I grew up in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s during apartheid. We were taught that apartheid was based on the biblical principle of “Be ye not unequally yoked,” and therefore the objective of apartheid was to enable each racial group to live, learn and earn in their individual silos to the best of their ability. There was no discussion ever of power or subservience.
By the time I got to high school, I began to suspect that there was something wrong with what we were being taught, and that it seemed that there was a significant imbalance in terms of power, education, wealth and employment rights. At university I studied labour economics under the amazing Dr. Francis Wilson, who was regularly detained by the security police for his radical political views. I discovered that what I suspected was true. The basic foundation of apartheid is that one group fundamentally believe they are superior to all others – they hold all the power, make all the decisions about how other groups live and work, without any consultation, and distribute employment opportunities and financial rewards in unequal shares.
I emigrated to Australia in my early 20s, in the pursuit of political freedom and living in a democracy. My early career in financial roles in investment banking and retail banking meant I was often the only female on the team. I watched less educated, less-qualified men get promoted ahead of the few women in the industry at the time. I heard my male peers and senior managers make comments about women “getting married and going off to have babies,” and realised that I had simply moved from an environment of racial discrimination in society to one of gender discrimination at work.
For a long time I optimistically believed that through legislation, and access to education, we would improve opportunities for women in the workplace. After nearly two decades of working actively in this area, I now recognise that all along we were faced with what I call “Workplace Apartheid!”
Since 1984, we have talked about increasing the number of women in management and senior leadership roles; greater workplace flexibility to enable women to combine meaningful careers and a family, and pay equity. And here we are some 3 decades later having made so little progress that it is actually not worth the pats on the back that we have been giving ourselves in the past few years. Politicians and business leaders keep saying “…Things are so much better for women now …”
Yes we have made progress due only to the Australian Securities Exchange’s Corporate Governance Principles and Recommendations, which required companies to set targets and report achievements. Here’s our snail’s pace progress as of February 2014 when reviewing ASX-listed companies:
- Women occupy 17.6% of ASX200 directorships
- Women occupy 9.2% of ASX500 directorships
- Women make up 3% of Chairmen of the ASX500
- Banking, insurance and food have a higher number of female directors
- Software, energy and mining have the lowest numbers, varying between 7% and 3%, with transport at 0%
And pay equity has gone backwards, not forwards with a pay gap of 17.6%
Workplace apartheid means that men continue to dominate key leadership roles in the three power bases in society – government, large private sector organisations and churches. It means they believe, either consciously or unconsciously, that they are more skilled to lead, and to make decisions on behalf of female employees and customers, often with little reference to, or consultation with those women. And this is despite the overwhelming statistical evidence that women are a major force to be reckoned with.
Women make up 52% of the population, occupy 46% of full time jobs, and 75% of part-time jobs, and now account for 56% of university graduates. Another myth perpetuated by organisations, is that women “go off and have babies” and then are less focused and not really interested in career progression. A study conducted by a professor of law, and associate professor at Harvard Business School found that if a woman has a child, her chances of being hired fall by 79%, and she is 50% as likely to be promoted as a childless woman.
As a young woman I believed that if you could just change apartheid laws and policies, then it would eventually go away, but what it required was changing the people. Now I believe that the only way to eliminate workplace apartheid is to change the people, and to introduce mandatory targets, because what I do know as an accountant is that “what gets measured, gets done”.
In the words of the great human rights advocate, Martin Luther King:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Let’s genuinely level the playing field and let’s smash the glass ceiling, embracing what both men and women have to offer which is equally unique and valuable.
On Wednesday at 12.30pm Georgina Dent is hosting a free webinar with Avril Henry who is a coach with My Agenda, our new members site. The topic is learning to cope when you’re from Venus and your co-workers are all from Mars. Avril will explain why there is sometimes a disconnect between men and women communicating and will teach you how to bridge this gap to create better working relationships. She will also teach you the ‘silver bullet’ that is guaranteed to improve your communication. You can register for the webinar here.