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Featured Leader: Dr Janin Bredehoeft on unlocking potential through gender equity, diversity and inclusion

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Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) has been empowering gender equity, diversity and inclusion through its tertiary education and research programs since 2014.  

As the only Australian organisation licensed to grant awards under the internationally recognised Athena Swan Charter, SAGE aims to establish true and long-term gender equity, diversity, and inclusion in Australia’s tertiary education and research sectors. 

Third Sector News interviewed Dr Janin Bredehoeft, CEO at SAGE on how fostering gender equity, diversity and inclusion can unlock an organisation’s potential.  

  1. Given the advancements in equality, how does fostering a culture of gender equity, diversity and inclusion positively affect institutions?

Where to begin? Building gender equity, diversity and inclusion unlocks powerful potential in organisations, beginning with happier and more productive employees. People perform at their best when they feel valued and respected, and can access the same rewards and opportunities as their co-workers. They’re also more likely to stay. Anyone who has had to replace a staff member will know how costly the process can be in terms of lost time, money and corporate knowledge. 

Equitable, diverse and inclusive organisations also have an edge when it comes to attracting talent. A strong culture of inclusion and belonging is a powerful drawcard, especially in today’s candidate-driven labour market. Unlike some other nice-to-have benefits, it’s also something that organisations of any size can offer. 

By breaking up the homogeneity of our workplaces, diverse and inclusive teams drive greater innovation and creativity. It contributes to a deeper culture of questioning, recognising new opportunities, and coming up with unusual solutions. By making a space where it’s safe to be different, we create a place where people can do their work differently. 

People are increasingly seeking out organisations that do this well, and where they can bring their whole selves to work. When they’re looking for a new role, or building partnerships, or making an investment in a project, they want to know, “is this an organisation that actively promotes social justice and inclusion? Does this workplace value women and gender-diverse people as much as men?” I think over the coming years we will see leaders recognise all of this and treat gender equity and diversity as part of their core business, a key benchmark of their success. 

  1. As CEO of Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE), what are some of the significant challenges you and your team have had to overcome?

Some real progress was being made to improve diversity and inclusion in Higher Education and Research when COVID arrived. It placed the sector under some particular and immediate stresses. The result was we saw gender inclusion being pushed further down the list of priorities, just at a time when women and gender-diverse people were being disproportionately burdened by layoffs, lockdowns and new workplace and social pressures. 

SAGE was able to help the sector shine a light on this challenge. During the pandemic, many SAGE subscriber universities wrote and signed a Joint Sector Position Statement on preserving gender equity as a higher education priority. This kind of collective decision-making and collaboration helped keep GEDI on everyone’s radar during a difficult time. 

The key challenge for us now is to motivate the sector to make up for the lost momentum, especially as so much of the workforce is feeling burnt out. We’re working with leaders to recognise how far they’d already come, and return to building on those earlier successes. SAGE also supports communities of practice among our subscriber organisations, and that is helping the sector to navigate a constructive path forward: there is still a long way to go, but we are on this journey together. 

  1. As a previous Research Advisor and Analytics Executive Manager, what experiences can you attribute to your success as a leader?

As an economist my answer might be unsurprising: we can’t overestimate the value of good data. When working with decision-makers, I find data brings them along on a journey – it helps address misconceptions, show us what is really happening, and convince people that action is needed. 

Data is driving change in our institutions – it not only provides the evidence we need to motivate engagement, it’s also the guardrail keeping us on track as we measure our progress and identify what’s working and what’s not. 

But storytelling is also important – it’s easier to change hearts and minds when you have a clear narrative about what the numbers mean. We need to ground data in the human experience, recognising differences and not letting complexities be overlooked. 

In my experience, success is also about planting seeds for the longer term. If we want to see real change and progress, we need to invest in our future leaders. Recognising the strengths in my staff and developing their potential has immediate benefits for the whole team by building skills, confidence and impact. But just as importantly, it ensures that when new challenges emerge, we have great people ready to step up and meet them. 

  1. What future objectives do you have for SAGE?

Our goal is broad: we want to support the higher education and research sector to be the best it can be for gender equity diversity and inclusion, and a model for other sectors. These are the workplaces expanding our understanding and laying the groundwork for our shared future. The success and strength of the sector is something we should all be invested in. 

That means generating and promoting investment in workplaces where everyone can thrive. We need diverse environments that better reflect our communities. There is no one-size-fits-all solution: this will demand approaches that work differently for different people in different organisational contexts, recognising the intersectional barriers to change. It will demand deep engagement to make that happen. 

Systemic change is going to be crucial. Our accreditation program guides institutions to achieve that at an organisational level, but they don’t operate in a vacuum. So we will be building strong relationships and working closely with other influential bodies in this space, including funding bodies, regulatory bodies and peak bodies. None of us can achieve meaningful systemic change in siloes: community and collaboration are key. As the government’s review into Diversity in STEM progresses and releases its findings later in the year, we expect to see more evidence underlining the need for this systemic approach. 

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Menchie Khairuddin is a writer Deputy Content Manager at Akolade and content producer for Third Sector News. She is passionate about social affairs specifically in mixed, multicultural heritage and not-for-profit organisations.

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