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Head of UN Women's National Committee says meritocracy is a myth

09 Dec 2013

The Executive Director of the Australian National Committee UN Women and a University of Sydney Business School alumna, Julie McKay (EMBA 11), says the widely held view that women and men are treated equally in a merit based system of employment and promotion is a "myth".

Speaking at a Connect over Cocktails alumni event, Ms McKay said that while a merit based system might seem fair, it is heavily influenced, perhaps unknowingly, by preconceived notions of men and women and their roles in society.

"Merit is an equation of performance and potential," she told her audience of former Business School students. "Potential is by its nature subjective and in the context of merit, usually accessed by men."

For example, Ms McKay said that when a woman seeks a promotion or asks for a pay rise, she risks being seen as overly ambitious and arrogant but when ambition is talked of as a male quality, it is considered to be "important for leadership".

"I spent the first eight or nine years of my working life trying desperately not to be identified as someone who was ambitious because I was concerned that it would affect my future career prospects," Ms McKay said. "Now, I am proud to be an ambitious young woman and it is a quality that we all need to encourage in the teams that we manage."

Ms McKay was appointed to head the Australian National Committee of UN Women in 2007 at the age of 23.

UN Women is a United Nations agency that works in more than 80 countries worldwide to promote gender equality including economic security and access to decision making and leadership roles at all levels. The National Committee exists to support UN Women through fundraising, advocacy and campaigns which challenge traditional gender norms and attitudes.

Ms McKay says that ending violence against women is a major priority as is access to education.

"Education is critical to achieving gender equality," she said. "Educated women have children later, achieve better health outcomes for themselves and their families and are able to contribute to better development outcomes for their communities."

But, she said, that in order to achieve gender equality it is also necessary to educate men.

"There is a fear that the empowerment of women will somehow dis-empower them," Ms McKay said. "The biggest challenge is to educate men to understand what equality means to their mothers, their daughters and their sisters."

In 2011, Ms McKay completed the Business School's Global Executive MBA course with a Scholarship for Excellence in NGO Leadership. As part of the Global Executive MBA program, she studied at Stanford, London Business School and the Indian Institute of Management.

Ms McKay has since been honoured with a University of Sydney 2013 Young Alumni Award for Achievement and was a National Finalist Young Australian of the Year in 2013.

She is now a member of the Executive Committee of the newly formed Business Alumni Network at the University of Sydney Business School.

In a article headlined 'Fabulous At Everything Age', Harpers Bazaar recently included Ms McKay in a 'portfolio' of influential women considered by the iconic magazine to be "changing the world, challenging old orders and inspiring the next generation".

The article also featured Jessica Mauboy, Leigh Sales, Sophie Holt, Ita Buttrose and Carla Zampatti.

When asked during Connect over Cocktails about the advice that she might offer young women as they consider their future, Ms McKay said they should believe in themselves; surround themselves with people who challenge them and support them in equal measure ambitious.