At the end of 2019 a wave of depressing data showed progress in gender equity has stalled. I recently asked women from workplaces around Australia what would help them tackle sexism and bias: the answer wasn’t more confidence.
The number of women CEOs of ASX200 companies dropped this year, and the latest scorecard from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency found the pace of change towards gender equality in many organisations was ‘modest and uneven’.
And in December we discovered Australia has dropped to 44th on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (we were 15th in 2006).
Given all this, and with women making up about half the workforce, with just as good (or better) qualifications than men in this country, surely it’s time to ditch the banal idea that if we buck up, speak up and lean in the problem will simply disappear?
We’ve been fed this ‘advice’ for years and it hasn’t delivered. That’s why I concluded (in my book “Stop Fixing Women”) that most of this stuff is not only a faulty diversion, demoralizing and backfiring on women, but worst of all it has left the status quo of power, gender and bias unchallenged.
In fact, as I suggested, it’s not women who need fixing, it’s the workplace.
When I got the chance a few weeks ago to ask women in businesses around Australia what they thought about being told to fix themselves up or suffer the consequences, I jumped at it.
Turns out this mixed group – lawyers, accountants, bankers, from agriculture and the public sector, in family businesses, entrepreneurs – of different ages and backgrounds were up for a robust discussion about gender dynamics in their jobs.
Far from the picture often painted of women lacking backbone, ready to opt out or collapsing in an emotional mess, I found the opposite. They didn’t always agree but they were pretty fed up with being told to act like a man.
The discussions at these events, hosted by CommBank’s Women in Focus program for some of their business banking clients, revealed a few key themes:
Confidence is not the problem
Forget the popular idea that it’s all about lack of confidence. Most of these women had a clear sense of their skills and what they could contribute. But they regularly faced gender bias about their abilities, which were questioned far more often than male peers. When they failed to speak up at meetings it wasn’t due to less chutzpah but because they rarely got a word in (see below).
And the same stereotypes meant they heard plenty of weird contradictions from unsolicited advice. Many had either tried to negotiate a promotion and got nowhere or found they were unaware of being under-paid or how to tackle the issue without backlash. The conclusion: be wary of simple ‘solutions’, trust your own judgement and the advice of other women (and enlist male allies).
If there was a topic that came up more than any other this was it: women from across the board told stories of repeatedly being interrupted or having their suggestion or questions ignored in meetings and discussions. And that included CEOs and law firm partners.
Most were fed up with being told to speak up only to then get consistent critical feedback when they did. One woman found this happened repeatedly and realized it seemed to be only directed at her. She finally asked her manager if any of the men she worked with were getting the same ‘help’? He acknowledged this was not the case and the unhelpful feedback stopped.
Some had worked out how to use their supporters around the table to amplify each other’s voices – either through repeating a woman’s suggestion and using their name or directing questions to each other. And some found empathetic male colleagues who intervened to ensure a woman could finish what she was saying.
In fact, pointing out the contradictions in typical ‘advice’ for women – the gap between rhetoric and reality – to the boss or colleagues had sometimes helped as a circuit breaker. So did plain old fashioned respect, and rules that made sure everyone in a meeting got a say.
Asking for money
No surprise there was animated discussion about the gender pay gap, with some blaming women for failing to ask and others seeing it as a result of benign neglect. Most agreed there were still steps needed to make pay rises fairer. But it was startling to hear how some had found out by accident that they were underpaid.
One woman, a CEO with decades of experience, found she was paid substantially less than her mostly male peers in the sector when the board conducted a review. Her chair seemed surprised too – and quite shocked when she asked “it couldn’t be about gender, could it?”
Others found it hard to believe the problem was anything other than women failing to negotiate or ask for more.
But the consensus was that most women learnt they needed to keep an eye on their pay to make sure they were fairly recognized and rewarded. No-one else will do that for you, they agreed. Raising the topic was not easy but advocating for regular gender pay audits rather than taking the step on your own made sense – and could avoid backlash.
Ambition and parenting traps
There were plenty of reports about dismissive attitudes to women’s aspirations along with assumptions they were less likely to want a move up the ladder – and did;t work as hard. This was despite the reality that many women were the main earners in their family and continued to do most of the housework . Plus more voluntary jobs too.
One woman of many years experience in a professional services job said all the pro bono jobs and committees in her firm were filled with women, and they were expected to do this on top of their paid work.
Meanwhile, it may be illegal but plenty of women were still reporting that questions during job interviews or performance management discussions included whether they had plans to start a family or take time off for caring – or even retire.
Most found they could deflect the question rather than openly confront it. But the fact this is continuing to occur suggests it’s time for some more focus on training and understanding why this shouldn’t be part of formal interviews.
Sisters are doing it for themselves
And there was another theme that kept recurring – many of the women, regardless of their rank or workplace, wanted to help the women coming after them to succeed.
This certainly gave short shrift to the idea successful women are all Queen Bees who are only concerned with their own success and ready to stymie other women along the way.
Of course there were stories of encounters with poorly behaved women bosses. But most agreed there’s still an expectation that women will behave better than men, that women in leadership were usually scarce as hen’s teeth and under extra pressure. And we always seem to remember a bad one despite having experienced many lousy men at the top too.
Several more experienced women said they now made a point of publicly sticking up for their female peers in the face of these double standards.
By the end of the series, it was clear sharing these stories wasn’t just cathartic but confirmed lots of women faced the same barriers.
Telling women to sort it out by just squaring their shoulders and staring sexism in the eye is advice designed by men for men. These women didn’t lack true confidence – and even when it looks that way it’s a symptom not a cause of sexism.
Most, however, were highly alert to the bias they encountered and said their employers wanted to do the right thing. But it was obvious they were rarely asked what would help, nor given support in finding fairer outcomes. They were not being heard.
The good news? They were not giving up or going anywhere. The best support and advice they got was often from other women and they wanted to pay it forward. And as every one of these discussions showed, from Toowoomba to Perth and Sydney, that’s exactly what they were doing.
For more on the themes from the forums go to womeninfocus.com.au