It was another event where a bunch of men sat on stage patiently explaining to a group of women executives, directors and business owners why many of the barriers they met were due to female failings. And it proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
" It’s time, in fact to start looking at the men who by and large still make the rules and set the agenda."
Catherine Fox, Author, journalist & BlueNotes guest editor
Like many commentators on the stubborn problems and inequities women encounter in paid work, I thought this particular reasoning had slid quietly down the list of default explanations for the gender gap. But as the panel conversation continued in the same vein, my neighbour, an accomplished woman executive and director, leant over and whispered: “They’re blaming us.”
The idea women bring a set of deficiencies to the workplace, including an innate lack of competitiveness, risk taking or assertiveness, has been around for years.
It offers a comfortable and far less disruptive rationale for the sexism many women face than looking at bias in basic rules and attitudes. And it puts the onus on women to solve the problem while ignoring the impact of the attitudes and behaviour of the other 53 per cent of the workforce – men.
We’ve spent years examining the problems with the supply but not the demand side of the equation. As Martin Parkinson (former head of Treasury and now Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet) told me, his penny dropping moment on these issues was realising they had been treating the symptoms and not the cause of gender imbalances.
From Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to ‘lean in’, to another mentoring program for senior women or seminars on building confidence or speaking up at meetings, workplace responses to gender inequity have focused on trying to fit women into existing male breadwinner norms.
The deficit model, as it is dubbed, holds out the false promise that tweaking individual behaviour will effectively counter systemic problems. At best the results have been lacklustre.
At worst, this approach has distracted from taking action to shift the norms and practices that are the real culprits.
The reason this approach has come back into favour, paradoxically, may have a bit to do with the increasing attention from by a growing band of powerful men, including the Male Champions of Change group.
Diversity is at least on the serious business agenda these days and concrete steps, such as targets for women and obligatory reporting on gender, have been introduced. But there’s been plenty of backlash from some employees who feel these moves are, paradoxically, unfair and will leave them worse off.
But the male advocacy that so annoys some employees is also the circuit breaker needed to tackle the backlash and to stop fixing women. It’s time, in fact to start looking at the men who by and large still make the rules and set the agenda. They don’t just run the system: they are the system.
With all this in mind I set off to pull together my case for change by examining the extent of the workplace preoccupation with fixing women and its consequences; and why the efforts to address gender inequity in organisations have to involve men – all men – to make any meaningful progress.
Here are some key findings I unearthed:
• Blaming women for their own marginalisation doesn’t make much sense but it doesn’t disrupt the status quo: women in just about every walk of life simply don’t have the formal power to be the architects of their own misfortune.
There are so few women running ASX200 companies (as CEOs or chairs) you can easily name them. The number of women LNP MPs declined in the last Federal election to just 17 per cent on the benches.
Women in the law are underrepresented at senior levels, the same with surgeons and in the ADF and police.
The few women who do get to the top run the gauntlet of double standards about their performance and behaviour – just think about the treatment of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard for example.
And when women do behave assertively or actively support or recruit women they are often penalised – as a major US study recently found (In fact only white men can overtly support diversity and escape penalties but they are usually not rewarded for it either).
But by telling women to shape up or ship out the basic rules and norms that workplaces operate on are not challenged. And the idea everyone gets ahead on merit – a highly subjective concept often revolving around a series of traditional masculine characteristics – needs to be confronted.
• Sending women to empowerment workshops will not break up the old boys’ club: There has been a strong appetite in many corporates to syphon women off to mentoring, confidence boosting or public speaking workshops.
There’s nothing wrong with these efforts if they are open to all and if they are not claimed to be an answer to structural sexism. But unfortunately that’s usually not the case.
In fact, many studies show women face penalties for behaving more assertively. Meanwhile, research quoted in the book show shattering the glass ceiling is not going to happen from below but above – when the powerful men who appoint directors to boards and executives to the top office look beyond their own networks and assumptions about who can do the job.
When their access to privilege is acknowledged and they take steps to ensure merit is clearly defined then progress is possible.
Remedial work on women doesn’t involve men and fails to take into account that often women’s behaviour (not speaking up in a meeting) is a coping mechanism: it’s the effect not the cause of discrimination.
• Pay gaps are not the result of women’s lousy negotiating: The gender pay gap remains around 17 per cent in Australia and although this is a high level statistic (women’s average weekly earnings as a percentage of men’s) and the gap varies depending on jobs, age, sectors, it is often explained away as a result of women ‘choosing’ certain occupations (which are lower paid) or failing to ask for more.
But this reading fails to acknowledge a bleaker reality –women’s works is not valued as highly as men’s. Feminised occupations have lower salaries than those that are male dominated and a major US study of two decades of census data found when a sector became feminised the pay dropped, and when it was masculinised pay went up.
Blaming women for opting into nursing or community services jobs ignores the realities of accessing steady work that is flexible, accessible and tolerable. And here’s the thing about nagging women to speak up for a pay rise – the latest data shows professional women in Australia have no compunction about asking but they get a pay rise 25 per cent less often than men.
More pay audits are needed to make sure gender bias that sees women streamed into lower paid roles, getting less experience and going nowhere after parenting leave, are analysed and addressed.
If you want to change the way the workplace operates you have to change the people running the show: the growing trend for male advocacy in workplace gender equality isn’t flawless but it is a step in the right direction and can have a conversion effect on the sceptics.
The men who actually get this and are intervening to remove bias can have an impact on their peers and help galvanise action. While he was CEO of transport company Aurizon, Lance Hockridge took a range of steps including employing an entire apprentice cohort of all women.
CEOs like Paul Anderson at Network Ten are working flexibly to provide role modelling at the top. The efforts at Treasury identified and addressed a pattern that saw women graduates more likely to be streamed into relationship than analytical roles. But action like this is not an easy path.
As Simon Rothery, CEO of Goldman Sachs Australia told me, when he promotes senior women he knows it ruffles many feathers. But it’s his job, he said, to identify and nurture talented people.
As I discovered, the idea women are in need of fixing has almost become a truism. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Robyn Ely, Pamela Stone and Colleen Ammerman pointed out “at a certain point the belief that a woman’s primary career obstacle is herself became conventional wisdom for both men and women, yet framing the conversation this way doesn’t reflect reality”. (‘Rethink what you “know” about high-achieving women’, Harvard Business Review, December 2014).
We need to stop recycling this old trope and not just for the benefit of women but for all workers. It’s not helping and it’s wasting time, money and attention badly needed elsewhere.
Drawing men into the process of change makes sense but is strongly resented and resisted which is why leaders have to out in front ensuring the message is heard.
Instead of telling women they have to do all the adjusting to fit into existing norms it’s the workplace and broader economic frameworks that need to change. Men run most of our organisations so they need to help change them too.
Turns out the best people to break up the old boys club are the boys.
Catherine Fox is an author, journalist and guest editor of BlueNotes