The obsession with Gail - Moving on from the myths of women & work

August 7, 2013

Why should this one woman be so remarkable?

Gail Kelly – CEO of Westpac. Source:  Australian IT

There are aspects of society that are so ingrained and normalised that we are almost incapable of envisaging a universe that could function as an alternative. This is even more true for issues that involve considerable complexity – the ‘easy’ explanations don’t bear much fruit, or maybe they don’t ring quite true but we don’t quite know why. They might give us something to cling on to when we want to acknowledge that it’s not great, but we’re not sure how to fix it, or if it’s even fixable.

So it is for many people when we consider the issues facing women in the workplace. 

The norms around the lack of gender equality have become so ingrained, and the ‘go to’ debates and discourse, seemingly so intractable that we lose the possibility of seeing a new path. We revert to the intensely normalised ‘truisms’ of the difficulties for women to combine career with child-minding, or we point to one or two women in clear positions of power, such as Gail Kelly at Westpac, and side-step the discomfort of debate by asserting that this battle has been fought and won, and what’s everyone still complaining about.

Then someone cuts a swathe through the normalised thinking and we are left wondering how the old world views could have survived for so long. Catherine Fox is one such person. With her in-depth, evidence-based analysis of women and work that has been buttressed by years of talking to people on, and about the subject, and writing the Corporate Woman column in the Australian Financial Review – Catherine is forging a path through the complexity in her book ‘7 Myths About Women & Work’ (FINSIA, first published in October 2012 and republished in August 2012). She incisively picks through the truisms and the statistics to show a real picture of why we still have a gender pay gap, why fewer women are promoted and represented at executive levels in Australia, and provides some guide ropes along the steep path to a fairer world order.

She specifically calls out as myths, the accepted thinking that: workplaces are meritocracies; gender pay gaps are exaggerated; women lack ambition and can’t negotiate; there aren’t enough women to fill the places; that their careers are disrupted through child-bearing/ caring responsibilities and that legislated quotas and targets are unnecessary. In puncturing the myths she highlights that the especially tricky thing is that it’s complex – and therefore so are potential solutions. The good news is that there is analysis, thought, introspection, goodwill and action – by men and women at many levels of Australia’s top companies, and beyond. Again and again, Fox has seen change start to happen and inertia being overcome when we have good examples in front of us about new ways of doing things. She’s not the only one excited that a new order is gathering momentum.

There is unequivocal evidence of a strong business case for increased diversity at senior levels of management, internationally and locally. Non-profit research organisation, the Reibey Institute, finds that over three and five year periods, ASX500 companies with women directors delivered significantly higher return on equity (ROE) than those companies without any women on their boards.

Tim Toohey, the Chief Economist at then Goldman Sachs JBWere, wrote a report in late 2009 which stated that closing the gap between male and female employment rates would boost the level of Australian GDP by 11 per cent. The clear message of his report was that if governments and business want productivity and growth then they should be throwing social infrastructure at the parents (of both sexes) to keep them in work.

Only last week Rice Warner actuaries announced a broad program for their employees last week that includes increasing the superannuation for female employees by 2%  over men – and their decision has been ratified by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AFR 31st July 2013). The company introduced this as part of a broader package that includes flexible working conditions for all their employees, paid parental leave, super and long-service leave accumulating during that time, as well as education packages. 

We’re also seeing evidence at a personal level – when asked about professional challenges, a young man we interviewed recently explained that as manager, he felt that it was his responsibility to set a good tone in his workplace so that the several young women in their 20s, also at the beginning of their careers are treated with respect and in “the right way”.

The message for brands is to be aware of where they might still be buying into the myths. Be up for embracing some complexity in finding solutions and get on board – the times they are a’changing.