The recent federal budget announced the government is supporting women through funding, with $38.3 million over five years to assist women into leadership roles and another $42.4 million over seven years to encourage women into STEM.
This is a deeply flawed approach to improving the career and leadership prospects for women in Australia. I’ve seen the outcomes of these programs first hand; they don’t fix deep structural problems in Australian leadership or businesses and are destined to fail.
My experience of government funding “supporting women”
In the late 1990s I walked into a university careers office and brazenly asked, “Where are there jobs, and what degree will get me one?”. I wanted to study something that would guarantee me a career and financial stability. I was struggling and mostly surviving off Foodbank. I believed education and a career was the way to build a different life and I was determined to work my way out of poverty.
The answer I got was “accounting and finance”, so I dutifully got a distinction average and got myself in the door at a large consulting firm. In those three years studying, it was reinforced by the recruiters who visited, by the careers staff at university and by the government funding: there was demand for women in accounting and finance. There were promotions, leadership opportunities, fun and good pay.
I spent 17 years working in accounting and finance. The pay was indeed good, the rest wasn’t so good. In the early 2000s there were 50% women graduates beside me. We heard from every partner about how hard they were trying to get women into leadership positions, and how pleased they were to have young women like us working with them. But as each year passed, fewer women stood beside me and very few made it to leadership. My graduate year was reasonably culturally diverse, but each year I watched the percentage of my colleagues (and new promotions) become whiter and more private school educated.
It was a given that men got promotions faster than me, I wasn’t seen as ‘likeable’. Instead of making me angry — it made me more determined, I worked hard and faster. I was building a career as well as a future for my sisters and I outside our religious community, and I wasn’t giving up. I believed Australia was egalitarian; that careers were built on skill and hard work. Plus, they needed women, we just had to prove ourselves and we’d be leaders in no time.
I was given advice about the length of my skirt, the colour of my shoes and the hours I should work to be seen as ‘committed’. I was counselled not to discuss the caring role I played for my sisters or any plans to have children. I was expected to participate in a big drinking and partying culture. I tolerated strip clubs, and snide racist and sexist comments in board and management meetings. I gently navigated the backlash you get from senior leaders and CEOs when you raise issues like sexism and racism — sure that I was driving change. I was paid $2,500 less than a man in my first graduate job — a fact I know because I married this man — and later found his letter of offer. Twice during my career, I discovered the salary of my male predecessor, and both times they were paid significantly more than me. In one case, $200,000 more.
I had mentors and sponsors. I had careers coaches and fine-tuned my communication style to be ‘nice’ and non-confrontational. I watched men around me behave inappropriately towards junior women (and men). Sometimes I raised it with my superiors, sometimes I didn’t. It was part of the game — you worked out that if it was a powerful man, it wasn’t worth raising. The ‘rainmakers’ never got held to account.
I genuinely believed the women and culturally diverse people who dropped away were not good enough to make it. That they hadn’t worked hard enough, gotten enough mentors, sponsors or guidance. How wrong I was.
Aged 40, I unexpectedly became pregnant. I went back to work after six weeks, was just as dedicated and driven to succeed in my career. I was promptly told that they’d hire someone else for my senior role now that I had other priorities, and I could have a ‘special projects’ role. Basically, they pushed me out. I was devastated. It shook my whole sense of self — I had believed this didn’t happen to women like me, it happened to women who didn’t network, or lean in, or have sponsors or mentors. It happened to women who took maternity leave and didn’t work hard like I did.
Cultural change needed
Sadly, my experience tells me that the bold announcements in supporting women into ‘ladies leadership’ and ‘ladies STEM jobs’ is going to crush more women and diverse people like me, and fail to address the systemic reason women don’t stay in STEM or make it to leadership in the numbers we need: the cultures of our organisations and leaders.
No amount of government funding is going to fix a toxic cultural problem.
You can’t recruit women and diverse people into organisations without doing the hard work to change the culture. It’s cruel and destined to fail. If you want them to do the labour for you, give them a safe culture to work in. We shouldn’t have to fight to be heard in meetings, to be ‘brave’ and stand up to leaders who behave badly — visiting strip clubs or drinking excessively at lunchtime. We shouldn’t be pushed out when we have a baby or be underpaid in endemic numbers.
We need leaders to pay and promote fairly, be honest and demonstrate they’re willing to fire those behaving badly. Our leaders need to be diverse — across gender, age, education, class and race.
I’ve given up waiting for change to happen in our existing organisations. I built a brand and workplace around my own values. GoKindly is my proudest achievement.
Women, build your own brands and create careers where you are safe and respected, and don’t fall victim to misguided government announcements.