Taking the talking stick away from the men

When sociologist Dr Margaret Byrne filmed hundreds of hours of business meetings for her PHD on leadership 16 years ago, she discovered women’s voices were often ignored or silenced by interrupting men.

“This is one of the issues that women drew my attention to all the time,” she says.

" To this day, I am gobsmacked by it. It is that gender stereotype that is all pervading."
Libby Lyons, Director, Workplace Gender Equality Agency

So much has changed since 2000 — a time when you needed a bag to carry your mobile phone and social and professional networking had to be done in person because Facebook and LinkedIn hadn’t been invented yet.

Compared to then, we now have around three times as many women sitting on the boards of ASX200 companies, with 23.3 per cent of positions.

However, other things have refused to budge, or worsened. The gender pay gap is a couple of percentage points higher and the growth of the proportion of women in leadership seems to be always described as 'glacial' (which is wrong, because the icebergs are melting faster). Margaret Byrne is still having the same conversations with women who feel unheard at work.

“I would love to be able to say that, now, in 2016, women never talk about these things anymore because they are just not an issue,” she says. However, as recently as last week, it was the main cause for complaint among a meeting of 200 women in banking and financial services.

“There was a sea of hands and it was [brought up] over and over again — it was about getting a turn to speak,” she says.

Byrne says this struggle to be heard is what a blokey management culture looks like in practise.

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

Australia has one of the world’s more masculine working cultures. Pic: Shutterstock


Australia has one of the world’s more masculine working cultures, ranking 16th among 50 countries, according to research by Dutch social psychologist, Geert Hofstede.

A masculine culture is broadly described as being driven by competition, achievement and success. It is about being a ‘winner’. A feminine culture values caring for others and quality of life.

At a ranking of 61 (out of 100), Australia sits behind Japan at 95, Germany and the UK at 66, South Africa at 63 and the US at 62.

However, our working environment is more masculine than those of our near neighbours, South America and Northern Europe: New Zealand 58, Hong Kong 57, Canada 52, Malaysia 50, Brazil 49, Singapore 48, Israel 47, Indonesia 46, Russia 36, Thailand 34, Denmark 16, and The Netherlands 14.

The maleness of Australian organisations stems from this country’s colonial history when, among the European population, men outnumbered women at a rate of two to one, says Byrne, principal consultant at UGM Consulting.

“The masculine bias of the traditional Australian ethos, captured in the culturally unique term “mateship” is seen as a function of such conditions and of the fact many men depended on other men for companionship,” she says.

Byrne says it is not just women who are disadvantaged in a masculine work culture. Men who don’t fit the mould, or who have a different cultural background or sexual orientation, can also find themselves struggling with it.


And, even though the working culture in the US is measured as slightly more masculine than Australia’s, a history of affirmative action there means a framework was put into place to counteract bias against women and other groups, usually defined by race.

This is why, when American executives come to work in Australia, they often remark on the lack of women in high level meetings.

Byrne says resistance to affirmative action policies, such as quotas for female representation at work, come from a mistaken belief all Australians come from the same starting position. It is the myth of the “even playing field”.

“In Australia, we have always operated on the merit principle. But, of course, the real problem is the merit principle is so poorly understood and badly practised.”

The CEO at professional organisation Women in Banking and Finance, Amanda Dobbie, says she has talked to many senior leaders in the finance sector who are genuine about increasing female representation, but are being sabotaged by recalcitrant middle managers, who have their own self-interest at heart.

“A lot of senior leaders are trying to open the door a little bit. They are being undermined by their middle management and they probably don’t know why they are being undermined,” she says.

Change takes consistent work on processes and procedures, she says, “otherwise, you start going backwards”.


Dobbie has always worked in the finance sector and knows quietly getting the job done is not enough to get women noticed.

“You will absolutely, definitely not be noticed,” she confirms. Rather, you have to point out your strengths and this is a harder task in a non-inclusive culture.

“You’ve got to be very good at your job, and you have to be very assertive in asking for feedback from your colleagues. You have to be very assertive in pushing for whatever your next steps are, which might be as simple as making sure you have access to decent client base, or getting the next promotion.”

Dobbie says finding colleagues you can develop good working relationships with and to look out for people who can sponsor your career.

“I think women tend not to [do these things],” she says. “I certainly didn’t in blokey environments because it is intimidating and you are on the back foot. Sometimes they [bosses] are really surprised when you say you want a promotion or are interested in running a team. They never thought you would be, it had never occurred to them.”


In terms of trying to ensure equal pay, Dobbie says it is difficult to make an argument when you don’t know what they people around you are earning.

It is not regarded as acceptable for people to swap this information, she says. “It becomes tricky to present that.”

The director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Libby Lyons, is still stung by her experience in a previous job when a man who reported in to her was given a sign-on bonus three times the size of hers — because he had a wife and kids to support.

“I am talking a considerable sum,” says Lyons who had a son of her own and has been the primary breadwinner in her family. “To this day, I am gobsmacked by it. It is that gender stereotype that is all pervading.”


Leadership consultant Avril Henry, says some organisations are just not serious enough about changing their culture.

“A construction company that shall remain nameless brought me in to advise them on the establishment of a diversity council and their diversity strategy,” she says.

“They sent women along to our women’s leadership program and, then when 40 per cent of the 30 got promoted, or asked for a pay rise, or left to go to a more senior job somewhere else, they decided the program, unofficially, had been too successful.”

“To me, that is not a genuine desire for change.”

Henry says she hopes younger generations of men who treat women as equals and young women with financial independence will create a more equal working culture.

Fiona Smith is a freelance journalist who writes on leadership, specialising in careers, management and company culture.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

editor's picks

19 Jan 2016

The reality of the role of women in business

Tania Motton | ANZ General Manager, Business Banking Australia

Do we need more women in business? Clearly, yes. The evidence shows a more balanced gender and diversity mix better represents communities and consumers and helps not just business outcomes but governance.

11 Apr 2016

From Hanoi to Melbourne, eating to help the hungry

Tracee Hutchison | Writer, TV and radio broadcaster

Inspired by her volunteer work with a pioneering social enterprise in Vietnam, Rebecca Scott has become one of Australia’s most innovative and successful social entrepreneurs, building STREAT from an idea to provide hospitality training and employment for young people into a sustainable and profitable food service business.

20 Jun 2016

Refugees: crucial to Australia’s success story

Tony Nicholson | Executive Director, Brotherhood of St Laurence

The refugee journey is part of Australia’s success story and has helped shape its multicultural