Last night I gave an International Women’s Day presentation to a forum in Melbourne.
I spoke on what’s been happening in the gender equity area since AHRI joined with UN Women and Westpac in 2011 to hold a high-level HR Gender Summit.
Don’t be concerned if you missed that summit. It was an invitation-only event held in Sydney for the leading HR directors from the big end of town. It went very well with almost all the invited companies participating.
One curious thing, though. Many of the top HR people are men and that’s who we invited, so the invitation list was male by a slim majority. What happened, however, was that a number of the invited parties sent a high-level female report, thinking they were doing the right thing. That was better than not coming at all but we were expecting a large male attendance, and we ended up with a majority female attendance.
The lesson I took from that turn of events was that men still largely see gender equity as a female affair. They realise they need to take an interest because gender equity is now a KPI for many of the CEOs in the top companies but it’s not taken seriously as an issue that affects men.
I would suggest, with respect, that such a view misses the point. Gender equity is about the two sexes, men and women.
Getting back to my presentation last night, I was able to report a number of developments since the 2011 summit. AHRI had written letters jointly with UN Women informing all federal MPs and senators of the summit recommendations. Some action has since been taken on childcare with a 50% rebate now available for out of pocket expenses (up from 30%), the ASX guidelines on reporting have taken effect and had an impact, and the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 was passed through the parliament by the slimmest margin, setting up a new workplace gender agency and requiring companies with 100 or more employees to report annually on gender equality.
I also reported that a robust debate continues in the public arena on a number of gender related matters, particularly the merits or otherwise of quotas on female executive and board representation, and the purported pervasiveness of the glass ceiling.
Quotas continue to be divisive, of course, because the merit question prevails and many women don’t want to win token appointments. While accepting that reality, I am also sympathetic to the line taken by people such as former US President Ronald Reagan’s daughter Maureen who asserts somewhat mischievously but not without truth that she “will feel equality has arrived when we can elect to office women who are as incompetent as some of the men who are already there”.
So the question is plainly vexed, especially when a recent Reserve Bank memo called for an “aspirational target of 40% of women in senior positions”, and last week the highly respected investment banker and board chairman Peter Hunt stated unapologetically that there will only be change “if there is compulsion”.
Both of those statements came from male sources, which is why they were noticed and why attacks against them were relatively muted, though the distinguished ANU Professor Helen Hughes made no bones about dissenting in the strongest terms: “This sort of affirmative action ultimately hurts the intended beneficiaries”, she said.
I also took up the issue of the glass ceiling. As a female CEO myself, it’s an issue that interests me. I’m aware that Janet Albrechtsen is not to everyone’s taste but I thought she made a sound point in a recent column when she wrote the following:
“Social engineers assume most women want the top jobs. Yet many women consciously choose to leave work for the exhausting, chaotic, frustrating, elating, magical job of rearing children … research by prominent British sociologist Catherine Hakim reveals that for every woman who regards work as the centrepiece of their lives, there are three men.”
Her conclusion therefore is that men and women are not competing in equal numbers. I can say from my own friends and associates that I am readily able to identify with the Hakim research finding. The women I’m thinking of very much want to work and they want satisfying jobs, but they don’t necessarily want the burden and responsibility that go with the top jobs.
The other reason it makes sense to me is that I also know many men who are similarly placed. While they might be ambitious, it is not ambition for the top jobs but for work that gives them satisfaction and puts food on the table.
It’s too easy to draw sweeping conclusions on flimsy evidence, and we are all prone to do it. The workplace gender equality debate needs to embrace the real aspirations and desires of women and men, and not just those who are intent on a place in the C-suite.
Lyn Goodear is the chief executive of the Australian Human Resources Institute