Why women should speak up, not shut up | Women's Agenda

Why women should speak up, not shut up

Why don’t more women speak up when they finally get to the decision-making table, an experienced female executive asked me at a forum on women’s leadership this week.

The answer is complicated, but the latest US data about the number of women in senior corporate roles is part of the answer.

The 2013 Catalyst Census of women in Fortune 500 companies, released yesterday, found women held only 16.9% of corporate board seats in 2013, showing virtually no change for the 8th year.

Meanwhile only 14.6% of executive positions were held by women, the 4th consecutive year of no year-over-year growth, Catalyst revealed.

The lack of change in the data isn’t very different from Australia’s experience. The 2012 Census of Women in Leadership showed women made up just over 9% of senior management roles and board positions in the ASX500, and the only real progress registered was the number of women directors in ASX200 companies had increased from about 8% to 12%.

The point is that despite years of rhetoric and some new policies, many businesses have barely shifted the gender composition of the top team.

And it is all too apparent what happens when women are in a tiny minority, no matter how good they are or the depth of their experience.

Women who get within cooee of power are treated differently and come under a particular kind of intense pressure that their male peers do not face.

The last few days have revealed the same old murky double standards being applied to the current PM’s chief of staff Peta Credlin, who was described as obsessive and a control freak.

As a number of commentators pointed out, the description was hardly flattering even though in reality both qualities are needed to some degree in such a role. But that kind of denigrating language has a particular potency when applied to the few women who hold down such high profile roles.

A woman who is an obsessive control freak conjures up images of that shocking creature, the nagging mother or wife. It’s a terrific way to trivialise and undermine a woman in leadership, particularly one who is dealing with a virtually male-only cabinet.

So it’s little wonder that the women who do finally make it to the top table find their capacity to fully participate or have an impact may be hampered.

Sometimes this is because of stereotype threats which operate when perfectly competent women are reminded, overtly or covertly, that they are not supposed to be good at maths, for example, or running the show. Primed by such attitudes, their performance suffers even when they are experienced contributors.

But that’s only part of the picture that can lead to the frustrating sight of women staying mute in the conference room. A raft of studies show women are routinely interrupted or spoken over in meetings which can only have one effect – they don’t try as hard next time.

The real dilemma, though, is that women can’t be leaders unless they get the message that women are welcome as and capable of being leaders. And when women look around the C-suite in Australian and US businesses that is not the message they are getting.

Having women in these roles isn’t the only or even the most pressing gender equity issue (pay equity, superannuation shortfalls, lack of women in trades and so on). But it makes an enormous difference to the aspirations and impact of the rapidly increasing number of women emerging from higher education around Australia.

If women with access to education and opportunity can’t even break through the glass ceiling and make sure the interest of half the population are represented then we clearly have a major challenge.

For all that, I reckon there are some real rays of hope. It’s not just the attention and more nuanced conversation we are having in this country about women and the workplace, nor the work of the Male Champions of Change and the diversity reporting regime for ASX companies.

Paradoxically, while women may find it difficult to speak up in the boardroom, they are not holding back elsewhere. Women are taking this debate on in a more active way than ever before, and the reaction against tired old sexism is faster and more potent.

Social media and online sites and forums have played a key role and give women from a wide range of backgrounds an opportunity to answer back. They are bypassing the formal power blocks and making their voices heard.

It’s about time because the only way to stop the unfair cycle that sees women leaders judged in much harsher terms or women executives as an aberration or tokens is to get more women into these roles.

We’ll never do that while the abuse goes unanswered and stereotype threat is allowed to flourish.

As Julia Gillard herself said in an interview this year, you are accused of being a victim if you point out the sexism — but if you do nothing about it you really are a victim.

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