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Libby Lyons

Libby Lyons is the Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Libby was listed in Apolitical’s 100 Most Influential People Working in Gender Policy for both 2018 and 2019 and was featured in 200 Women Who Will Change The Way You See The World. She is a member of Chief Executive Women and is a proud Ambassador for Honour a Woman, a volunteer organisation working to achieve gender balance in the Australian honours system. Follow Libby on Twitter @WGEADirector


WGEA has cultivated a world-leading dataset on gender equality. Australia’s most recent gender equality scorecard showed strong growth in employer action – what can organisation’s be doing to improve gender equality?

We cannot become complacent about gender equality.  To see long-term and sustained change we need cultural change and that does not happen over-night. So, the most important thing that employers must do is” keep their foot on the pedal”.  They must collect and analyse their own data and work out where they need to focus their efforts because every business is different.  From there they need to develop a plan and set targets.  They need to implement their plan, measure the outcomes and hold people accountable for these outcomes.  Then, very importantly, they need to present the information to the executive and the board.  We know this because of the findings of the last two Gender Equity Insights Reports which we produced in partnership with the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre (BCEC). The 2018 Report showed that actions to close pay gaps were three times more effective when the results were reported to the executive or board. These organisations saw an average reduction in their organisation-wide gender pay gap of 3.3 percentage points in one year. The 2019 WGEA/BCEC report showed that implementing formal flexible work arrangements and reporting this to the board significantly increased the number of part-time female managers.

Workplaces with better gender balance are more innovative, make better business decisions, retain staff and are more productive.  Developing workplace teams that represent the communities in which they live, is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges currently facing women in the workforce?

I think the biggest challenges we face in achieving gender equality in our workplaces are issues for women AND men.  Because, in order to address the discrimination, bias and problems that women face in the workforce we must also acknowledge and address the discrimination, bias and problems that men face.  I believe that we must continue to effectively communicate and embed the data we collect and the evidence we derive from it into the hearts and minds of the people running Australia’s workplaces.  Over the last six years that we have been collecting data, we have seen incremental improvements in the key gender equality indicators.  Unfortunately though, progress is very slow and this year’s results are at best, modest.  This tells me that boards, executives and CEO’s do not believe the business case for gender equality and that some of what they have been saying in support of gender equality is just “lip service”.   This is disappointing. 

Diversity and Inclusion, and in particular, Gender Equality is a business issue like increasing sales.  We would never suggest to the board that we were tired of focusing on increased sales and so the sales plan for the coming year had been shelved, so why would we do so for gender equality?  So, we all must make a huge and sustained effort to keep the spotlight shining on the issue of gender equality.  We must continue to ask relevant questions of our employers as to what they are doing to drive change in our workplaces and we must continue to tell the stories of employers who are leading the way, who recognise that better gender balance is good for their employees, their shareholders, their community, their country and their bottom line

Can you tell us about WGEA’s recent diplomatic initiatives and how they’re impacting gender equality policy abroad?

One of the really exciting aspects of my job has been the amazing level of international interest in our dataset and our system of workplace gender equality reporting.  Many countries are grappling with the policy challenge of improving workplace gender equality and governments across the world are genuinely amazed at the depth and breadth of our dataset, as they recognise the valuable tool it is for employers and policy makers alike. Australia is unique – private enterprise is driving positive gender equality outcomes in Australia, facilitated by government through the establishment of the Workplace Gender Equality Act and the Agency .  There so much we can share with other countries to ensure better outcomes for women, their families and communities.

I have met with government and non-government representatives from across South-East Asia, the United Kingdom, Europe and South America. These engagements have translated into a few important developments over the last few years most notably in Chile, Mauritius and initiatives in South-East Asia.

Since 2015 I have had significant engagement with the Chilean Government. Over the this period I have met with elected representatives, business leaders and NGO’s to discuss, in depth, the benefits of our reporting model as well as  the process of establishing an Agency such as ours. This has developed into a deep and ongoing relationship between the two countries and has resulted in the Chilean Government commencing work to establish their own workplace gender reporting scheme, based on Australia’s model.

Earlier this year I participated in very busy visit to Mauritius to meet with MP’s, business leaders and civil society representatives. We engaged in a series of workshops to demonstrate the value of our reporting system as they look to address the ongoing gender equality challenges in their own country and its workplaces.

In South-East Asia, Investing In Women, an organization funded by DFAT, will be adapting our resources to assist their business coalitions to drive change in their workplaces. Over the coming months I will specifically work with Investing in Women to support businesses to improve gender equality in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar.

Our international engagement has built strong and lasting relationships and has really positioned Australia as a leader in workplace gender equality policy.  We must continue this important and valuable work highlighting our unique approach.

Looking back on your incredible career thus far, what advice would you give to your younger self who’s about to start their first job?

This is a really hard question to answer.  I started my life as a primary school teacher and all those years ago I would never have imagined the twists and turns my career would take.  However, I think I would tell my younger self to be brave, to step up to challenges that present themselves to you, even when you think they are beyond your capabilities.  It is only in challenging ourselves that we truly realise our strengths, weaknesses and competencies. 

I would also tell my younger self to be prepared to fail – to not fear failure, but to recognise that failure is one of the most powerful learning tools in our lives.  Failure, when managed with a positive attitude, most often leads to success.

I would encourage my younger self to always speak up against injustice in any setting, but particularly the workplace – to tackle bullies head on but always with respect.  I would however caution, that in doing so, I must be prepared for some backlash.  Speaking up, is hard.  There will be times where it will have a deleterious impact on a career and but you will survive the tough times and move forward.  Importantly, I would counsel myself to always be true to myself.  Despite the “knock downs and the “knock backs”,  with a positive bold attitude, careers and life in general has a way of finding new pathways and opportunities.

What characteristics do you think are important for someone who wants to commit their career to public service?  

I think that the best employees and leaders are those that have a broad experience across different roles, industries and sectors.  So, in my mind the best public servants are those that have had different jobs and experience in the private or NGO sectors.  The policies, regulations and laws implemented by governments are almost exclusively introduced for the benefit of the country and its citizens. However, the reality is that all policies, laws and regulations often have far reaching and unintended consequences.  So understanding how the economic engine of our country works in practice (the businesses that keep our country afloat), will help you develop and influence policies, laws and regulations that will be more effective, fair and economically sound.   So the more experience you have in different jobs, sectors and industries the better public servant you will be.  The converse also applies to young people aspiring to a career in the private sector.

Can you tell us more about your work with Honour a Woman, and why it is an important cause to you?

It feel very privileged to be an Ambassador for Honour A Woman.  Honour A Woman is an organisation created to promote gender equality in our honours system. One of the main reasons I feel so strongly about this issue is that I am incredulous that Australian women are only worthy of 25% of our nation’s highest levels of recognition. To me, this imbalance demonstrates the ongoing undervaluing of women’s work and contribution to our country and our communities. 

So many women do so much work to keep volunteer organisations, schools and charities viable. They are the glue in our communities; that keep people together- often for little or no pay. However our Honours system does not adequately recognise the contribution of women. Like many areas of inequality we need to be proactive if we are going to address this imbalance. This is not about diminishing the contribution of men, but ensuring that we are not overlooking the important contributions of women in our society. 

Who inspires you?

There is no one person that inspires me, as I draw inspiration from the people I live and work with and the people I meet every day.  Everyone has a fascinating story to tell, experiences to share and wisdom to impart.  When I take the time to really listen to the people I engage with each day, learn of their struggles, victories and life lessons I am always truly inspired to work smarter, live better and laugh more.

Finally, can you tell us what books are currently on your bedside table?

  • How to be a Dictator by Frank Dikotter – Do not be fooled by its title as it is a serious look at the personalities of modern dictators and how a cult can take hold of a nation.  It is fascinating.
  • The Long Call by Ann Cleeves – I love a good crime novel especially if it is set in the UK. 
  • I am also a lover of magazines and there are always magazines beside my bed, scattered around the house and in my travel bag to read on planes and in hotel rooms – Vogue, Marie Claire, Gourmet Traveller and when I’m feeling weary and “brain dead” Hello and of course the Australia Women’s Weekly

Updated: 03 Dec 2019