Posturing vs practices: why companies must walk the talk on IWD

University of Melbourne logo with purple wash

It’s not the sort of news anyone wants to see on International Women’s Day; the University of Melbourne decried for awarding honorary doctorates only to men over the past three years.

A recent press release announcing the awarding of honorary doctorates came with a photo of recipients proudly standing in their silken robes, and every one of the smiling six was an ageing white man. The timing of this news was especially impactful on 8 March, and it’s something the media was well aware of when breaking the story.

Impactful, it sure was: Snow Medical Research Foundation, the largest organisation of its type in Australia, has now suspended its multi-million-dollar fellowship program and cut ties with the university until it can prove a commitment to gender and cultural diversity.

While the original release stated that “three women and an Indigenous man” were also to be awarded in the future, these people were not named or shown in any related photos. Making matters worse was the choice of an image completely antithetical to the spirit of the day and the times, more broadly.

Chair of the The Snow Medical Research Foundation, Tom Snow commented: “The message being sent is that no matter how hard you work, men will be rewarded ahead of you." A salient reminder of the power of optics.

When it comes to reputation, timing is critical but performance is crucial. Also on this year’s International Women’s Day, numerous high profile corporates were called out for supporting the day, while large gender disparities existed within their organisations.

One UK Twitter account went viral after naming companies whose proclamations didn’t match their practices.

Developed by Francesca Lawson and Ali Fensome, @PayGapApp is a bot that levels a challenge in its bio to companies worldwide: “Employers, if you tweet about International Women's Day, I'll retweet your gender pay gap.”

And it did, hundreds of times that day to a rapturous and growing audience - revealing organisation after organisation whose window dressing couldn’t obscure the damnation of their own hourly median gender pay gaps.

In an interview, Francesa Lawson reflected that its success is a measure of the public’s demand for transparency. And in the digital age, people expect solid proof, too. “We want you to tell us how you’ve identified your problems, what you’re doing to fix them, and if you have something to shout about, if you’re doing really well - well, show us the data.”

According to Icon Reputation Director, Mark Forbes, the multitude of companies proclaiming ‘purpose’ and jumping into social issues must be able to demonstrate they have their own house in order - both in business practices and treatment of staff. “It’s admirable to further social justice and speak out about purpose, but if your performance doesn’t match your pronouncements it will have severe reputational consequences,” he said.

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