Apparently, blokes in senior positions are running themselves ragged searching Australia for suitable women to promote in their organisations, all the way up to board level. The tragedy is, so they tell me, they just can’t find any.
Indeed, since an initial flurry of activity when the ASX decided to get top companies to report on the number of women on their boards, the number of women directors appointed to our top 200 has declined markedly. Fifty-six were appointed in 2010, 68 in 2011 but only 37 sheilas have so far made the cut in 2012 (or 23% of all new appointments) – and it is November.
It seems the supply of well-qualified chicks is just running out. Indeed, many of the women already on the top boards have multiple appointments – obviously because there are so few of us who can be trusted to do the right thing. Unless it is a pro bono board, of course, then we miraculously seem to offer just the right set of skills.
I mean, these guys (and they are all guys) are gender-blind; they don’t care if you are black, white or brindle-coloured or if you are male, female or anything else. They just want people who can get the job done. As they keep loudly reassuring us, they promote on merit.
Is it their fault that merit is disproportionately found in white, middle-class, privately educated blokes just like them?
And, of course, it would be tokenism to put a woman in a top position just because she was a woman. I mean, imagine if we did that with men … oh, yes, that’s right, we did have that pesky 100% male quota thing going on for a couple of thousand years didn’t we? But those were the bad old days; there are lots of women in power now. Look at Gail Kelly and Julia Gillard and Gina Rinehart … and Gail Kelly.
Mind you, Aussie chicks do very well at school, bless them. They are the best educated women in the world, topping the list of OECD countries for female educational participation and achievement. But something happens between leaving school and climbing the career ladder because they don’t top the OECD charts when it comes to workplace participation and achievement. It is tempting to blame having children for their lack of achievement in the workplace, but trouble is, it’s the chicks who have the babies in all those other countries too, so that’s a bit of a dodgy argument.
According to some senior blokes I’ve spoken to, Aussie chicks simply don’t want the top jobs. Apparently, there’s this whole bunch of women (I haven’t met any, myself, mind you) who are constantly being offered the top jobs and knocking them back. Half their luck! I was always quietly told I was far too scary to promote.
Perhaps that’s the problem: even talented, highly educated women just aren’t quite right for the Aussie workplace – particularly in the top jobs. They’re either too sweet, quiet and modest or just terrifyingly loud, aggressive and unfeminine. I mean, with the best will in the world, how could anyone in a responsible position promote people with such unhelpful personality traits? They just don’t fit with most corporate cultures.
And it’s not as if the blokes aren’t doing their best. They keep offering us remedial advice to help us come up to scratch, women being their own worst enemies and all. We need to lower the pitch of our irritatingly squeaky voices, dress more attractively but more conservatively, speak up but never interrupt, have good ideas but not different ones, stand up for ourselves while working collaboratively, sell ourselves but not be pushy, have kids but pretend we don’t, defer to men but in an assertive way. Pretend to enjoy golf days, talking about football and unfunny, crude jokes made at our expense. Act like a lady and behave like a bloke. Ask for a pay rise but meekly accept not getting one, and cheerfully accept being hired last and fired first. Never cry, never complain and be a team player while never quite being accepted as part of the team.
Just one little thing worries me: is it possible the blokes in power are having such trouble finding the right chicks for the job because they are looking for a woman who simply doesn’t exist?
Will they just have to compromise and settle for women in power who are as flawed, imperfect and messily human as the blokes already there?
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This article first appeared on Women’s Agenda. Jane Caro is a novelist, author and social commentator.