As father to three daughters, Paul Wheelton was well aware that even in Australia his son got a fairer go than his girls. But it was in Bali that he really saw the devastating impact of gender discrimination.
Working to build community centres, orphanages and bring educational opportunities to children in remote Balinese villages, Wheelton was struck by the gender divide. Families sent their boys to the programs Wheelton and his wife Angela had established, while their sisters worked in the fields.
“It’s one of those things you don’t go out looking for, you just discover on your journey,” he says.
That journey has led him to become the first Australian man to join Women Moving Millions with a pledge of US$1 million to organisations or initiatives that benefit women and girls.
Wheelton is now one of a community of more than 250 donors (and one of just a handful of men) in 14 countries who have donated more than US$500 million over the past decade to the quest for gender equality.
But we need to go back to Bali to understand more about the emergence of Wheelton’s gender wise philanthropy. Having “tripped over” the issue, Wheelton went about understanding why.
“We found it was the families pushing the males into our programs because the male is so dominant in their culture,” he says. “And part of it is a wealth thing. When there’s only so much money in a family, it will be the boy who is getting an education, especially the eldest boy.”
Despite a culturally and economically embedded culture that favours males, Wheelton decided to try and bring gender parity to his programs. In the process, he found that economics drove gender bias in Indonesia, at least when it came to education.
“The great thing is I have not met one person who does not want their child to get an education, it’s just that they can’t afford it. The girls are working the fields at the age of 10 and that’s the end of the story.”
By addressing economic powerlessness, the playing field levels.
“The farmer gets a rotary hoe, he gets some fertiliser, the output of the grain increases two or three-fold, the rotary hoe means he doesn’t need the kids to do a lot of the work,” he says.
Wheelton Philanthropy funds 3000 children in remote villages to attend secondary school. Of the 28 young people who have been funded to go to university, all are female.
“Our experience has taught us that the girls are yearning to learn, and more so than the boys. The girls put in an incredible effort.”
Part of the deal for funding their university education is that the students go back to their villages to help teach the younger kids English and computer skills.
“Having those two skills guarantees that those kids will get a job somewhere on the island,” says Wheelton. And as money from those jobs flows back into the villages, economic disadvantage is gradually diminished.
The money, however, is more likely to flow back into the village if it is earnt by a woman.
“The statistics from the UN are that when women work they reinvest 90% in their families compared to 30 or 40% for a man,” says Julie Reilly, noting that in developing countries men are more likely to spend their money on recreational activities.
As CEO of the Women Donors Network, a not-for-profit with a mission to strengthen society by advocating for investment in women and girls, Reilly knows her stats. Only 12% of global philanthropy currently goes to gender-related causes, although with the intergenerational transfer of wealth, there will soon be a spike in the number of female philanthropists. Those slender numbers have had a big impact – when women thrive, communities thrive.
Reilly first met Wheelton at the launch of Impact100 Melbourne, which has a strong gender lens Reilly attributes to the great work of founding committee member Rikki Andrews. Wheelton is a big fan of giving circles. “It’s a great way for people to get into giving. They’ll be game changers these people,” he says referring to some of the Australian pioneers of collective giving such as Andrews and Gillian Hund of the Melbourne Women’s Fund.
Reilly felt that Wheelton and his wife intuitively “got it” and having seen the impact their philanthropy had when directed towards women, their interest was piqued.
But Wheelton’s philanthropy is considered. He doesn’t like to charge in, preferring to assess the landscape, be led by the needs of the community, and then connect the dots.
And so it would be a few more years before the gender lens really came into focus, beginning with a DFAT mission to Bali in February 2016 alongside Reilly and Eve Mahlab AO, the Chair and Co-founder of the Women Donors Network.
Towards the end of that year, Wheelton partly funded a visit to Australia by the President of Women Moving Millions, Ann Lovell, and Chief Engagement Officer, Jacki Zehner. At the time there were two Australian members, but there were soon to be seven pledging US$1 million.
“Then Julie very cleverly introduced me to HeForShe,” says Wheelton of a UN campaign to encourage men to stand together with women in the fight for gender equality. “That triggered something in me, just the whole point of it really resonates with me. If you can have men agreeing with women and travelling on the journey, you are going to get through a lot more doors. And that’s what HeForShe is about.”
Knowing that he could join both these co-aligned organisations and really get behind the cause was the impetus Wheelton needed to commit to Women Moving Millions. He made a decision to join in May and attended his first event, the Women Moving Millions Annual Summit in New York, in September.
Themed “The Power of Community”, that’s exactly what Wheelton found. It’s clear from the animated discussion that he and Reilly, who Wheelton sponsored to attend the Summit, found it a valuable source of inspiration and information.
“You put a group of people in a room who are extremely passionate about trying to change something for the good, the energy that comes out of that is quite extraordinary. Everyone has a story and is doing great things. It was generally devoid of egos. No-one was there to push their own barrow, they were all there to learn more. It was refreshing. Just brilliant.”
Wheelton also enjoyed being in a room where people had no agenda.
“The good thing about it is they’re not telling you where to put your money. You’re still doing what you are doing but you commit the US$1 milion to women and girls’ causes and you’ve got a community to tap into.”
Wheelton is a big believer in his own learning and the wisdom of others. He’s watched the work of the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation and Gandel Philanthropy, how they collaborate and evaluate, and he values the counsel of their CEOS, Catherine Brown and Vedrun Drakulic. Women Moving Millions also ticks that box.
“I always come from the point of view that you don’t know what you don’t know. And because this is a new area for me, I’m like a sponge. I’ve got to get out there and see what others are doing and see who is having an effect and who isn’t. One of the great tools they gave us is a book of attendees and exactly what they are doing in philanthropy. This is like a great encyclopaedia!”
By joining this community of individuals with a common goal, Wheelton says he is not just tripping over issues, but getting the tools and information he needs to understand those issues and focus his giving in a more strategic way.
One powerful insight from the Summit was a presentation on the impact of more women in government. Out of the horror of the Rwanda genocide, during which 70% of males between 18 and 30 were killed, women were given educations and elevated to positions of power.
“It had incredible outcomes on society,” says Wheelton. “They currently have in their federal parliament the highest percentage of women in the world. It’s 67% women. The women in Rwanda are changing that country. They are not going to war, they are not going to kill their kids. It changes the whole dynamic, especially in those places where it seems to be in their DNA to fight.”
Reilly points out that while Rwanda is number one on the global index of government participation, Australia is 49th.
Wheelton was also intrigued by the discussions around gender norms or, as he describes them, the “invisible guard rails” that put women on a set path from an early age, how they perpetuate inequality, and the terrible irony that they are often reinforced by mothers in early childhood.
“We need to change those gender-based norms if we are to achieve true equality and women in their parenting have great influence and opportunity to lead that change,” says Reilly of her take on the discussions.
“It can be lonely at times,” Wheelton says of his philanthropy. “You are on guard all the time, people want your money so you can start building barriers around yourself to keep people away. So to know there is whole a community you can rely on, that’s gold.”
To have someone like Paul a) find value in a funding women and girls and, b) learning more about it, connecting with the community and encouraging others to consider it, that’s not even gold, it is platinum for us,” says Reilly.
“I take on a role in philanthropy as a connector of people. People often ask me about things so if I have more tools and can connect them to Julie then I’m going to be of more value to people,” says Wheelton.
“Paul is Australia’s HeForShe,” says Reilly. She hopes his leadership will help her build a cohort of high-end givers and nurture the next rung – people who may not have $1 million to give but want to get involved. She also hopes it will help strengthen and grow the Women Donors Network so that it can have greater capacity to provide support and education to a community of people who understand the importance of giving to women and girls.
The signs are good. WDN has established a women and girls’ funder group with Philanthropy Australia. In support of this, Reilly is in conversation with Women Moving Millions, which is developing a philanthropic leadership curriculum with support from their membership and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
For Wheelton, he is excited not just for the evolution of his own philanthropy but for the growing comfort Australian philanthropists have with public giving.
“One of the problems of anonymous giving is that you are not engaging your family and your community in what you’re giving, why you are giving and the impact it can possibly have. The more we talk publicly about what can be achieved by what we give, the better off we’ll be.”
Paul Wheelton AO is the founder of Wheelton Philanthropy. He spent most of his career in the vehicle hire business and now devotes much of his time to philanthropy. He has other long-term philanthropic relationships with Life Education Australia and Guide Dogs Australia.
Julie Reilly is a recipient of a 2017 Churchill Scholarship, which she is using to study global models and systems for increasing giving to women and girls.
The other Australian members of Women Moving Millions are Carol Schwartz AO, Deanne Weir, Kerry Gardner, Tanya Nelson Carnegie, Jo Kirk, an anonymous donor and one other soon to be announced.
To learn more about the Australian Women Donors Network visit the website.
To join Women Moving Millions you must commit US$1 million to women and girls over 10 years. To learn more, go here.