Let’s imagine for one moment that the powers in our universe were battled out on a disco dance floor. What would it look like if there were no women?
But first, I want to ask the question on a smaller, but equally important, scale – why is it so difficult to find women in positions of leadership in politics, the corporate sphere and tech start ups? How do we become leaders, and get on the proverbial D-floor? And why is it so often that we just aren’t considered on the guest list in the first place?
There have of course been movements toward change – take popular politics, all of the ‘firsts’ in female leadership in Investment Banking to Aviation Australia, and the most recent effects of Australia’s version of the #TimesUp Movement. But why are so many jobs still asking women to choose between her career and raising a family?
The unsupported landscape for women in leadership paired with gender bias, learnt behaviours and work structure has lead to the overwhelming male dominance in politics, the corporate sector, and even more so in telecommunication, mining and utilities. This was amplified when I was told once again after questioning this problem that it was ‘my assumption that it is an issue’. This is an issue. If we don’t engage, we will inch closer to a situation where women lose access to the few resources, agency and freedom to speak we are given in male-dominated workplaces and environments.
Let’s have a look at the system in gear that works against the women. Clearly, our power structures are still mono-cultural, often Christian and take a Eurocentric approach meaning that many essential voices are excluded from the conversation. Of our ASX 200 listed companies only 7% of CEOS are female. In January 2018, according to the ABS, women comprise only 29% of Federal Parliament in the House of Representatives.
This is reinforced by the Australia Human Rights Commission 2018 that stated, ‘we need diverse groups of women in leadership to influence decision making and we need women to have more of a say in our government, communities and organisation, at all levels.’
Before I jump into the details, let’s add the cultural layer to the story. As a female leader of colour, I wear my Chinese heritage proudly to ensure that the next generation of women coming up behind me have the same—if not better—opportunities to progress. However, truth be told, I fear that if I make a mistake in my role I may inadvertently close the door on the next generation of culturally diverse women leaders. But we must push on, as not only could Australia’s GDP grow by 11% (according to Goldman Sachs), we must continue to pave the way for our future leaders and change-makers.
So, what is the effect of gender bias? According to Ryan & Haslam, even when women are in the top leadership and management positions they ‘receive greater scrutiny and criticism than men, and [are] evaluated less favorably, even when performing exactly the same leadership roles as men.’ Women who reach the leadership stage may need to tolerate prejudice and isolation in the workplace to a degree not experienced by their male counterparts.
PEW survey 2018 has highlighted that in the US, women are more likely than men to see civility, compassion and empathy as qualities for political leaders. Similarly, in the corporate world, along with those two qualities, women are more likely than men to say it’s essential that business leaders provide fair pay and good benefits, value people from different backgrounds, provide guidance to young employee and consider impact of business decisions on society.
While women were less likely than men to be willing to take risk and negotiating profitable deals, Burgess & Borgida takes it to the next level and highlights the severity of the stereotypes. We prescribe men with agentic characteristics, which capture achievement-oriented tendencies, presented as confidence and aggression, whereas women tend to be labeled with communal attributes, which capture concern with the welfare of others through care and kindness. Since what makes a great leader are those supposedly ‘masculine’ qualities, women are automatically ruled out for the top job (Please take note of sarcasm, as some will allow gender bias to cloud their judgment – a great leader is made up of both the Yin and Yang).
In Australia, our work structure has allowed for one in two women to have experienced discrimination as a result of their pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work, and one in five mothers indicated that they were made redundant, had their position restructured, were dismissed or had contracts that were not renewed. To add to this, 70% of female primary child carers are unpaid.
Alas, what can we do to change the channel? Anarchy? Rage against the man? No, we can do better then that. It’s the small adjustments to our mindset which will help us see out sustained and healthy change.
One last note, if we could support early childhood education with discussions around gender roles and identity, and loosen up on damaging stereotypes portrayed in media, maybe the next generation has hope to see parity in power.
If all else fails, we will just have to build workshops for women to learn how to deal with the BS – but I’m confident that with the right tools and attitudes, change will come.
Australia, let’s make it possible for women to have the choice of leadership in nurturing workplace environments. As philosopher Ruth Chang said: ‘Choices are chances for us to celebrate what is special about the human condition…that we have the power to create reason for ourselves to become the distinctive people we are.’
Women should be able to raise families and be in leadership without being asked how they ‘juggle it all’. When we have this reality we will be getting down on the D-floor. Anyway, when it comes to this battle – it’s better to dance in unison.