There’s a palpable sense of frustration in the conversation around gender and the workplace, which has always simmered just below the surface as excuses are trotted out for a failure to act or even take the issue seriously.
It’s re-emerging lately as the rhetoric in business has ramped up, but little in the way of action or results is registered.
You can’t wait for organic change to alter the gender mix at the top of businesses, Pip Marlow, the managing director of Microsoft Australia, told a Network Central forum in Sydney this week.
Asked why even the most diverse workforce – including Microsoft’s – seems to become remarkably mono-cultural at the top, she said the same question has been posed for many years.
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It’s clear that unless executives view diversity as a business priority just like the P&L. then change is not going to happen, she said.
It’s also clear we can’t pin the blame for a lack of action on poor evidence or research about what has contributed to the barriers women face. Solid research revealing the extent of the problem for women in all kinds of workplaces and the means to address these factors has been steadily on the increase both internationally and in Australia.
Many reports have also shown the correlation between greater numbers of women in an organisation and a range of improved business outcomes, both financial and non-financial.
“This stuff has been researched to death,” Dr Terry Fitzsimmons, senior lecturer at University of Queensland Business School, told the Women and Leadership Australia conference in Perth this week. “There are 2300 studies about what happens.”
These cover topics including the impact of family care, direct and indirect discrimination, differential value of flexible work and the value of women’s work.
“We know the issues but have not seen a change… and they are soluble,” he pointed out. Some organisations have successfully addressed the barriers for women so the question remains why they weren’t being applied by more businesses.
“Women make up nearly 60% of educated Australians so it’s not a pipeline issue. At this rate it will take 300 years to get to 50/50 in Australia, so something has to change. This is not seen as a problem so nothing is being done.”
The lack of serious engagement with the core problem and the need to address it was reflected in the confusion and range of opinions on what gender equality actually means, he said.
In his 2012 research Navigating CEO appointments: Do Australia’s top male and female CEOs differ in how they made it to the top?, Fitzsimmons interviewed 31 female and 30 male CEOs of large Australian companies and examined the career path that had led them to become CEOs.
The research revealed the pressure on companies to appoint executives well known in their industry and a range of factors which prevented women gaining the kind of credentials for top jobs. In fact, he found there were 36 separate factors that female CEOs had to face in their careers and men did not.
But both the male and female respondents to the research were divided on the definition of gender equality. One group identified it as a numbers game while some talked about the way the world would look in a few decades if gender equality had been achieved. Others hadn’t given it any thought, he said.
And there’s still many in senior management who regard it as a minor issue, he said, a compliance duty, or a challenge which should really be addressed by women.
As Carmen Lawrence, former WA Premier, told the conference in Perth this week: it isn’t fair to tell women to solve a problem they didn’t create.
But a failure by decision makers to recognise and pay more than lip service to the problem is making success unlikely – and 300 years is a sadly realistic timeframe.
Catherine Fox is a journalist, author and public speaker; she worked for the Australian Financial Review until November 2012 and has written three books. She is on several advisory boards, including the Defence Force Gender Equality Advisory Board.
This piece first appeared at Women’s Agenda.