It has been 36 years since the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act in Australia. No doubt there has been significant progress made in the representation of women in the workplace. It is somewhat encouraging that at least officially it is acknowledged that gender diversity leads to better outcomes for an organisation. In the past, the photos of the board of directors for listed companies were mostly white middle aged men with only the colours of their ties differentiating them. In 2019, almost 30 per cent of all board positions in Australia’s top 200 listed companies are held by women. Does this mean that the feminist fight has been won and we can now bask in glory? I would say no, far from it. I think it is an easy win for companies to appoint women in non executive director capacity so that they can crow about how diverse and progressive they are. The women board members are essentially performing just an oversight function. This is compounded by the fact that a typical representation of women on a board is less than 35% and the chairman is usually male. Ultimately, it is still the men who make the decisions. I believe the appointment of more women as non executive directors is masking the level of sexism that is preventing women from being leaders in business.
What is the likelihood of a woman being appointed to run a company in 2019? The answer is: 12 female chief executives in Australia’s top listed companies, a drop from 14 in the previous year. The statistics alone begs the question why are men considered better CEOs 94% of the time compared to women. To be even considered for the top job, I am assuming that these 12 females would have to prove themselves to be more intelligent, more compliant, completely flawless in their decision making and work harder than anyone else in the organisation. It feels like one must be blessed with extraordinary attributes to compensate for being a female in order to be considered for the top job in business.
Sexism is even more prevalent in politics when women shrug off the role of being supportive ministers and dare to challenge for the leadership position themselves. This was demonstrated in August 2018 when Julie Bishop contested in the leadership ballot after the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister. A poll showed that Ms Bishop was the preferred leader at 30% compared to the challenger Peter Dutton at 11%. Despite being more qualified and having the highest approval rating in the electorate compared to the other two male challengers, she was eliminated in the first round of party room voting. Ms Bishop was denied the opportunity to be a prime minister after serving as the deputy leader for eleven years. The Liberal Party was effectively declaring that if you were a female, you could never be the leader regardless of how qualified you were, how hard you have worked and how popular you were with the electorate. And this occurred in 2018.
The one area of society where women have achieved near equal representation at the highest level is in our justice system. There are currently 3 female justices out of seven on the High Court of Australia. It appears that a woman can be trusted to be a fair and impartial judge at the highest level in this country but she cannot be trusted with making executive decisions of governing the country or running a large business. The standard excuse I have heard given to explain away this sexist bias is: “It could lead to a loss in confidence in the electorate/business community.” I personally never felt my confidence level fluctuates around someone having a dick or not.
Another excuse that is now less spoken out loud but still hovers around in decision makers’ minds is: “Would she be able to handle the added responsibility at work as well as looking after her family?” I am never quite sure how a woman’s family life becomes a concern when she is up for a promotion but no such regard is ever given to a man’s family life. It feels like leadership promotion discussions take place in a time warp where the participants are transported back to a ‘Mad Men’ styled patriarchy system where the men only work, smoke and fornicate and the women are subservient to their greater need of either looking after their children, following their orders at work or lying flat on their backs.
The act of overlooking a woman for a leadership position because it may cause issues with some stakeholders or due to consideration over her family commitments is pure sexism masked by supposed concerns for the woman’s welfare. The fight for gender equality is not over when leadership selection in business and politics is still based on factors other than an objective assessment of a candidate’s skills, achievements and leadership capability.
I believe the feminist fight is not over until women are given the same opportunity to be coached and groomed for leadership positions as men, and to ensure that attributes associated with being a female such as being a mother or being compassionate are not considered detrimental to being an effective leader. It is disgraceful that there are only 12 female CEOs running large corporations in Australia. It is even more disgraceful that the most popular and qualified candidate who happened to be a female was not even seriously considered as a leadership contender by a major political party. We should be outraged by these events and demand changes towards a reality where women in leadership positions becomes the norm rather than an aberration.