This week we heard that the new PM Tony Abbott was disappointed (with himself presumably) that there was only one woman in cabinet and then we learnt it was because these jobs were appointed on merit (that would be the male middle-class version). Now it seems the real blame for 5% female representation in Cabinet lies with a woman – in the form of Independent Cathy McGowan who beat Sophie Mirabella in the seat of Indi.
Talk about missing the point. Another series of confusing and sexist generalisations and rationales were wheeled out and effectively suggest those without much formal power were to blame for that situation while those who make the decisions had nothing to do with the outcome. No mention of the daunting levels of systemic discrimination that still mean women in the LNP were mostly not even in the running to have their ‘merit’ assessed.
The same focus on blaming the victims, complete with contradictions and buck passing, emerges in the flood of advice and remedies regularly handed out to women in business. A couple of weeks ago I heard a group of dynamic women managers from a range of organisations present some research on women’s leadership they had compiled over a few months. They had interviewed about 20 high fliers for their study and one of the conclusions they came to was how often the views expressed and tips for success given to them were completely at odds with one another.
Here’s a few that they mentioned and I hear all the time:
Women need more confidence/are too pushy and aggressive: Actually the former features more than the latter but it’s amazing how poorly many powerful people react to an assertive or openly ambitious woman. On the other hand, the idea that a quietly competent woman who doesn’t blow her trumpet all day is of necessity lacking confidence is widespread. The problem is the message about low confidence can be devastatingly self-fulfilling to those in an under-represented group, so no wonder many women do end up with poor self-esteem.
Speak up/shut up: See above. The extra hitch here is it’s actually quite common for aspirational women to be exhorted to speak up more and get their point across. Problem is, too much of this can quickly earn you a reputation for being a nuisance and an irritation to your colleagues. A woman in professional services I know was recently told she should be careful not to remind her male peers of their nagging wives at home.
Network more/women spend too much time chatting: What’s networking to the goose may be time-wasting gossip to the gander. The standard assumption that women don’t network well or at all is usually the result of applying a very alpha male definition. Turning up at the pub or rocking up to a senior male executive to shoot the breeze usually backfires for women who are often forced to take a different tack – but then find they are criticised as well.
Act more like a man/be authentic: Another corporate favourite these days is advising women to get with the program, man up and lean in if they want to get ahead. How confusing to find authentic leadership is now the topic du jour in management circles. Pretending to be a stereotypical corporate male doesn’t sound like authenticity to most women, but it sure makes a lot of them feel they are not up to scratch (see confidence above).
Take credit for your work/be a good team player: It is a stereotype to suggest women are chronically unable to take credit for their work or ask for promotions, but even when they do US firm Catalyst’s research revealed that women typically found they did not get the same reaction as men. However, perhaps one of the reasons some women are less likely to brag is the extra pressure to be caring and collegiate or risk penalties and a bad reputation for stepping outside the gender boundaries.
Women gang up/women are their own worst enemies: You can’t win this one – support other women and you are being unfair to men, and if you don’t, you are a catty ladder-puller. These kinds of accusations arise when a group is in the minority and ‘out of power’ and are, of course, never made of men nor attributed to gender deficiencies.
It’s no wonder more and more women are fed up with this confusing and remedial approach to their behaviour which grabs attention at the expense of nitty gritty issues such as the gender pay gap. Insulting references to women’s lack of merit, confidence and networking skills is a symptom of deeply embedded bias and will never help us tackle the traditional systems that continue to overwhelmingly favour one group when it comes to power. Let the push-back begin.