Workplace gender equality: The problems to fix are in our heads

Sarah Goss, Head of Innovation at Ericsson Australia & New Zealand, Founding Director of Umps Health.
This article is reposted from Sarah’s website.

In April this year, Chief Economist of The Australia Institute, Dr. Richard Denniss, gave an address to the Victorian Women’s Trust on ‘The 3 Big Lies Holding Women Back’.  I have watched it several times, and shared it many more.  One of the uncomfortable truths he spoke aloud included this:

The inequality in the Australian labour market is not some accident. It’s not some undiscovered problem that is yet to percolate to the top of the political agenda because of the lack of evidence. A lot of powerful people in Australia are entirely happy with it.  That, is what you’re up against.”

And Australia is not alone.  In no country in the world today are women equal.  In fact, in the 2017 Global Gender Gap Index Report published last month, the World Economic Forum projects it will take 217 years to reach gender equality in our workplaces. That means it will be another 7 generations before we see workplace gender equality – or, until my great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren enter the workforce.

I would probably be forgiven for throwing my hands up in the air in despair, but I prefer to adopt a systems thinking approach; it permits me to be a little more optimistic.  Systems change takes time – sometimes generations – but every action we take today can create positive knock-on effects, moving towards the dismantling of interrelated structures that maintain the status quo in our workplaces.

There are many barriers to tackle, but I’ve found a few prickly ones.  It’s because they are the ones that most often make people bristle that I know I am hitting on truths we can’t ignore.

We all need to face up to challenging our own thinking and preconceptions, and commit to 3 fundamental changes in our collective mindset.  The problems to fix start in our heads.

Mindset shift #1: Give up the belief that your organisation is a meritocracy

As the numbers crunched by industry expert Conrad Liveris show, women comprise only 4.5% of all ASX 200 CEOs.  There are more CEOs of ASX 200 companies called either John, Peter or David than there are women CEOs in total.  Liveris’ analysis further reveals that Australian leadership is blindingly white.  Only 3.9% of ASX executives have non-European backgrounds.

The Australian Human Rights Commission also conducted research into the cultural diversity of Australia’s leadership.  It found that 95% or thereabouts of senior leaders in Australian business, politics, government, and civil society are white.

As Liveris points out, “straight, white, able-bodied men aged 40-69 years, which represents the majority of Australian leadership, are 8.4 per cent of the population.”

If we are to believe that our companies, institutions and other organisations see the valuing, reward and elevation of people based on their merit, then we are to believe that straight, white, middle-aged men have a monopoly on merit.  We know this isn’t true.

Now, I am not saying that men in these roles haven’t worked hard to get to where they are, or that they are undeserving of their positions.  I am not attempting to detract from their competence, work ethic, commitment or otherwise.  But, there are clearly other factors at play.

It is time to drop the myth that our workplaces are meritocratic.  No organisation is a meritocracy until it has accounted for all of its inherent and unspoken biases.

Mindset shift #2: We will not have gender equality in our workplaces, until we have gender equality in our homes

If the stats overwhelmingly show us that men are the leaders at work, then in comparable magnitude they also prove undeniably that women are the leaders at home.

Research such as the Melbourne Institute’s HILDA survey demonstrates that there are still very entrenched conventions about the differing roles between the genders.  The study shows that even many women subscribe to the construct of ‘male breadwinner, female homemaker’, reflecting just how strong the societal conditioning and accepted norms are around women’s place in Australia.

According to the federal government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), three quarters of all unpaid work is done by women.  This includes activities such as cooking, cleaning, washing, gardening, home maintenance, looking after children, caring for the elderly or a family member with a long-term health condition or disability, and doing voluntary community work.

The WGEA quantifies the difference between men and women’s time spent on these activities to an average ‘gender time gap in unpaid work’ of 2 hours and 19 minutes per day.  Or, for every one hour of unpaid work that men do, women do almost double.  Professor Mark Wooden, Director of the HILDA survey says,

“Women still take on the bulk of household chores and assume greater child care responsibilities. This means that men are spending more time at work building experience, skills and networks.  Until we see a greater sharing of roles and responsibilities at home, women, on average, will always be disadvantaged in the labour market relative to men.”

We are far from having equality in our homes.  If we do not acknowledge that we must address women’s unpaid workload, we will not see more equal participation and representation of women in paid work.

Mindset shift #3: You cannot claim free will and blame women’s choices

At this point, some may be tempted to rationalise that it’s women’s choice to stay at home with the kids, or to cut back to a part-time role, or to take on more basic work, or to be naturally drawn to lower-paying professions, or to not put themselves forward for promotions because they are not that career-oriented, or… the list goes on.

However, when the gender stereotype of the role of women is so engrained in our culture, we have to recognise the impact of context.

This week I had the privilege of meeting Professor Michelle Ryan from the University of Exeter, UK, and hearing her present at the Future of Work Conference on her research into how context constrains women’s work choices.  Immediately following, I joined her and other industry leaders on a panel discussing ‘Beyond Token Diversity’.

Ryan has found a direct correlation between women’s feelings of fitting in and belonging in an organisation, and how ambitious and committed they are at work.  Women must see potential benefit and reward for their ambition, motivation, risk-taking, and sacrifices at work.  Their ‘choices’ do not occur in a vacuum, they are shaped and constrained by organisational and social context.

In this way, Ryan’s evidence proves it is too simplistic to accept the popular belief that women opt for a work-life balance based predominantly on the practicalities of time and how to juggle it between work and family.  Just as important as time is how a woman feels about the workplace.  She explains,

“It’s not just about time – how many hours they work – it’s feeling like you’re similar to others before you; if people like you have made it.  Being similar to successful others reinforces your identity – who you have to be to be successful at work, is compatible with who you are at home.”

Time + identity = ‘work-life compatibility’.  To maximise compatibility of a workplace for women, organisations need to think about how they can foster a sense of belonging so that women can see the possibility to thrive as their whole selves at work.

From behind the hollow defence lines

If we want to see genuine change in workplace gender equality, we need to question our assumptions and notions of ‘merit’ and ‘women’s choice’, and address the inequality in the division of unpaid work in our homes.  To stand behind false beliefs to the contrary will only continue to hinder our progress against inequality.

And 217 years is too long for any of us to wait.

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