The real barriers to women in leadership

I was honoured and thrilled to receive an Australian Leadership Award at the ADC Future Summit. But, oh irony of ironies, one of the lasting impressions I took home from my trip to Melbourne for the summit was just how much work we still need to do to give our girls the opportunity to shine in leadership.

Picture me sitting there with more than 50 business leaders. I looked around, and I realised that I was one of only 5 women in the room. We made up less than 10%. Do women contribute less than 10% to the world’s wealth and wisdom? If that were the case, then I guess a less-than-10% representation in leadership could be expected. But it’s not the case, is it? If any proof were needed, according to APEC, women are vastly underrepresented in leadership positions compared to their contribution to the economy and business, and their level of education.

Some of the barriers to women becoming leaders are tangible, such as inadequate childcare and lost chances for promotion for many women when they take maternity leave. But most of the barriers are culturally embedded, which makes them far more slippery and hard to pin down. Research has shown that in our culture there is a deeply ingrained belief that the qualities of a leader are assertiveness and competitiveness, and that these are male traits, while women are meant to be nice and compassionate. (Why our culture sees being nice and compassionate as at odds with leadership is an interesting question in itself.)

The workplace that today’s girls will inherit is undoubtedly a fairer one compared with previous generations, as there is now legislation to protect them against discrimination and harassment, and to enshrine their right to maternity leave. But you can’t legislate against cultural constructs. In fact, legal and accountancy firms and banks have found a way to get around the legislation so they can keep clinging to a deeply rooted cultural construct: that one of women’s roles in the workplace is to provide “some eye candy for the boys”, as Nina Funnell wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald. (Karen Brooks also wrote a great piece about this, in the Courier-Mail.) The law prevents senior management from telling female employees how they should look, so increasingly, companies are bringing in independent style consultants to tell female employees how they should look. (The men get to stay at their desks and keep working. I guess their wives and girlfriends should sort out their clothing choices for them, right? *Sarcasm alert!*)

In these “training” sessions, what do the stylists suggest women do to be taken seriously in their careers? Keep up with fashion. Wear high heels. Wear conservative makeup — and that means lipstick only, no lip gloss.

Okay, ladies, what are you waiting for? Now you’ve been let in on the secret, get out there and boost those statistics for women in leadership!

Danni vs the fashion police -- I do love a nice kaftan

I felt like a rebel at the ADC Summit and updated my Facebook status to: “Channelling Nina and Karen today in the fight against the corporate fashion police. Am one of only 5 women in a room of 50+ business leaders. Every one is in black or grey. I’m wearing my uber bright kaftan and have daringly glossed my lips.” How crazy is it that the act of wearing colours and lip gloss can feel like a radical statement for a woman?

All of this got me thinking about the messages we send girls when we criticise their fashion choices or shame them for turning up to school wearing lip gloss. Are we inadvertently reinforcing the sense that it’s okay to judge girls by what they wear rather than what they do?

Corporations bringing in style consultants might be a new phenomenon, but underpinning it is a very old idea: that no matter how accomplished and talented a woman or girl is, she must still fit within a narrow ideal of femininity. For teens, that ideal is expressed in music videos and ads and movies in which being a woman is all about one thing: how hot you are. In the grown-up workplace version, high heels and lipstick maketh the career woman. Hillary Clinton gets picked apart for failing to wear makeup when giving a speech. Julia Gillard’s bottom is a topic of public debate. This policing of appearance is undoubtedly a major barrier to more women taking leadership roles. As one of my Facebook friends commented, “Why would you want to leave yourself open to that?”

The revelations from my time at the summit went beyond fashion. David Moffatt, Chairman of Asurion Australia, gave the opening address, in which he discussed something very laudable: that companies should create flexible, family-friendly workplaces. He talked about his moment of truth, when his son called him at work and said, “Dad, you have been travelling for work half my life. I want you to come home.” His son was then 10 and David had indeed spent the equivalent of 5 years travelling for work. David left the office, went home, played with his son and vowed to back off on the travel. The audience were tremendously supportive and literally sighed at what a great guy he was to have rushed home and slowed down.

And I applaud him for doing it . . . but I also couldn’t help wondering whether a woman would have dared to share a similar story, for fear of being judged a bad mother. Rather than supportive sighs, I imagine she might be met with shocked silence as the audience thought to themselves: “What? She missed half her child’s life?” I turned to the woman next to me, who was looking fondly at David, and asked her what she honestly would have thought if a woman had shared the same story. “Truly? I would have thought, ‘Suck it up, princess, you made your choices!'” she said. She and I both reflected on what a long way we still have to go.

Another moment that got me thinking at the summit came when a social entrepreneur was introduced and at a particular line in his bio — “He also enjoys jumping on the trampoline with his son” — there were very warm smiles from the audience, giggles and looks of admiration. Would a woman leader have dared include this in her bio, for fear of looking frivolous and lightweight? Would the response have been the same? She might have had a tough job convincing the audience that she had a serious message to get across. There is a persistent and infuriating double standard at work: child-rearing isn’t meaningful work — unless it’s done by a man, in which case it’s not only meaningful, it’s beautiful and heroic.

I deeply respect both men for stepping up at home and for sharing their parenting stories in public. I think that if more men did both of those things, we would all benefit — men, women and children. But I question the current mind set in which male business leaders who take an active role in parenting are seen as almost noble, whilst women who try to combine motherhood and business are seen as either unprofessional at work or bad mothers at home.

In the plane on the way back to Sydney, I read in the papers about the virtues of attachment parenting (read: “attachment mothering”) and that studies have shown that children are sad because their parents work too much (given how strongly men have been encouraged to be career focused for generations, read: “mothers work too much”). Yet the surveyed children were simultaneously unwilling to help around the house to maximize the time they had with their parents at home.

Indeed, housework is a domestic battleground at my place. I don’t think my family are by any means unusually uncooperative: I am far from the only woman who walks in exhausted from a business trip to be greeted by mountains of laundry, a messy house and kids with a list of domestic grievances. The reality — and one of the most firmly established barriers to women attaining leadership — is that no matter how much women work outside the home, they are still expected to do the lion’s share of the work at home as well.

How do we get rid of this barrier for women, and for the women our girls will soon become? We chip away it, bit by bit. We try to teach our children, boys and girls, from an early age that there is no such thing as “women’s work” or “men’s work”. We play music and dance to try to make housework fun. We write long, impassioned letters to our kids about the unfairness of expecting their mother, by virtue of being a woman, to do everything around the house. (Okay, maybe it’s just me who does that!) At school, we think twice before saying, “Take this note home to Mum”, and when we notice that the girls are doing all the “housekeeping” type of tasks in a mixed-gender group project, we step in and make the boys responsible, too.

7 thoughts on “The real barriers to women in leadership

  1. Jane higgins says:

    Great leadership is about the qualities one possesses and the way people relate to you, not about one’s gender. Go the lipgloss, go Danni xxx

  2. Rachel Hansen says:

    Danni, I am sitting here at my desk wanting to start yelling out my applause. Yes yes yes!!! You have summed up SO many important issues in this one article, and I wholeheartedly agree with you on it all. Will be sharing widely. Thank you thank you thank you! xx

  3. Lisa Betker says:

    I’m sitting here in my (relatively family/woman-friendly) workplace with tears in my eyes because a) I’m hormonally unstable due to pregnancy and b) I’m thinking of my toddler daughter in daycare today… it’s cold and her mittens are in my car. As someone who always intended to be a career girl, it still amazes me how much my priorities have shifted since the birth of my daughter. You are so right about how we would judge a man and a woman differently for the choices they make regarding careers and families.

    I went to a Women In Educational Leadership (WIEL) conference a few years ago and was mildly astounded to learn that while two-thirds of high school teachers are female, roughly two-thirds of school principals are male. I don’t think aiming for a quota of female principals (or a quota of women in boardrooms) would help this at all – it bothers me to think that I might be selected as a token gesture rather than on my own merits, experience and qualifications. Personally, I prefer to be in the classroom, or in the staffroom as a head teacher. This is not because I am a woman and the administrative repsonsibilities are beyond my fluffy pink brain, but it is a personal preference and inclination. I would hate to be pushed into a position just because a token female was needed.

    PS – I’m a lip gloss girl too. I don’t have time for makeup in the mornings – gloss is as good as it gets 🙂

  4. Jane Caro says:

    Great article!
    Lisa, loved your response but it did leave me with one nagging question.

    Why should women be the only gender that has to be promoted on merit? After all, we’ve had the most gigantic, worldwide affirmative action system in operation for blokes for over 2000 years. They claimed all the rights (to education, career, money, property, voting, government, power – you name it) and quite blatantly shut women out entirely. Yet we are so blind to the affirmative action in operation for men that we call any attempt to redress the balance for women unfair and tokenism.

    When men get promoted purely on merit (and look around you at some of the male numbskulls at the top if you don’t believe me) I’ll be equally in favour of it for women.

  5. Lisa Betker says:

    oooh, good point Jane! However, are women missing out because we’re women or are we not applying for the positions because we’d rather be doing something else? What I meant was that for me, there’s a lot of pressure in my industry for young teachers of either gender to hurry into executive roles (and I am currently in a relieving HT position, even on part time mat leave) because of a whole generation of teachers coming up to retirement. It’s great in that there are opportunities for advancement, but a) young teachers are burning out due to the fact that they are stretching themselves too far, too soon and b) like I said, personally I am much happier and feel more fulfilled in the classroom. There is an expectation from some that I will be a principal one day – I love that I may be able to should I want to, but I don’t want to be pushed into the position simply because there’s some quota to be filled.

    That’s just my situation – on a broader scale I certainly agree with your point that affirmative action has been skewed the opposite direction for millennia. It’s very much as Danni pointed out above – we (society) judge people’s actions on a whole different set of scales, based on their gender. However, does my fulfilling very traditional gender roles (wife, Mum, teacher, seamstress and Tupperware nut) mean that I am not a feminist? Not at all.

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  7. Eugenie says:

    Interesting article!Danni, I am a woman from Africa and I was really amazed to read that non- African women experience the same barriers as regards to getting leadership positions simply because of their gender!Indeed, naturally women are kind, gentle and compassionate as opposed to competitiveness and assertiveness which are men’s attributes!however, one must keep in mind that there exist different leadership styles which require different qualities.For instance, those qualities of women match well with the distributed leadership model which sustains that leadership tasks should be shared among multiple individuals not just one person.So, with those attributes of softness and gentleness, women have no propensity to making decisions alone or apply a top-down strateg; they are very good at consulting their staff before any decision is
    made, and this is one of the features of a successful leader.Honestly it is a shame to realise how women are placed behind in the
    leadership domain while they are the key to develpment.A striking example in our country, and in the educational domain :among 17 district leaders , there is no woman! Among 229 communal direction leaders, women represent only and roughly 5%!,etc
    Women ,female , stand up and fight for our right!!

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