Glass Ceiling Clouds Over

Sunday, March 1, 2009 - 09:40

Despite decades of feminism and apparent attitudinal change, the evidence clearly shows that women are failing to achieve executive management positions in Australia. By Karalyn Brown

The research from the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) shows women only represent 10.7 per cent of executive managers in Australia's top companies.

EOWA describes women's progress as 'glacial'. Moreover, if that's not enough to deter a young, aspiring female manager, then recent trends may do it.

Female representation at executive level in ASX200 companies has actually declined from 12 per cent in 2006. Even more disheartening is that 45.5 per cent of ASX200 companies have no women executive managers, up from 39.5 per cent in 2006.

So why have women gone backwards? Jane Caro, co-author of The F word: How we learned to swear by feminism, says it's still tough; in fact, very tough.

"It's a pretty hostile environment for women who've risen to a place in senior management. They've had to fight hard to get there," she says. "We ask women to carry so much responsibility. Men in senior positions represent only themselves."

Caro sees slow change starting from a very low base. "There's never going to be a day when men slap themselves on the forehead and say, 'Here, girls, have half my power',"she says. "It always has to be taken. No one is going to give power away."

Men's attitudes

EOWA research in 2008, A gender in the boardroom, studied the boardroom experience of women, and men's attitudes towards them.

The research revealed that there are still big obstacles preventing many women from getting to the top, and once they get there, they are still undervalued and underrated. Several chairmen admitted in interviews that there is a tendency for male-dominated boards to continue appointing men, simply because they feel more comfortable in the company of other men.

Claire Braund, Executive Director of a network for boardroom change, Women on Boards, says: "The report certainly highlights that there are some 'dangerous dinosaurs' wielding significant influence in who gets a seat in the boardroom of our top companies. Numerous reports outline the strong business case for diversity and its positive effect on company performance, governance and accountability, yet it continues to be ignored."

However, it's not just old boy networks that may hold women back. Caro suggests that society has high expectations of women and judges them differently, if not more harshly, than men.

"For women there are only two places to be,"she says. "There's always a dichotomy of expectations; no in-between. Either a good or bad mother, or a ball-breaking bitch or a self-effacing doormat. Unlike men, women are still not allowed to be just flawed individuals."

Different career paths

So is it different now for younger women? Caro sees many women struggling. She suggests that the concept that there are no barriers – long taught in same-sex schools – does women no favours in the workforce.

"They get an absolute shock in their first management position when they speak in management meetings and realise nobody can hear their voice,"she says.

It appears also today that many women are shifting the context in which they can have a career. Braund says the number of small businesses being started by women in Australia and Asia is phenomenal. "For so many women, the only way they can combine children and a career is to become a successful consultant,"she says.

With no legislated paid parental leave, and a shortage of childcare places, the resulting pace of change for women may be slow. Braund is disappointed that it still has to be like this. "We are so far behind other countries that it's alarming,"she says. "When women in Australia hit 30 or so, societal norms force them to make a choice, while at the same time pretending to give them access to greater choice. How many women do you know that have a major career and five children?"

Caro suggests that two current strands of thinking around feminism hold women back. "The first says that you are fully equal. You want career and lifestyle. Make it work."She says this doesn't take into account that men don't bear the children, and don't do their share of housework.

The second strand is that feminism is a totally flawed experiment. "Women would have been much better at home. We shouldn't have put such ideas in their heads."

However, Braund says there's a different way of thinking about raising families. "We still have a perception that you must take time off from your career to have a baby and raise a family, rather than embracing the change that this brings."

Braund suggests that Australia needs a paradigm shift of thinking along lines seen in Norway, where the government encourages raising children, as part of both men and women's life's work. Norway has heavily subsidised child care and introduced an obligatory six-weeks non-transferable parental leave for fathers. These may be two reasons why Norway's labour force participation for women and birth rate are among the highest in Europe.

Given current events, what will a global recession look like for women in management? Braund sees some positives emerging out of the gloom; including the growing recognition that companies who work hard to improve diversity at all management levels will have a better bottom line than more traditional organisations.

"Perhaps the economic crash is a wake-up call that we can no longer continue to fix the problem with the same thinking that created it,"she says.