Interview with Frances Feenstra: One woman’s journey for gender balance and a different world

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In this episode, our The 100% Project host Hilary Lamb speaks with Frances Feenstra, a director of People Measures, an award-winning firm of organisational psychologists, development experts, and industry practitioners who bring growth and rigor to leadership, assessment, talent management, and communications.In the context of today’s conversation though, Hilary will be talking to Frances about her role as the founding chair of The 100% Project.

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Hilary: We’re a not-for-profit organisation, and our vision is to see 100% of Australia’s leadership, potential female, and male equally contributing to our social and economic future. Where are we on the path to this vision? And what has changed since The 100% Project was founded in 2008, by a small group of dedicated professional Australian women? What have the energy and passion of many people achieved over the past decade, and are we making progress?

Today I’m speaking with Frances Feenstra. Frances is a director of People Measures, an award-winning firm of organisational psychologists, development experts, and industry practitioners who bring growth and rigor to leadership, assessment, talent management, and communications.

In the context of today’s conversation though, I’m talking to Frances about her role as the founding chair of The 100% Project. Welcome Frances and thank you for taking the time to talk with me.


Frances: Hi, Hilary. It’s very nice to talk to you today!


Hilary: It’s a pleasure, isn’t it Frances?  I think it’s a great discussion that is overdue between the two of us.  What was your, and the other founding directors, driver, or drivers to create The 100% Project in 2008?


Frances: It really started with an initiative that I founded at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, when I was working there, called Symmetry. It was a way of getting more females to talk with the organisation. The firm really lacked female partnership.

When I left Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s in 2007, I couldn’t take Symmetry with me, because it became product of the firm – as it should have been. And I thought, well but now that I’m no longer a part of PWC, I can do something that is bigger and not owned by anybody.

I got a number of people together, some who had been at Price Waterhouse Coopers with me, and some others who I knew felt the same way I did. Essentially, what that feeling was “well, where are all the female leaders in Australia? There just aren’t enough.”


Hilary: When you created that, was it an easy conversation with some of the founding directors to actually put your passion and energy into trying to make that change?


Frances: No, it wasn’t. The group of women that we initially got together, we all had the same passion. I think what we hoped for, initially, is that very soon after starting, we wouldn’t be necessary anymore. That hasn’t quite turned out that way.


Hilary: I think we would have that same expectation, that we’ll do this for a little while and everything will be fixed. It certainly hasn’t happened that way, and we’ve still got a long way to go.  When you created the organisation, what was your original vision?


Frances: We hoped to be a part of a movement to have a greater share of leadership for women in Australia. Particularly at the very senior levels, because women’s participation in the workforce is pretty well established now. That of course came out of the second-year wave of feminism and the sort of seventies and eighties.

They do tend to still congregate at the bottom end of organisations and, as we’ve found out in COVID times, they do congregate in casual employment. What we really wanted to do was to open up opportunities for women to take up senior leadership positions in Australia. Knowing that we would not be the only organisation working on that, and that we would be part of that effort, not be able to achieve that on our own.


Hilary: Frances, can you give us a snapshot of how big The 100% Project was when you first started?


Frances: The very original board was four people.


Hilary: Can you tell us about the research committee, which plays a really significant role in The 100% Project?


Frances: The research committee has nine members on it at the moment. It does a lot of the research, and then it writes the papers and provides the content if you like, for many of the events, not all of the events, and promulgates and creates debate.


Hilary: Now over that time, The 100% Project has grown to a board membership of nine, and we have a database of between 1,000 and 1,500 hundred.  So, we definitely have got greater influence and have grown quite significantly during that time.


Frances: Absolutely, Hilary. We started with a database of zero. In fact, I think that the initial four board members were the initial four people on the database.


Hilary: It’s really important sometimes to just take a moment and appreciate what we’ve achieved, how far we’ve come.


Frances: Yes, I would agree with you.


Hilary: The other thing that we need to recognise is that we’ve run multiple events during that time, where we released the research that has just been completed by giving an executive overview, an executive summary. And then we have panellists to talk about the research and answer the questions “so what?”. We try and give outtakes and action points at the end of the events for people to take back to their organisations; to drive gender equality locally.

So, Frances, has that always been the case? Did you start with the intent that you’re going to run face-to-face events for people to come and gain knowledge and information?


Frances: In fact, in many ways, The 100% Project probably started with an event before The 100% Project was even The 100% Project, if that makes any sense whatsoever. And I remembered very well. We had an evening at Docklands, which was largely sponsored by NAB at the time, and we had Christine Nixon and Margaret Jackson together on the stage.

We had a fabulous evening that evening, and of course we’ve done other things as well. So, we had a very large event at the RACV club a number of years ago with a Norwegian expert on quotas, called Benja Stig Fagerland and that was a very large event.

So, we had Marty Linsky and a whole bunch of other people facilitating. So, it wasn’t a research based, panel event, but it was a “come and let’s have a conversation about gender balance” with about 150 people. So, we’ve done some really interesting things over the years and I think we must have run at least 20 or 30 events over the years of The 100% Project at least, I would say.


Hilary: We’ve been speaking to a few leaders about COVID-19 and asking whether businesses will still focus on gender equality as their businesses recover from the pandemic. The research that’s been presented, and some of the discussions that have been taking place, around COVID is a lot of women, as you rightly say, have been in hospitality, they’d been in retail. They haven’t been in some of the senior leadership roles that I guess would be more protected during this pandemic; they’ve been retained to rebuild the organisation afterwards. So, it’s been an unequal loss of jobs and roles and income and security during this time, hasn’t it?

The next question would be what has happened over the last 10 years? We have this amazing vision that we want to make significant changes in a fairly short period of time, but it has now been over 10 years since the organisation’s inception.

So, what changes have you seen and what contribution do you think The 100% Project has made over this time?


Frances: We’ve seen some changes. So, if you look at the percentage of women on boards then that has changed in Australia. We have increased numbers of senior females, number of senior females on boards, particularly also of course, because the ASX are released their guidelines, I think probably about 10 years ago now, and that has really moved things along a fair bit.

However, I would say, hasn’t moved along nearly enough and there are still boards that don’t have any women. There are certainly not all that many female CEOs in Australia in the ASX 200, and so there’s a long way to go.

At the time we started The 100% Project, McKinsey did a report and said it would take to about the year 3023 before there would be gender equality in senior levels.

I saw another report the other day that says it hasn’t actually changed that much, it’s still going to take about a hundred years, so the bad news is, Hilary, that it probably won’t happen while you and I are alive.

What has The 100% Project contributed?

We’ve certainly contributed to the research, practical applied research, about what is going on in Australia. There’s a lot of very good academic research out there, but often academic research doesn’t get translated into the business as fair, so it has done that.

It’s had a number of very successful events. And I think, look in the end it’s about the more people you can get to talk about the issue – you need more people talk about it, get more traction, get a better outcome. I think The 100% Project has been at the forefront a number of times.

First to take on the issue of quotas and to have an opinion about that, and to do research on that, and then to have a look at how does leadership, and particularly certain models of leadership, contribute in organisations in terms of better gender balance.

So. I think we have contributed, for an organisation that gets no mainstream, no funding whatsoever and does most things really on a shoestring, it has contributed significantly, but there’s a long way to go.


Hilary: Yes. There’s a long way to go when you talk about still a hundred years before we get equality, which is not going to be in your, or my lifetime. That’s a scary thought, isn’t it? And it’s not really a great legacy that we leave for the upcoming generations of females and of males, because whatever happens in an organisation with the females, that also reflects on how the males work and what sort of workplace they experienced as well, and what – housework, childcare, et cetera – what that creates for them.


Do you think that original vision still holds true?


Frances: Yes, I do. I think the difficulty at the moment, you made a comment before about as businesses come out of this COVID pandemic, will there still be a focus on diversity and on gender balance? And that’s a difficult question. I personally believe that if we had better gender balance, at all levels in organisations and at all levels in society, that we probably would have a different world. So, issues such as climate change would probably look different, because more diversity around the table means better decision making. So yes, the vision would be the same and of course often what you get is people saying yes, but diversity is not just gender.

I agree with that, but I would say that if you can’t make it happen for gender, then you probably can’t make it happen for any diverse group because in the end of course, women make up slightly more than half of the population so it seems rather astounding we take up such a small, percentage of leadership positions.


Hilary: There’s been quite a bit of, research that is showing that organisations led by an equal number of men and women is more successful than female-led organisations, and more successful than male-led organisations. So, it seems to demonstrate that you need to have that diversity in different thinking, different perspectives, different understanding of your customers to be able to come up with the best decisions.

Evidence does suggest that there remains much to do with regard to gender equality and gender equity. So, thinking about The 100% Project and the issue in general, what, if anything, do you suggest needs to be different to accelerate the gains made? Do you think we can accelerate this pace of change by doing anything differently?


Frances: I think one thing we probably could do better as an organisation is to have more younger people involved, and I’m not sure that we have always caught the eye of the people that we need to bring in and have a conversation with. I think the work that we do is good and I think also often we preach to the converted, and so there’s probably a conversation to be had about how do you actually bring people in who don’t feel this way because they are the ones that we need to talk to.

Exactly how we do that, because in a way I am who I am, and I am the age that I am, and I know what I like. I like reading The Age on my iPad, but I’m guessing that’s probably not the way of the future.  I think we need to have more younger people involved, and I think we need to have more younger men involved. What is a lack of opportunity for women I think it’s a strait jacket for men, and bringing them in, and listening to them, and finding out what’s important to them and how we make it less threatening for them.  Not so much about what are we going to take away, but how do we understand younger people, women and men, better is probably something we could do differently, going forward.


Hilary: Another piece of research that is coming up is about “Loss”. Can you tell us a little bit about that, Frances, because you’ve been obviously heavily involved?


Frances: In any change effort, we tend to focus people on the good outcomes. When we talk about quotas, we say to men, “look, there might be more women at the top as a result of that, but actually that’s going to be good for you too.  So here are the reasons why this will be good for you”.  We talk about people resisting change, but really by and large people don’t resist change, certainly not if they perceive that change to be beneficial.  We don’t react against somebody giving us a new car, or winning the lottery and that’s change.

However, what people tend to resist. It’s not the change per se, but it’s the lost a day thing is associated with that. So, if we can actually realise what is it that we’re asking men to lose and what is it that we’re asking women to lose as well?

We do have to incur a loss that is associated with how we think about ourselves, what our identity is, the time we might be able to spend at home to the way we think of ourselves as mothers and spouses and so loss is really important. Loss is important to understand, so you understand what you might do to mitigate a loss for people to get them to come on the journey with you.


Hilary: I asked that question specifically, because I was talking to a group of younger men, not that long ago and I was quite surprised at the vehemence, at least one or two of them showed when talking about quotas and what they perceived they were losing. So, opening up that conversation and really digging into how people are feeling about that, particularly men, but also women as you rightly point out and really getting under the hood of what that thinking is and then being able to respond to it is really important.

And that’s why I value so much the research that The 100% Project is continually delivering, and some of it is quite controversial and I think those open conversations and differing points of opinion are really important to be had so that we can try and move forward.


Frances: I agree. If you look at the current times that we live in and you look at young people, young people of both genders, and then you’d have to say there are many opportunities that you had, that I had, that people 10 years ago had, it might look a little bit more strange now.

So, people coming out of university, it doesn’t quite look as exciting as when I finished university. What are their employment opportunities? Where are they going to go? All the talk about airlines closing, laying off people in hospitality and in some big businesses, the tension with China, what is that going to do?

Climate change – what is that going to do to our economy? And to all those questions that they’re surrounded with, and then on top of that, we’re saying to young men, “Oh, and by the way, we’re going to increase the pool of people that you’re going to be competing with, because that’s what we’d like to do.”

That’s probably not such a fabulous message for them so I can understand, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t do it and I’m not suggesting that’s not the right thing to do. And I was just saying that it’s not what I want, it’s very much what I want, but I can understand why they would find that threatening and difficult to hear.


Hilary: Putting yourself into their shoes, it’s not hard to understand that reaction. One of the questions that I was posing to some of our interviewees just recently came from Melinda Gates, and I haven’t got the exact narrative in front of me, but she was talking about as we start to rebuild after COVID, we should be putting women at the centre of a lot of our strategies and initiatives, because guess what, they’re already at the centre.

So, she was talking about the fact that women are starting small businesses, women are running the home, they are caring for the children, they’re probably doing the home-schooling. Also, they’re trying to work. So, she’s saying that we should be asking more of our leaders in the future and we should be prioritising women’s issues and rebuild organisations around that. And I think she was talking more about things like flexibility, things like potentially part-time work, understanding their perspective.

I totally agree with her. She’s been a fabulous supporter of women and women’s issues, and generally also puts her money where her mouth is. I do think women are much more at the centre of everything that we actually give them credit for.

But what I was saying before, was that is a difficult message for men and maybe particularly younger men who haven’t “made it” yet. So, we just need to be mindful that as we do that, we don’t leave people behind and we don’t leave them behind to become resentful, because I think we can put women at the centre of things in a thoughtful way.

So, Frances, I want to ask you about the name of The 100% Project. When I joined, it was quite clear that. you had a great vision to involve not only women, but also men in the conversation about women rising to senior leadership positions. This was before the ‘Male Champions of Change’, before all of the other male-led organisations.

So, what prompted you to do that or to recognise that men needed to be involved in this conversation and why half of the research that we produce is actually about men?


Frances: So, the vision is to see 100% of Australia’s leadership potential, female and male, equally contributing to our social and economic future. So, it’s very clearly social and economic future, because our view was from the beginning that women were not well-represented in organisations and certainly not in organisational leadership, but by the same token, men were not well represented at home and in not- for- profits and in community organisations and things like that. And that actually meant poorer outcomes for both sides of the equation.

So hence The 100% Project, because it was about capitalising on 100% of potential in Australia, be it male or female, but across the whole spectrum and not have people congregate in one area or another. Children benefit from having fathers at home; organisations, not-for-profits benefit from having diversity.

If you only have women sitting around the boardroom table, that’s not ideal either. So that was never our vision, it was never a takeover bid. It was a, let’s share and let’s share on both sides of the equation based on where people feel most at home. We believe that some women are ambitious, want a career, want to be at the top of the organisation and that will be as many women as there are men who want that.

And we also believe that there are a number of women who would actually prefer to maybe have a part-time job, spend more time at home, but that there are men who also would value that; it’s just our society doesn’t value that so it makes it very difficult for them to do that. So that’s the reason why ‘The 100% Project’ and that’s also the reason why we focused on men, yes, probably before the Male Champions of Change came about.


Hilary: So interesting having this conversation that my mind is already thinking, maybe we should focus more on that messaging for men? We obviously take the stance at the moment that we want to promote more women into senior leadership positions, but there is going to be a see-saw effect with men needing to take up more of the home duties, the aged-parent care, child care, et cetera.

And I’m sure a lot of men don’t voice that because research says that they won’t be taken seriously at work. So perhaps some of our messaging should be more related to the benefits that men will ultimately get out of this slight shift in workplace dynamic.


Frances: Of course, it’s not just a workplace dynamic. Imagine if you grow up believing it’s not good for you to cry, because that makes you not a real man, or it’s not good for you to feel sorrow or it’s not good for you to be kind to other people. It’s no wonder we’re in such a mess if that’s how we raise boys, and we give them all those messages, right from the word go.

How incredibly depressing it is to have such a constricted range of being allowed “to be” if you like, to not be able to fully deploy yourself. And then that goes for women too, because of course, as soon as women are allowed to be all of those things – kind and compassionate and they’re allowed to cry – but when they do, well, they are ‘weak and not really suited for leadership’, so there goes your opportunity. And if women are ambitious, ‘my God ambitious women, they’re totally scary and not really what we like to see in women’.  So, it’s incredibly restrictive on both sides.


Hilary: Absolutely.


Frances: And that is if we’re talking about men and women, and we’re talking about binary gender, and of course we know that’s not the case, so there’s a whole other group of people that we’re not even talking about here.


Hilary: During different conversations about COVID and recovery, business recovery after the pandemic, we’ve talked quite a bit about silver linings and potentially the working from home, which creates more flexibility for women and for men, people getting closer, because if you’re on a Zoom call or a Teams call you can actually see inside their homes.

So, you’re invited into somebody’s home as opposed to seeing them in the workplace. There’re quite a few silver linings that will come out of this and ultimately there may be more. Do you think that COVID will necessarily be beneficial for women’s causes, or do you think it will push them backwards?


Frances: Well, much of that, of course still remains to be seen, but the early signs I would suggest are maybe not all positive. It’s certainly the case that there’s research already coming out and saying that women are spending more time home-schooling children, more time doing housework because of course there’s more housework to do, because there’s more people running around that house, actually being at home and so there’s more work to do that gets picked up by women.

There is of course the issue of more women having lost their jobs, their income, and because they’re in casualised employment, and how many women have taken early superannuation option? And women are highly congregated in small business, so whilst a number of them are starting up, of course, a good proportion will also be going, will be closing down. I agree with the potential silver lining around flexibility as long as that is really the case, and of course we don’t know that yet.


Hilary: Once you see inside somebody’s home, you get a little bit a better understanding about them as an individual, you personalise that relationship a little bit more and you become maybe more empathetic about anything that any of the challenges that they may be facing.

I do appreciate your point that there are so many small businesses that are started and run by women for various reasons, one of which you can do it in the time that works for you rather than as dictated by a corporation. I think it will take time to rebuild those businesses.

That is one issue that I think will be something that needs to be addressed, how to support women financially to get back on their feet again.

Frances, do you feel proud of what you achieved, you and your co-founders, and the contribution that The 100% Project has made during those 10 years?


Frances: Yes. The short answer is yes. And I’ll tell you why.  When you start an organisation, a very small organisation, because you’re having a conversation and it seems like a sensible thing to do at the time, what is of course incredibly humbling, is that then there are other people who want to take that fight up and continue that on.

The calibre of the current board is incredible, and the fact that group of people, of course, very ably led by herself, and want to do that. And that the organisation still exists and going from strength to strength after 12 years. Yes, that’s certainly, I think, something to be proud of.


Hilary: Thank you.  I appreciate that.  I totally agree that the passion and the drive and energy that has been put into the board by many people over that period has been quite extraordinary as a volunteer organisation.  I certainly have been very proud of the board since I’ve been on it.

We’ve talked about The 100% Project and the size of the organisation. I don’t consider that we’re a large organisation. We get people coming to our events, buying tickets, so obviously they also feel passionate about the topic that we’re presenting at that particular point in time. Our database would probably run to between 1,000 and 1,500 people, but I don’t believe that you necessarily have to be somebody on our database to support what we’re doing, support our vision and to combine with us, to help, to drive gender equality.

What do you think about that Frances?


Frances: Look, I totally agree with you. I think it is a small organisation, but I guess that might depend on what is small; is that the number of people. That you have, or is it the amount of influence that you can wield and the people that you can call on? So if you think about the people that  The 100% Project has had speaking at events, running seminars, doing research, contributing to research, and then I think, yes, it’s not a large organisation, but it certainly has spread its wings.

Lots of people know about it. And there is quite a large pool of people that the organisation can call on to make things happen, so again, I think from that perspective, it certainly has grown quite a bit.


Hilary: I would agree with that.  I think that the benefit from some of the work that we’re doing is that we can collaborate. We’re all hoping to make ourselves redundant as soon as possible and there is equality in the workplace and elsewhere. But there are a lot of organisations doing similar things and that collaboration obviously increases our voice.

I really appreciate you talking to me today. Was there anything else that you wanted to add before we finish?


Frances: I would say for anybody who’s interested in gender balance in senior leadership, then go to The 100% Project website, and support us either by making a donation, or becoming a volunteer, or just becoming a champion on the database.


Hilary: Great message to finish on. Thanks so much for your time today, Frances. I really enjoyed talking with you.


Frances: Thank you too. And thanks for inviting me.