#WomenInFinance Are Fighting for Fairness — An Interview with Eva Scheerlinck, CEO, AIST
Many social justice movements — from abolition to workers’ rights to the right to vote — have been powered by women. In striving for fairness, equality and liberation, women have changed the very nature of the world. It was that commitment to social justice that took Eva Scheerlinck from personal injury lawyer to CEO of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees (AIST).
How did your time as a personal injury lawyer lead you to the world of superannuation funds?
Even though other people might think “wow, personal injury into superannuation seems a bit strange,” for me it was an easy transition from a values perspective. As a personal injury lawyer I was able to help one person at a time, which was great, but I wanted to have an impact on the broader community. This got me really interested in policy, so I started doing social justice work. I eventually became interested in superannuation as an area of public policy that could bring about real change. I was working with another industry association when I met Fiona Reynolds, one of AIST’s previous CEOs, who helped me see why the system is so important and how it benefits all Australians. Working in legal policy or social justice is about trying to create a fair and equitable system for everybody, and it’s the same in the superannuation industry.
You were appointed CEO of AIST in March 2017. Has anything about the role surprised you?
I can’t say anything about the role has surprised me, but what has challenged me as I’ve transitioned from a governance role within AIST to the role of CEO is the vast number of areas that you have to deal with every day, and how every day is so different! I am heartened by the level of commitment AIST’s member funds have to the members of their funds. It has become increasingly clear to me as I spend more time with the executive teams of our super funds that the member is at the center of everything. Remembering it’s about people makes my job much easier and it’s an absolute pleasure to be representing them.
Working in legal policy or social justice is about trying to create a fair and equitable system for everybody, and it’s the same in the superannuation industry.
Conversations about wealth inequality are only getting more and more heated. How does the Australian superannuation system provide for greater fairness and equality?
There is often a lot of talk in the Australia media that we need to ‘stop tinkering’ with super to give people certainty. While I understand that concept, at the end of the day the system is still not perfect. When superannuation was designed 25 years ago, it was designed for a very different workforce than what we have today, or the workforce of the future. We need to make changes around the edges in order to improve the fairness of the system and adjust for societal and workforce changes.
For example, right now there is a $450 monthly threshold from a single employer in place. That means until you, an employee, earn at least $450 from a single employer, they are not obligated to make a super contribution on your behalf. This means people who are working multiple casual jobs, gig workers and the self-employed will all be missing out on super contributions.
This is possibly one of the biggest challenges going forward: How do we make sure that these people are not left behind? How do we make sure that 40 years from now they don’t become a drain on the Age Pension because we didn’t think it was important to include them? For policy makers, I think it’s a really important for us to fix it now, before it turns into an even bigger problem.
You are the chair of the Indigenous Superannuation Working Group. What brought you to that group? What has the group been focusing on since it launched?
What really attracted me to working in that space was my passion for social justice and looking after vulnerable groups. I was very fortunate that both of the previous CEOs of AIST were happy to encourage me in pursuing my personal interest while realizing that we do have indigenous consumers with bespoke needs.
The first thing this cross-industry group of not-for-profit and retail funds set about doing was to acknowledge that we need a joint approach to fixing some of the problems inherent in our system, and in our legislation, which make it harder for indigenous members of superfunds to engage with their superannuation. One of the early areas identified as very challenging for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members was the need for identification when accessing a superannuation benefit.
The Anti-Money Laundering / Counter Terrorism Funding identification requirements had been set so high in our superfunds (obviously because you don’t want the wrong people accessing your money) that it had made it almost impossible for some indigenous people to access their own funds. We looked at how we might be able to give superfunds a level of confidence that this was the person to whom the money belonged, even though they didn’t have access to a driver’s license, a passport or even a birth certificate (because their birth may never have been registered).
We worked with the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) to change the guidance around these requirements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It was a very big piece of work, and if applied properly, it can make a huge difference for people in that situation. Also, it doesn’t just apply to indigenous people; it can apply similarly to migrants and refugees who don’t have access to the right paperwork. Now the guidance is out from AUSTRAC and our next challenge is getting it embedded into the everyday processes of the superfunds so there is some sort of process when an indigenous customer is having problems with proving their identity.
AIST is heavily involved in the Mother’s Day Classic charity walk/run. You even dyed your hair pink! Why is supporting breast cancer research so important to you?
Personally, I had a grandmother who had breast cancer twice. She ended up having a double mastectomy and lots of complications years later. So I saw the personal suffering and the heartbreak of her experience.
One of the things that I love about the Mothers’ Day Classic is that all the money raised goes to breast cancer research, so all the people diagnosed today don’t have as horrific an experience as my grandmother did a couple of decades ago. Also my Dad’s best friend, who is a man, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Breast cancer does impact both men and women, but unfortunately there can be a lot of shame associated with having breast cancer if you are a man.
AIST’s involvement came from the founders of the event, Louise Davidson and Mavis Robertson, two women who are very important to AIST. As an organization we have been proud sponsors of the event since the beginning. It’s now the biggest national fun run in the country and the highest single fundraiser for the Breast Cancer Foundation.
As a woman, what sort of challenges have you faced in your career?
Like most women I’ve encountered discrimination, whether conscious or otherwise. I’ve certainly sat in plenty of meetings and offered my views only to have a man later repeat the same idea and it be lauded as the greatest idea ever. It can be really difficult if you are the only woman in a setting to call out unconscious bias, but when you can, it is important to name it. This type of situation can be very difficult to cope with, but maybe that’s why as women we are so incredibly resilient — because we persist and eventually people do recognize talent!
Another challenge or habit that women have is to apologize before they say something. I think we should be less apologetic. Our thoughts and our contributions are as valuable as anyone else’s.
I’ve been very fortunate in that this is my second CEO position so I haven’t been stopped from advancing, but even today you can still encounter an anti-women bias and men don’t even know they are doing it! As an industry, we have to work together to demystify what working in investments means and create workplaces and cultures where women can participate, and also become leaders in that space. Hopefully it won’t take as long as the glacial pace of change up to this point.
If you could give some advice to your younger self, long before the world of finance was on your radar, what would you say?
I was very much a humanities student at school, and while I was OK at mathematics, I didn’t particularly enjoy mathematics or science subjects. So I would probably tell my younger self not to be afraid of the financial services industry, there are lots of career opportunities that don’t require you to apply a mathematical brain. There is plenty room for humanities-focused people.
This is one of the things that surprised me the most about being in superannuation. It almost doesn’t matter what you studied at school; there can be a role for you in the superannuation industry because it’s so broad and it’s just getting bigger all the time.
Topics: Superannuation Funds
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