Justine Knight has experienced first-hand the loyalty an employee feels to an employer when they feel supported in their caring responsibilities outside of work.
Now with two teenage children, Knight brings this experience into her long career in the diversity space, including now as the first person to take on a dedicated diversity and inclusion role at commercial property firm The GPT Group, as their Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Wellbeing.
She started with the firm a few years after it unveiled a groundbreaking policy to support parents with childcare fees, paying up to $10,000 to support with childcare payments once a parent or carer returns to the office after parental leave.
Appointed to lead diversity, inclusion and wellbeing, and to build on foundations already created to support individuals with carer responsibilities, Knight went on to see GPT accredited as family-friendly through FamilyFriendly Workplaces in 2022.
Knight has also been involved in the diversity space for some 16 years, well before it became common for firms to hire for such roles.
Her first pure diversity role was at Henry Davis York (HDY) just after she had her children, where she learnt firsthand the power of leaders who genuinely support flexible careers. As she went on parental leave, she told her boss she would be taking a year and would like to come back part time, especially with no family in the country, and a husband with a demanding role involving significant travel.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to step away from my career by I just can’t see how I’d make it work five days’, and so my fantastic boss at the time brilliantly managed to craft a genuinely part time role for me predicated around HR project work.”
It helped that HDY had leadership with a genuine desire to address gender balance in the profession. During Knight’s time with the firm Sharon Cook was annointed Managing Partner, one of the first female managing partners of a big law firm in Australia and someone who is known for pioneering opportunities for women in law and opportunities for building careers while working part time.
“She was tenacious,” Knight says about Cook. “I believe she became the first part time Senior Associate at Mallesons (now King Wood Mallesons), at a time when it just wasn’t done. She was someone who saw the need to put time and energy into just what a flexible or part-time position is, and ensuring that people are across what it actually means. She recognised that people may want (or need) to ramp up or ramp down at different points in their career journey to blend career and life priorities and there is nothing wrong in that.
“My position at HDY was the only time I’ve been in a part time role that has genuinely been part time. Of course, while working part time you expect you will need to take occasional calls on your days out of the office – I remember one particularly memorable conference call during which my toddler systematically smashed his way through a dozen eggs on my kitchen floor as I looked on haplessly, but it was certainly worth a few broken eggs to have that genuine flexibility. So often you can end up getting paid 60 or 80 per cent of salary for still doing 100 per cent of the job.”
Knight says part time roles require leaders to put the time and energy into redesigning the role to fit the days worked, and compensation being paid.
“For me, I later realised that part time roles weren’t sustainable for my situation, nor were they sensible financially. I figured if I’m going to be doing the work anyway, I may as well get paid for it. So I ended up (reluctantly in many respects), returning to full time work.
“Now looking back, I do feel passionate about ensuring that where people take part-time roles – and most often it is women who tend to work part time – that the role is resized accordingly, although I think the increase in hybrid working with more flexibility to work from home has been a real game-changer for a lot of those (both women and men) juggling family and career.”
Knight is also passionate about supporting parents who are doing it solo, given the penalties they face, and again her own experiences. She was separated and later divorced when her boys were five and six. While she has always shared the care with her ex-husband, she still had no family or additional support outside of the UK. “It hasn’t always been easy to sort of manage that juggle professionally, personally or financially.”
She started at GPT a little over two years ago, finding their commitment to and impressive credentials in both environmental and social sustainability particularly appealing.
And being the first in a dedicated Diversity and Inclusion and Wellbeing role, Knight immediately saw the opportunities. “I felt I could get in quickly and make some fast changes. They had in place some fantastic foundational work, and I could see how we could take that to the next level.”
One of the first things she worked on was to support the firm in achieving the family-friendly accreditation.
GPT is now at the forefront of property on a number of family-friendly policies, including offering 22 weeks of gender-neutral paid parental leave to both primary and secondary carers – making it “carer neutral”, as Knight describes it. Superannuation is also paid for 12 months, including for both paid and unpaid leave. The policy recognises the different paths the parenting and caring journey can take, and offers support in the case of fertility treatments, fostering, surrogacy, adoption and pregnancy loss.
GPT also offers coaching to new parents before parental leave and on their return, to support their transition as a working parent.
Meanwhile, the $10,000 worth of childcare support also continues following the paid leave revamp in March 2023, with one slight tweak: it is no longer means-tested, so all new parents can access it.
The benefit is payable to new parents as they return to work from parental leave and is based on having a child participating in some form of formal early childhood education.
“It really is a simple, straightforward offer, but something not many other employers do,” Knight says.
“It supports families just as they really start to feel the pinch when you start paying for childcare. But a great byproduct for the business too is that it offers a great incentive for people to stay with you.”
Knight is still pushing for further policy evolutions and family-friendly initiatives at GPT, but as a self-described “seasoned D&I campaigner” she can see how much progress has been made.
But progress on D&I is only successful, she says, if leadership are genuinely aligned around the reasons for doing it and the practice matches the policy.
“You can only get these things over the line when leaders are genuinely aligned around the why behind what you’re doing and ensure that they make these things available to people in practice and make use of them themselves,” she says.
“It’s important employers see being family-friendly as achieving more than something that is about working mothers. The benefits are there for everyone.
“When organisations actually look at the different forms of care their people are doing outside of work – factoring in young kids, older kids, elder care, care for people with disabilities – you have to ask, why would you not want to make your workplace accessible and supportive for everyone, regardless of what they have going on at home?
“So make it easier for them to be successful at work, supporting them to be successful at work. It’ll be good for engagement. It’ll be good for retention. And it’ll be good for your bottom line because those people are then much better able to thrive at work as well as personally.”
Now well into the second decade of having some form of ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusion’ in her job title, Knight believes that employers are now much better at understanding that they can’t expect their people to completely compartmentalise the different aspects of their lives.
“If you want to offer an inclusive workplace culture and a place where people will thrive, you’ve got to help support the person holistically, not just professionally,” she says
You can read more on the return on investment that family-inclusive workplaces deliver for organisations and employees in Family Friendly Workplaces’ recent Bridging the Work and Family Report.
And check out more from our series profiling family-friendly certified employers here.
Originally published on Women’s Agenda.