Sheer frustration did it in the end. Yet another conversation with a senior executive about the vexed question of gender parity in workplaces dredged up the same old tired excuses. Fed up, I started compiling a list of the main myths about women in the workforce and published it in the Australian Financial Review’s Corporate Woman column. A couple of years and many speeches, articles and a white paper later, the myths have ended up in a book.
The inhibitors to women in the workforce are not all immediately obvious. The days of overt discrimination are technically behind us although there are still cases that occur particularly around maternity leave when jobs are suddenly ‘restructured’ out of existence. But more often, hidden bias or subjectivity in recruitment and promotion processes can prove to be major impediments. And motherhood, actual or anticipated, feeds much discriminatory behaviour.
Well before maternity should even enter the picture, however, women are still disproportionately under-represented in talent-management programs that provide the stepping stones to management. They are less likely to be seconded or rotated into line jobs, or join professional networks. They fare less well than their male peers in appraisals and salary negotiations.
And these kinds of subtle bias – women assessed against male norms of behaviour for example – are not only much harder to identify and tackle but they are based on assumptions and stereotypes that are well past their use-by date. For a long time we’ve also been told these problems are all due to female deficiencies. No confidence, poor personal networking, no gravitas and they don’t speak up in meetings. And so it goes on.
The information and studies I have been examining for two decades give a very different picture. The demographic data clearly shows there are increasing numbers of women in the workforce and that includes those with children under five. In-depth analysis from here and internationally is contradicting the idea women have less ambition than their male peers, with studies showing young women outdo young men in stated ambition.
Women also work long hours, and put their hands up for promotion quite regularly. It seems the assumption that women don’t ask for promotions was probably based on their disproportionate lack of success in getting the next step up the ladder, which remains the case. The sheer quantity of women in the pipeline has not shifted the statistics further up the ranks, despite reliance on this idea. And the use of targets in many businesses is not proving earth shattering but is setting some benchmarks for progress.
Pay gap data is also remarkably consistent and robust on the gender differential. Research from Melbourne Business School on pay negotiations reminds us that women
who take the initiative and tackle this tricky interaction with assertiveness are often marked down for what is seen as unfeminine aggression.
In fact, examining the myths and the evidence makes a good case for a completely different framework to assess the gender imbalance in business.
Stripping apart the fact from the fiction about women’s motivation, abilities and leadership potential reveals little substantial differences between the genders. Women
are better educated than men, just as ambitious, and keen to be recognised and rewarded for their efforts. But workplace practices and the narrow model of success
in most organisations are limiting their ability to thrive.
The traditional male breadwinner norms are increasingly irrelevant for a large part of the workforce as many Australians change the way they live and work. Women in particular are finding the old models and hierarchies constrictive in a global environment. The stumbling blocks are diffuse and certainly not confined to motherhood penalties, such as career breaks and lower status work, although this tends to be the default excuse.
Sadly, simply being female can count against you from the word go. No matter how much evidence to the contrary, women are still seen as less motivated to succeed in their jobs and innately missing the ingredients for success in many workplaces where it’s business as usual. Even a few years since the financial crisis that showed us how disastrously moribund our business structures and thinking can be, the message needs to be sent – we can and must do a better job.
1 Workplaces are meritocracies – work hard and you’ll get ahead
2 The gender pay gap is exaggerated
3 Women don’t want the top jobs
4 Women with children don’t want a career
5 Quotas and targets are dangerous and unnecessary
6 Women should act more like men – and women are their own worst enemies
7 Time will heal all
Catherine Fox is the deputy editor of BOSS and author of 7 Myths about Women and Work.
This article was first published in the November edition of AHRI’s magazine HRmonthly.