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I will always remember what my account director said to me after passing me up for managing a big project.
"You’re too pretty, too young and too female."
The worst part was that he thought he was paying me a compliment rather than leveling a professional insult at me. He’s a gentleman. He likes women. Who knows, he may even consider himself a feminist, although in his mind, this is what supporting women in the workplace looks like.
But good intentions like these are pretty useless if the person in charge still perpetuates the same old prejudices. Bosses like this may be more pleasant to be around than the blokes who think women belong at home or serving them lunch at Schnitz 'N' Titz, but the end result for women in the workplace isn’t a lot different.
In an attempt to address this, Chief Executive Women, representing 300 of the country’s most senior women leaders, have partnered with 21 Male Champions of Change to create ‘The Leadership Shadow’.
In technical terms, The Leadership Shadow is designed to help well-meaning-but-a-little-bit clueless managers lift their game when it comes to gender diversity.
Or, as the promotional material puts it: "The Leadership Shadow may help respond to the practical questions we have had from our peers and teams, particularly: ‘Where do we start?". The answer, we firmly believe, is: "It starts with us."
The model challenges organisational leaders to ask themselves questions like, ‘How am I held to account for gender balance objectives?’, ‘How clear are standards of acceptable and desired behaviours?’ and ‘How consistent are the consequences when standards are not met?’
And it encourages leaders to test their own biases by self-reflection as well as seeking feedback from their staff and peers.
"Let’s not pretend that there aren’t already established norms that advantage men.’ said Gordon Cairns, Male Champion of Change and Chairman of David Jones. "Men invented the system. Men largely run the system. Leaders must confront their behaviour, overcome the biases and focus on true merit and inclusion."
And no, this isn’t just about men. Some women in leadership roles have become so accustomed to navigating a male-dominated culture that they are similarly unaware of their own blindspots when it comes to gender equality.
Women often feel they have no choice but to join the boys club in order to rise to the top. Far from celebrating diversity, they have to minimise it and even pretend to like the status quo. I'm sure I'm not the only woman climbing the corporate ladder who’s agreed to attend a business meeting in a strip club for fear of looking like a killjoy and risking being sidelined.
But the paradox is that once women reach the top, they’re charged with tearing up their boys club membership card and burning the club to the ground.
As Chief Executive Officer of the Jetstar Group Jayne Hrdlicka says, "As a leader you have to unlearn some of what you have been “taught” in order to create an environment which encourages and rewards diversity and inclusion."
Hrdlicka goes on: "It is easier to ensure that what you say is lined up with what you believe, but much harder and more important to ensure that what you do is lined up with what you say and believe."
It’s a fine sentiment and The Leadership Shadow is a commendable idea, but its greatest hurdle will probably be in getting people in the corporate world to embrace it.
The promotional material states, in part, "no-one disputes the need to boost the number of women in senior roles".
I wouldn’t be so sure on that, given the limited progress of female representation on boards, affordable high quality childcare and the pay gap between men and women — not to mention the enormous step backwards for women in politics and public life.
Let’s not forget that there are more women in senior roles at Zoo Weekly than in Abbott’s Cabinet. A lack of self-awareness is not the only thing going on here.
Then again, at least the issue of gender diversity is being talked about seriously. And that’s something for which to be thankful. I wouldn’t mind leaving a copy of The Leadership Shadow on the desks of a few former bosses and a current Prime Minister.
Kasey Edwards is a management consultant and author of Thirty-Something and Over It: What happens when you wake up and don’t want to go to work. Ever Again. www.kaseyedwards.com