The Holgate effect

Like many, I was moved and inspired by watching Christine Holgate’s recent evidence to a Senate Inquiry.

Having interviewed her once or twice over the years I was well aware of Holgate’s highly effective leadership and outstanding track record at Blackmores.

Her decision to speak out was probably the result of many factors, seething anger included.

But perhaps another one was reading the zeitgeist which has seen sexism, bullying and harassment centre stage in recent months in Australia.

Courage breeds courage. And watching Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame has been galvanizing for women in all walks of life and age brackets. That’s why so many thousands hit the streets for March4Justice not long ago.

Of course it was well before these rallies that politicians jumped on the Cartier watches scandal at Australia Post with loud outrage. But the bullying and the tone of the Prime Minister in Parliament was particularly noisy.

The PM has since said there was no gender element to his comments. Many women would beg to differ.

The velocity and vehemence with which Holgate was thrown under the bus was breathtaking.

Just think back to her predecessor Ahmed Fahour who was pilloried for his large pay packet, (not distributing corporate largesse to his executives).

Fahour eventually resigned and walked away with a package claimed to be worth more than $10 million. He was paid $6.8 million in 2017; Holgate started on $2.78 million.

These are generous salaries by anyone’s measure. But the discrepancy when it comes to women – and particularly a highly successful woman – is remarkable.

If anything, Holgate’s extraordinary career has earned a lower public profile than a man of similar achievements. That may have been deliberate, but as a business reporter I’d say she was also underestimated.

Not anymore.

Understandably, women like Holgate (and there have been a few in the business sector left out to dry by their male chair or board) have hesitated or been unable to speak out about how they were treated and the role sexism played in events.

If they do, the denials are immediate and they have often been accused of playing the ‘gender card’.

This is a no win. Say nothing and you are thrown under the bus, along with your reputation, and of course sexism remains unchallenged.

Speak out and you are labelled as a victim, using unfair tactics and trying to deflect criticism. And your reputation is trashed too.

Holgate’s message to other women is that this treatment is not imaginary and can have a shocking effect no matter the cries of denial.

We’ve been here before. The belittling and sexist treatment of Julia Gillard started not long after she entered office but was dismissed as an overreaction by many in Government and the media.

What commentators at the time failed to recognize was that she faced relentless everyday sexism.

There was only a change when overt and disgusting commentary on her appearance later emerged.

But gender bias had already painted her as incompetent and out of her depth from just after she’d got her feet under the desk.

Women leaders constantly battle these often implicit beliefs of inherent lack of aptitude and gravitas, no matter what they deliver or the evidence of their success.

And this is happening to white privileged women, so imagine the message it sends to women from culturally diverse backgrounds?

Women leaders are over-scrutinized and their mistakes are often amplified, while they are held up to ridiculously high standards that most of their male peers never face.

They not only have to perform well but be nice and carry the banner for their gender too.

So it of course it’s been noted recently that Holgate was not perfect and had deficiencies as a leader. Just like most of her peers.

But she did something many men in leadership haven’t done in the last few months. She spoke out honestly and with courage about the sexism and bullying women face.

That’s crucial role modelling of what happens when women feel they have some support.

And a reminder that speaking out safely is the key to addressing on bullying and harassment in our workplaces.

We should all be grateful for that.



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