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David Morrison: The middle-aged, white male status quo is hard to shift

June 15 2016 By Lieutenant General David Morrison AO (Retd), Board Director

Progress for women at work has been glacially slow. Australian of the Year David Morrison sat down with Women’s Agenda to talk shifting the status quo.

Former Army chief David Morrison can count on one hand how many meals his wife has cooked in 16 years. Exactly four.

“I’m happy to go on record and say that,” he told me when asked if, as Australian of the Year, he sees sharing the division at home as an important message to promote with men.

“We have a beautiful split of responsibilities,” he said. “I absolutely do believe that change starts in the home and I think that sharing domestic chores and responsibilities is absolutely fundamental.”

Morrison sat down with Women’s Agenda and the Co-Chairs of Gadens Women Connect, Helen Ord and Stephanie Nicol, in the lead up to a talk he gave at the law firm in Sydney. He was there to share his own personal turning point of realising the need to promote a culture of inclusion in the Army, efforts which famously culminated in a public YouTube clip urging those who can’t accept women as equals to ‘get out’.

Asked more specifically why progress has been so slow for workplace gender equality -- despite efforts from initiatives like the Male Champions of Change (which he’s served as a member of) -- Morrison conceded he too is disappointed.

“I just think that the status quo is proving to be really difficult to shift, and the status quo is middle aged white men who’re in positions of authority,” he said.

Morrison believes those men are not necessarily the ones at the very top of the corporate tree – where he sees a growing number of ‘enlightened men’ – but rather one level down. They’re holding on, and they’re proving themselves as resistant. They hold onto ideas of a ‘meritocracy’ that doesn’t actually exist, while traditional career paths across many industries continue to favour men over women.

There are many hurdles still in the way for women, Morrison said, including the gender pay gap, which, “shouldn’t be beyond the wit of modern men and women to solve”. Unless we aim to seriously change workplace practices around flexibility, merit and pay, our future will look very similar to our past.

So whose responsibilities is it to make change happen, if those at the top have the will but are still struggling to find – or at least enforce – the way?

Morrison says more men need to speak up, but adds he’s conscious of his friends in the feminist movement who note that women have been speaking about this for decades. They’ve maintained the faith and made a number of fundamental changes to not just the professional world, but our society also.

“I’m very conscious of not impinging on the work they’ve done,” he said. “Nonetheless, men listen to other men and I think there is definitely a role for men in positions of responsibility to see the world differently and to try and make a change during their tenure.”

Morrison believes Australia is at a tipping point. The business case is being heard and in most cases believed.  It’s hard to open a newspaper without seeing articles written about the importance of diversity and its link to productivity and better decision-making.

Most big organisations and their leaders get the why, what’s needed now is the how. “It’s tough. You can put as many policies in place as you like but if you haven’t actually engendered a policy of change, you’re talking to yourself in a closed room, with the lights off.”

He said we all need to “find the language of change”, something that’s been a key revelation for him. “I realised we needed to stop talking about altruism. Stop talking to other people by saying, ‘we need to treat you as well as me’ because you think that appeals to the better part of our human nature. That doesn’t actually help too much. People don’t do things for your reasons, they do things for their own reasons."

Instead, we need to continually demonstrate the business case – to show how diversity of thinking, for outthinking your competitors, outthinking your legal battle – only happens when you create a better diverse and more inclusive workforce.

“It’s all about the bottom line,” he said.

With plenty of men gathering in a Gadens function room to hear Morrison’s own story of enlightenment, I asked what men can actually do to help encourage diversity and inclusion. Morrison didn’t hesitate on his response:

“Open your eyes. Open your ears,” he said. “Start seeing issues that you have probably never looked at before: such as around merit; around how we select talent; around how we keep talent in our organisations, around how we conduct ourselves in our personal lives.

“And open your ears,” he continued. “Start listening to women. And to men and women who haven’t had the same path in life as you, those who’ve had many hurdles in their way that you haven’t had in your way. You’ve got a lot to learn when you start hearing and seeing those things.”

Meanwhile, it’s also on political parties to make change he said, noting that Parliament should better reflect our multi-cultural life.

As we end the conversation, Morrison puts it in the context of domestic violence. It’s a complex issue, he said, but one with foundations in gender inequality and the socialisation we receive from birth.

“I think we need to change a number of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves,” he says.

“Some of that needs to go to who does the cleaning and the washing and, in my case, the cooking at home.”

Click here for more information about what men can do to prevent violence
This article was first published by Women's Agenda on 1 June 2016

Media contact

For enquiries or further information: Hannah Grant, Our Watch, mobile 0448 844 930, email Hannah.Grant@ourwatch.org.au

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“If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.”

About Our Watch 

Our Watch’s (previously the Foundation to Prevent Violence against Women and their Children) purpose is to raise awareness and engage the community in action to prevent violence against women and their children.
Our Watch was conceived of and brought into existence in 2013 by the Commonwealth of Australia and the State of Victoria. The Northern Territory, South Australian, Tasmanian and Queensland governments have also since become members of the organisation.
Our Watch’s work derives from the government’s commitment to the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010 – 2022 and gives expression to many of the activities in the Second Action Plan 2013–2016 – Moving Ahead.