Tipping the Balance
Tipping the balance
There are times when it feels as if Australia is the natural habitat of the successful woman. In September 2010, for instance, when our female governor-general swore in our female prime minister. Or last month, when Gina Rinehart, the mining magnate who has trebled her personal fortune to a cool $10 billion over the past 12 months, officially became the country's richest person. We've got women running our banks, editing our newspapers, heading up our scientific bodies and leading our academic departments. Even the word Australia (provided you're reading in Latin) is feminine.
Then somebody meows at a female government minister, or suspends a young female military cadet just as she learns that her sex life has been broadcast over theinternet by her male colleagues. And you have to wonder whether we're doing as well as those super-successful women's achievements might suggest.
Look beyond those few glitteringly powerful women leaders and glum statistics present the broader picture. Just a quarter of Australian MPs are women; for university professors, the figure is also about a quarter, and for company board directors, it's only about 10 per cent. (It's not just at the senior levels that women get a raw deal, either: across the country, women working full-time earn 17 per cent less than men - the equivalent of working an extra 63 days for the same pay.)
Diversity gives an organisation more perspective on the world, and it's also good for profits: the US organisation Catalyst found that Fortune 500 companies with high levels of female management perform, on average, more than 30 per cent better than those with the lowest. So why, when there are women at the top of virtually every Australian profession, are their overall numbers still so small?
"It's madness - not just in terms of fairness and equity, but also in terms of productivity and increasing our national competitiveness - not to be better utilising theleadership abilities of Australian women," agrees Kate Ellis, the federal government's Minister for the Status of Women. And the very top jobs, she believes, are not theonly ones we should be looking at. "I think it's really important that we also focus on women's promotion right through the middle ranks of organisations into middle management, into senior management."
Ellis's ministerial powers are vital to redressing the balance, but she readily admits "legislation alone can't bring about change". The tangle of issues that challenge women's career progression is much too complex for that.
Straightforward misogyny still exists, although to a great extent it has withered in the face of years of legislation. "Early in my career, I think it was just assumed that if you were the woman coming into the room you'd be making the cups of tea for everybody," says Katie Lahey, a director of David Jones and the managing director of executive-recruiting firm Korn Ferry (Australia and New Zealand). "I think that's changed now." But subtle, often unintended gender bias still exists: "Companies still encourage golf days when the majority of women don't play golf, so they're excluded from those sort of things."
Naseema Sparks, who holds three directorships and is former managing director of M&C Saatchi, insists that "women are very well respected in leadership positions - there just aren't that many of them". But she also describes the kind of casual pre-meeting conversations that leave out those who don't, for example, follow the AFL - more often women than men.
Nicknames also allow stereotypes to creep in. "Julia Gillard has joined the throng of wonderful women who have been called 'Iron Ladies'," says Lucy Taksa, the head of Macquarie University's business department. "Of course, we know Margaret Thatcher. There's [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, 'the Iron Frau'. Vice premier Wu Yi was referred to as the 'Iron Lady of China'. Liberia's president, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, and her cabinet were called the 'Iron Ladies' ..." Then there are variations, like former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the "Titanium Lady".
Female leaders' nicknames often mix masculine and feminine elements, says Taksa. "Women [leaders] are in a really awkward position," she says. "If they adopt some of the masculine traits, they get criticised for being masculine and less than women. But if they don't, they are not conforming to our expectations of an assertive, 'masculine' model of leadership."
To make matters worse, how women are perceived isn't always a reflection of the way they act - as US researchers discovered when they asked students at Columbia Business School to appraise the CV of entrepreneur Howard Roizen.
Roizen is the kind of director every ambitious company wants. He's worked for Apple, launched his own software company and been a partner at a venture capital firm. He's outgoing, an incredible networker (Bill Gates is a personal friend), and described by colleagues as a "catalyst" and a "captain of industry". The students judged him to be effective, likeable and someone they would hire. The only thing is, Howard doesn't exist. Heidi Roizen, on the other hand - the CV's real owner - does. But students who read Heidi's CV judged her more selfish and less hireable than Howard, even though she was viewed as equally effective.
Underlying this sort of judgment, says federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, is a "belief barrier", to which mothers are susceptible. "We believe that good mothers are always with their children. It doesn't matter what you're doing when you're there - if you're with your children, that's what a good mother looks like." In addition, she says, we believe the ideal worker "is available 24-7, has no visible caring responsibilities and is usually male".
"Structural barriers", such as the cost of childcare or provision of parental leave, also matter, Broderick says. But "workplace barriers", the cultural issues of how business is done, are more awkward: "The really senior jobs are only done one way. That is, you have to be there not just five days a week but more than that."
Sparks, who has one adult son, agrees that bringing up a child while forging a career was at times very difficult. "Mums will always feel an element of guilt: we're not doing enough, we're doing too much, we're overcompensating ... Bringing up a child, and travelling a lot, having a senior-level career, is actually quite hard." Katie Lahey believes not having children gave her "flexibility in terms of workplace hours". Twenty or 30 years ago, she points out, women "either decided to have a career or children, whereas what we're encouraging women to do now is to try to manage both."
Motherhood doesn't necessarily hold women back, points out Anne Ross-Smith, professor of management learning at Macquarie University. "If you look at thedemographics of women who have made it to senior positions - well-known women in this country - some of them have families and some of them don't." But she agrees that "the complexities of the domestic sphere" have a huge influence on working life.
In Australia, women spend an average of over five hours a day on cooking, cleaning, gardening, childcare, making cups of tea for elderly relatives and other unpaid tasks. For Australian men, it's around half that time. And I'd be willing to bet my last squeegee that while childless couples spend less time on unpaid work overall, most women still do more than their partners.
But before we rise up in fury at this injustice, women should remember we can be part of the problem. Mothers, Ross-Smith says, are often "unwitting accomplices" inthe domestic patterns which distract them from their careers. She describes interviewing a businesswoman about why she didn't ask her partner to collect the children from school. "Her answer? 'Well, I'm the mother, and actually, mothers are expected to do that.'" For single women, things are perhaps easier; for single mothers, even more complicated. But for women with partners, the message is clear: if you want an equal footing with men at work, you may need to modify your sense of duty at home.
"When we talk about gender equality, we need to recognise that that's about men's experiences and opportunities as well as women's opportunities," Ellis says. "We hear all the time from Australian men who would like to play bigger roles in the unpaid work, bigger roles in their households and with their families. But they feel there's a stigma about them accessing flexible work - that it's seen as a lack of ambition if they choose to go part time."
While men struggle to pull back from office life, many women have the opposite problem, says Ross-Smith - "a reticence, a reluctance to put yourself forward". An interviewee, a senior woman working in the public sector, once told Ross-Smith, "We call it 'girl disease'." She's used the term ever since.
Girl disease, reticence, lack of confidence or simply being "risk-averse" - while nobody interviewed for this article considered women to be innately less ambitious than men, everybody recognised the phenomenon. But it's clear women want senior roles, Ellis argues. "Last year, we opened 70 positions in partnership with the Australian Institute of Company Directors," she says. "Across Australia, we had 2000 applications from women who believed that they were ready to go on a board."
Measures are already in place to help get women into leadership roles. ASX-listed companies have already been asked to set targets for female directorships, and small improvements have been made - from 8 to 10 per cent. Whether something stricter is needed is still a controversial question. Lucy Taksa highlights Norway, where companies must meet a 40 per cent directorship quota. "But in the universities, where there are no quotas, their percentage of women professors is basically the same as ours." Naseema Sparks, however, believes "the heavy hand of government and legislation could be counterproductive" - the line Ellis also takes.
Mentoring is more widely accepted. "Women tend not to do the asking, they tend not to put their hands up [for promotion]. So often they need champions and advocates to push them through," says Claire Braund, executive director of the advocacy group Women on Boards. "Performance counts for about 10 per cent of getting promotions, image is about 30 and exposure is about 60. One of the key things we say to people is that you need to be networked."
Ross-Smith suggests businesses appoint a supervisor to encourage talented women to apply for senior jobs; simpler and "much cheaper". For Lahey, it's vital that women in business speak up. "If I go along to an event and I find there are no women speakers, I always say to the event organiser, 'Don't you think it looks strange in this day and age to have no women on that panel?' ... And when [organisers] ring women, women have to be prepared to say, 'Yes, I will be on that panel.' It's a two-way street."
In fact, it's more like a complex motorway interchange: strong government legislation is essential, as is transparent business practice which allows women to fulfil their potential. But to change the face of our workplaces, the balance of domestic life for both men and women also needs to change.
Unsurprisingly, both Ellis and Broderick highlight legislative advances, such as government monitoring of companies and a new amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act to help men take advantage of flexible working hours. Some governments are taking things much further: in Sweden, 60 days of a couple's parental entitlement must be used by the father. But we're unlikely to see such measures in Australia any time soon. "It's not the role of government to be dictating how people raise their families and how they spend time with their children," Ellis argues.
If women with children are to take senior roles, then flexible working hours clearly matter. Some suggest senior men should be encouraged to work shorter hours and spend time with their families.
"But who gets them to do it?" Ross-Smith asks. "The organisation can put policies and practices in place, but unless organisational members enact those policies and practices, then you're not going to get the cultural changes that are necessary. And the idea of some outsider coming in and imposing a cultural change that will suddenly send senior males home at six o'clock is a rather simplistic way of thinking about things. It's a bottom-up change."
It's also a household-out change. The fact that men earn more than women for doing the same jobs is a huge stumbling block. But having it all - a successful career and a happy home life - doesn't have to mean doing it all. Do you need to do the dishes and pick up the kids, or do you need to talk to your partner about how it gets done? Do you need to ask for a raise or put yourself forward for that promotion?
And what about the old-fashioned sexism - the catcalling and other playground tactics? The Penny Wong approach of shouting back is, in the short term, pretty effective. But in the longer term, women need to put themselves forward for senior jobs. "We want people not to even notice anything unusual about the gender of our leaders and I think increasingly that will be the case," says Ellis. As Australia's youngest ever minister of either sex, she probably understands that better than most. "If you work hard and you do a good job, maybe it makes things easier for people who come after you who may not fit the mould."
From Sunday Life