Women have always spoken up about the bias and sexism they faced but now they are being listened to as an international wave of activism has surged: from the women’s marches to social media campaigns like #metoo and #timesup.
"Women are showing they now have the means and the numbers to help each other and press for progress”
Locally based campaigns added to the momentum: #CelebratingWomen, founded by company director Dr Kirstin Ferguson, and the Stemminist bookclub for women working in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine, founded by Dr Caroline Ford. Both have built major audiences and attracted members from Sydney to Berlin, Capetown and New York.
This overt support has done more than trigger an overdue reckoning on harassment. In one fell swoop women’s testimony is finally helping to remove the onus on them to prove that sexism exists, not just in isolated pockets, not just for the lower paid, but right across the spectrum, in workplaces and the broader community.
The upshot? Women’s voices have been legitimised and some core myths have been busted as they visibly support each other. Instead of waiting around for workplaces to acknowledge and eradicate bias women are calling it out and backing each other.
This is a circuit breaker. As I wrote in my book Stop Fixing Women the tendency to not only blame women for their own marginalisation but expect them to continually prove it exists has been hampering diversity efforts in organisations for decades.
Money, time and effort has been wasted in compliance driven measures that simply haven’t seen more many more women moving into leadership or the pay gap substantially reduced - and have failed to address systemic bias. Estimates suggest US corporations spend a staggering $US8 billion annually on diversity training although there is little evidence to show positive results.
Instead of consistently vetting recruitment and promotion practices, how jobs are allocated and pay set, many organisations have relied on the idea women need to be more assertive or improve their networking.
But the recent spate of action suggests women have no lack of skills in either area; and they are fed up with their concerns being ignored or trivialised. If their male peers are not interested then women are showing they now have the means and the numbers to help each other and press for progress.
While frustration at the painfully slow progress helps explain some of the impetus, it’s also clear that access to social media – so often, paradoxically, the arena where women have faced vitriol – has been pivotal.
And a range of online efforts before the current crop, such as #everydaysexism from the UK and #destroyingthejoint in Australia, have paved the way for the latest versions by showing the impact of these flourishing communities.
The bigger picture, of course, can’t be ignored. Political shifts around the world, some of which threatened to curtail hard won reproductive rights for women, has been a core motivator for action in recent times. Indeed, the massive women’s marches held internationally were organised in response to the Trump election in late 2016.
All of this activity has also skewered the idea that women were not interested in backing each other up, hearing each other’s stories, and were mostly hard wired for cattiness or turn into Queen Bees once they climb the ladder.
Tell that to the women enthusiastically reading online profiles posted every day of last year on #CelebratingWomen. These were no superstars but everyday workers from every corner of the world, whose jobs and lives fascinated and inspired other women.
It’s not as though this kind of support and advising between women is something new. They have always congregated and swapped notes in workplace networks and in book groups, investment circles, mothers groups and a range of business forums. But the real power of this has often been hidden under the radar because of backlash and ridicule.
Now the lid has blown off and women are publicly sharing - and backing the brave women who speak up about harassment.
Just what this means for workplaces is still evolving. A number of businesses have registered the impact of these campaigns through communications to employees reiterating their policies and codes of conduct about harassment and bullying. But my bet is the upshot will come from a much more profound lesson from this year of women’s voices.
Asking one women to prove, for example, she has been harassed or faced bias, is very different to questioning the credibility of thousands. With quantity comes legitimacy and ideally, less pressure to continue proving the case for addressing the gender gap in organisations.
That’s when the issue moves from the margins to the core business agenda which, despite much talk simply hasn’t happened in many organisations. Legitimising the case for change has to involve men too, with their key role as allies and calling out poor behavior by their male peers.
Women bypassing traditional power groups to support their own careers is truly disruptive. But the steps to make progress throughout organisations are already well known, and don’t involve a search for the latest breakthrough or innovation, as the new head of diversity for Uber, Bernard Coleman III argued recently.
As he points out we already have lots of effective measures but they need to be properly implemented – this is less about innovation and more about intention.
According to the latest research on diversity by McKinsey (surveying 1000 companies from 12 countries) there are several areas where companies can improve if they want better diversity outcomes, including leadership accountability for meeting goals and coherence and prioritisation of action plans.
Social science tells us that the norms of society shift because enough people in the mainstream have changed their thinking. And sometimes what seems to happen overnight is actually what’s called a ‘norms cascade’ after a series of long-term trends produce a sudden shift in social mores, according to academics Joan Williams and Suzanne Lebsock.
We saw this recently in Australia with support for same sex marriage. This didn’t emerge from a single campaign but from many of us over many years listening to and supporting the rights of a community.
In 2018 the evidence is clear. Women are pressing for progress in unprecedented numbers.
The motto of the suffragettes for a century ago lives on in the impact of the marches, the campaigns and the online revelations: deeds not words. That’s what we need now.
- Catherine Fox is currently writing a book with Dr Kirstin Ferguson on the #CelebratingWomen campaign and the wave of action by women to support each other and press for change. It will be published in September.
Catherine Fox is an author, journalist and guest editor of bluenotes
The art in this story - and our entire IWD coverage - was illustrated by Sarah Wilkins.