The trap of over-optimism

The recent news that Roe v Wade was overturned by the US Supreme Court, effectively banning access to abortion for millions, has sent a chilling message about the fragility of women’s basic rights.

Despite the talk about gender equity in all kinds of spheres, the decision has been a potent reminder that progress is fragmented and many societies have not gone nearly as far as some might have believed.

That includes many workplaces where the D&I agenda is recognized but results remain patchy and the focus is resented by many employees, particularly men.

In fact, the false sense that this is a battle already won is a key stumbling block for workplace progress according to Michelle Ryan, the head of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at ANU.

And the reality is pretty bleak in many parts of the world, as well as North America.

“Looking at what’s happening in the US, it’s not just that, but we are falling backwards. It’s 18 months after Trump but the slow erasure of women’s rights continues,” she says.

“We must be vigilant and can’t allow people to say it’s been sorted…We have this massive stagnation around the world.”

In fact, as Ryan outlined in a recent article on the topic for Nature ( of representation in boardrooms, films and various professions show that men and women consistently overestimate women’s representation.

One of the studies Ryan worked on found that veterinary surgeons who felt that sexism is no longer a problem in their profession were the most likely to pay a female member of staff less than a male member and to give her fewer career opportunities.

And another research report found men who overestimated the proportion of women in the medical profession were the least likely to support gender-equality initiatives.

It’s the people who overestimate the number of women who are the most sexist, she says.

The other common traps that occur in all kinds of workplaces and often derail or hamper progress are a focus on quantity rather than quality, and fixing women.

While measurement and reporting on the number of women in an organization and at different levels is important, it isn’t enough.

“At this time when there is a lot of call for evidence, what can we have as targets and for Workplace Gender Equality Agency reporting, there is a need to be able to quantify,” she explains.

“I can see why it’s important but it’s a first step that needs to be done, and gives people permission to say we have reached 50%.”

The problem is the report card can let organisations off the hook, with statistics used as a compliance or box ticking mechanism which is a minimal level of action.

Tracking numbers alone can fail to identify the embedded barriers for women. Simple tallies erase disparities in quality, and the experience of women, she adds.

“If you look at female dominated sectors there are heaps of women employed but they suffer lots of other problems like pay and conditions.”

The famous ‘Glass Cliff” research reported by Ryan and her colleagues 15 years ago noted that women were more likely to be appointed to leadership jobs that are risky or doomed to failure. The ‘poison chalice’ effect held true not just in business but other spheres.

The crucial question was whether women were getting the same quality of promotions as men, particularly as organisations face a perfect storm of a pandemic, rising costs and increasing societal divisions, Ryan notes.

There’s also been too much emphasis on fixing women rather than addressing systemic change.

Focusing on coaching or training a few senior women may well help that cohort, but doesn’t change the way bias operates.

“The way I would frame it is mentoring absolutely helps those individuals but not others. It doesn’t make for systemic change. Those that benefit are those with privilege but it’s not changing the system and then it’s non-sustainable, and the organisation has to keep rolling it out to make change.”

“And it leaves vulnerable women behind. In psychology we talk about individual mobility of sustainable change. It’s great to be with other women and it looks like it’s changing but it isn’t.”

Women are also offered extra coaching to encourage them to take career risks, overcome ‘impostor syndrome’ and boost their skills in leadership, improve their confidence and ambition.

But the evidence was clear, it’s not women who need fixing, but entrenched systems of inequality.

For example, Ryan outlines, women don’t inherently lack confidence or ambition but find their self-belief eroded by experiences in unequal workplace cultures. This includes not having role models, and being treated differently from male peers.

Similarly, women are not inherently risk-averse; they operate within systems that reward men for risk-taking, but punish women for the same behaviour, Ryan writes.

These individually targeted interventions, at best, provide a short-term fix for a few already privileged women, and, at worst, reinforce the assumptions of success and leadership that underlie systemic gender inequality.

Now more than ever the need is for intentional interventions and clear goals to ensure better outcomes for women no matter what their job or sector.

That could include improving the visibility and voice of women, Ryan suggests, as well as making senior leaders accountable for progress towards gender equality, such as tracking pay, promotions and employment experiences.

And it’s about resourcing well-developed gender equality strategies.

With progress stalled in Australia on many fronts this is no time to relax.

The erosion of US women’s rights tells us how fiercely this battle continues to rage – and to remember the call of the suffragettes for eternal vigilance.




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