t have to be technologists to have great ideas for how we can do things differently in the world and to be enabled by technology and work with people with those skillsets,” Verity said.
She said tapping into the different skillsets and passions of individuals, encouraging creative communication and emphasising technology as a tool for change is the key, because… “what’s the point of coming up with all these brilliant world-saving things if you can’t actually communicate any of them to the outside world?”
It’s these kinds of questions that Verity has been asking as she explores opportunities to drive social justice and diversity at UTS, and considers ‘what is the role of universities in the 21st century?
“What do we actually want to be? Do we just want to be factories that produce workers? Or do we actually want to say that we’re still committed to a public purpose mission, that we want to have collective impact, that we still want to change the world? We want to create students that think differently about the world’s wicked problems… and create world-class research that actually tackles those wicked problems.”
If you have an idea for solving the world’s biggest challenges and creating an incredible tech-enabled business, apply now to SheStarts.
With supporters like Verity and the UTS team, the opportunity to change the world is real.
Photo credit: TheStoryBoxes & Nicola Hazell.