Resurrecting the 7 myths


I’m often asked to speak to audiences about the latest on women and work, and over the last year or so I’ve seen an interesting return to some well worn furphies.

Some of the issues I focused on years ago have come back into the zeitgeist with a vengeance: merit, quotas, the existence of the gender pay gap, who ‘chooses’ to do the unpaid work and  whether workplace sexual harassment is mostly exaggerated.

Of course recent events make some of these very topical.  But there’s also increasing demand to justify the call for change in areas many hoped were no longer up for debate, or had been superseded by a focus on solutions.

It’s a worrying sign.

This reflects another wave of backsliding in women’s fragile progress which actually began well before the pandemic. And a fierce backlash over some of the pretty modest steps that many workplaces have taken.

When my book “7 Myths about women and work” was published in 2012 I never imagined many of the main offenders would be going strong nearly 10 years later.

It’s not as though these topics ever went away; and I certainly didn’t expect them to completely disappear. After all, some have been around for thousands of years.

But it’s apparent now that under the workplace ‘diversity and inclusion’ veneer many attitudes have barely changed or adhere to classic stereotypes.

And it’s always surprised me that these kinds of inaccurate assumptions are so glibly applied to all women (51% of Australia’s population) while some men take umbrage at exactly the same stereotyping with #notallmen.

The re-emergence of the myths is happening as a major economic upheaval (despite signs of recovery) has increased the gender gap in this country, and many women hit the streets a few months ago to protest their treatment and lack of power.

But here’s the thing: resistance to women’s progress seems to have gathered pace in recent years.

An array of studies have found far fewer men than women believe there are serious social or workplace gender obstacles in Australia. This is despite the evidence on the gender pay gap, recent indicators showing Australia has fallen to 50th on the Global Gender Gap Index from 15thin 2009, women in leadership numbers either static or falling, and women leaving the workforce and higher education in droves.

These familiar beliefs  are not just inaccurate but harmful. I’ve heard them repeated by senior men and some women as obvious ‘truths’.

And I know that if they remain unchallenged they get accepted, circulated and continue to derail all women, particularly those from diverse backgrounds.

Depressing as this recap is, you have to know what you are facing to challenge it effectively.

So here’s my updated list:

Workplaces are meritocracies: Yeah, right. You would think by now the wealth of data showing how bias and discrimination consistently stymie the progress and pay of women would have killed this off for good. But the mantra lives on particularly when there was talk of the LNP actually considering quotas for women to boost the numbers in Parliament. Mention quotas (see below) and merit will pop up almost automatically.

This concern about merit usually comes from those benefiting most from a ‘meritocracy’ who either can’t see or refuse to acknowledge they got a major advantage from their gender, class and race.

Merit is weaponized far too often in these discussions. It’s a highly subjective concept not a clear set of qualities or credentials. The longer organisations cling to outdated ideas about an ‘even playing field’ where everyone gets the same opportunities the less they identify and address inequities.

Banishing the word and making appropriate recognition and reward for specific performance criteria a reality would be a better idea. Bin it.

The gender pay gap is exaggerated: No, it’s not. But with wages remaining stagnant over the last few years in many sectors, and the pandemic leaving many without a job at all, the story about the way women are impacted can be often overlooked – or regarded as a distraction to the main discussion.

The rigor applied to collecting data on gender and pay has only increased in Australia in recent years. It has revealed the gap is often about problems to do with the vertical (who gets the best paid jobs within organisations) and the horizontal (the varying pay scales in male and female dominated sectors of the economy).

In other words Australian women are still over-represented in lower paid roles and industries. Many of these feminized sectors fall into the essential workers category which was apparent in analysis on the pandemic impact on women.

At the moment the official gender pay gap is 13.4% but other assessments that include variable pay and bonuses show it’s more than 20%. What’s really puzzling is that we have the tools to identify and deal with this and they are not being used enough.

Given the pressure of the last year or so on employment and the disproportionate caring and housework women do this should be a priority for attention. Run a gender pay gap audit and get back to me.

Women don’t want the top jobs: I think this has surfaced again as women’s unpaid work has increased during the pandemic: Australian research by the Grattan Institute found that women were doing an extra hour a day of unpaid work, including helping with home learning and caring for elderly relatives, in recent months.

Of course that pressure would make women rule out some roles involving huge time commitments. But that is not an indicator of drive or commitment to the job. In fact you could argue many women have more resilience in the workforce given the challenges they continue to face with the second shift at home.

While it’s not always formally spelt out these days, the lack of ambition sentiment is still circulating (unless you are a ‘Queen Bee’ in which case you have way too much). It makes women and their supposed ‘deficiencies’ into the problem and blames them for failing to progress.

It’s a classic diversion. Rather than examining why biased appointments to those top jobs, toxic workplaces and the boys’ club may be the problem it’s easier to point the finger at women’s deficiencies.

When there is reluctance to take on a senior role (and far few women then men ever get that chance) it is a symptom of bias and sexism not a cause of it.

And for the record, research over recent years has found virtually no difference in ambition levels between young men and women. But let’s not let some facts get in the way of a handy lever to perpetuate unfair standards in workplaces designed by and for men.

On a more positive note, these days it would be a foolhardy bloke who told younger women they lack ambition. I don’t think many women in the first stages of their working lives put up with that profiling now and good on them.

Women with children don’t want a career: This is ridiculous trade-off is never applied to men of course. It’s probably true that many women with small children need a housekeeper more than a promotion. They are unlikely to get either at the moment as the pandemic throws more unpaid work into their laps.

Justifying this unfairness by labelling women uncommitted or less serious about their jobs has long been an ideal excuse for failing to support and promote them, particularly when traditional norms have barely shifted about who does the caring.

But it’s also fueled by the idea women aren’t really suited to authority and are particularly incapable of performing well when they are distracted by kids or caring (apparently this stigma doesn’t apply to men). The not so subtle inference here, as we grapple with the crisis and economic recovery, is that women are a liability. I’ve even heard of several women recently being asked if they were planning to start a family while in an interview for a job or promotion. Which is illegal.

This recirculated notion flies in the face of common knowledge. Many women in paid work have lots of unpaid responsibilities too and have managed to hold down all sorts of jobs for decades.

That’s because they needed to work and get paid. Despite Australian employees putting in some of the longest hours in the OECD, the time spent at the coalface doesn’t necessarily indicate more commitment or skill.  But decoupling those ideas has been a real challenge.

You’d think this negative gender stereotype would be easy to see through. Unless you aren’t interested in looking or disrupting the status quo. The famous motherhood penalty lives on and our economy and society pays a massive price for it.

Quotas and targets are dangerous and unnecessary:This would come as a surprise to the French and Germans. Both countries have adopted legislated quotas for boards and more recently for management ranks. These large economies did so because quotas work.

The aim is to produce more diverse decision-making cohorts, which many now know is a good thing. And decades of voluntary regimes have mostly failed to move the dial. Putting some clear goals in place with penalties for non-compliance has, however, done the trick in countries around the world using quotas for business and in representative government.

Talk of quotas involves recognizing that women face particular barriers to entry, but immediately triggers finger-wagging predictions about dire outcomes and lack of ‘merit’. The work done on the impact of quotas actually shows nothing of the sort – in fact in many studies the quality of appointments and decision making improved after introducing quotas.

Research on quotas used by a Swedish political party found the main losers from quotas were not women burdened with a quota stigma but mediocre men.

Critics however continue to argue that women appointed this way will not be seen as deserving or qualified. Sadly, as I often point out, this is usually the case anyway – although it’s rarely spelt out. And given there are more than enough well educated and experienced women in Australia, why would an organization even consider appointing a completely unqualified candidate to a position?

These scare tactics should be seen for what they are – a defence of the status quo from those clinging to their privilege and frightened of genuine competition. Bring on quotas.

Women should act more like men (and they are their own worst enemies): That masculine gold standard isn’t looking too good given the state of the world. But it’s so much easier to blame women for not playing the game right and stabbing each other in the back than sharing power.

The double standards applied to women are still around – assertiveness in a man is still labelled aggressiveness in a woman. The treatment of former Australia Post boss Christine Holgate who faced particularly harsh criticism and lost her job despite delivering results is a reminder of the extra scrutiny women face.

It would be a miracle if women didn’t react to this tricky unfairness. But there’s absolutely no evidence that being more masculine in style works out well for women. Penalties apply whether your style is too male or too female. No wonder so few end up in leadership.

And the recent allegations about workplace sexual harassment in Australia remind us of the lethal legacy from these power imbalances.

Meanwhile, the rationale that women struggle because they are bitchy and unsupportive of each other surely must be wearing thin. Of course women behave poorly, just like men, but look at the criticism and punishment they attract.

Far from being naturally unsupportive, this year in particular thousands of women joined the #March4Justice and have resoundingly supported young women speaking out about harassment such as Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame. In all sorts of workplaces women have banded together to raise concerns and demand justice. Let’s give the nasty women cliché away for good. The real culprits are bias and sexism, not the women who suffer the consequences.

Time will heal all: It certainly hasn’t yet. In fact as many have observed in recent times, the status of women on many levels has actually slid backwards. The old pipeline theory that predicted thousands of skilled women spilling into the workplace would magically sweep all bias away and let them naturally float to the top simply hasn’t eventuated.

There’s actually no problem with supply in this country but demand is another thing. Men are over-represented in leadership and more likely to get a promotion so women’s progress, pay and tenure remains well behind their peers.

Evidence from around world confirms you have to make intentional interventions to the way organisations run to remove and tackle sexism and racism otherwise we keep perpetuating an unfair system.

Despite claims a younger generation of men would have very different views about gender and work there is now good evidence showing a younger generation have more conservative views about primary breadwinners and unpaid work roles than older men.

Turns out waiting and hoping for change is a mug’s game.

Ten years on does it matter if the myths gain momentum again?

It really does. Domestic violence statistics are off the charts, women are reporting higher levels of mental health problems, shouldering more unpaid work and anxiety from insecure employment and dropping out of university in large numbers.

Resurrecting these lazy generalisations tells us the system is fine and women are simply getting what they deserve. That’s a recipe for sliding backwards on the slow progress we have made.

We must do so much better.


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