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Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg slams gender stereotyping as Australian business prepares for new discrimination laws

Patrick Stafford /

Facebook chief operating office Sheryl Sandberg has delivered a scathing condemnation of sexist stereotypes in the workplace, just as Australian businesses are gearing up to discuss changes to workplace discrimination laws.

Sandberg, who has become well known for promoting the advancement of women in the workplace, has said in a speech she believes women face both open and covert discrimination, and even said women should be able to openly discuss with employers if they have plans to have children.

But the warning comes as submissions are set to close today for a series of consultations with businesses regarding the new workplace discrimination laws, which mandate businesses with over 100 employees regularly report on the number of women in key positions.

The Australian Industry Group told SmartCompany this morning it believes any rules for businesses need to be simple and easy to follow.

“As key principles and at the very least, it is essential that the measures to be reported upon are simple and valid,” AIG chief executive Innes Willox said.

“The information to be provided must be easily able to be collected. The consultation process needs to account for the fact that a company with 100 employees will have very different information systems to a company with 10,000 employees.”

The laws, which don’t actually apply to businesses with fewer than 100 employees, will mandate businesses report on gender equality in the workplace. Businesswoman Carol Schwartz is leading the consultation process for the new laws. Submissions close today.

She told Fairfax today the rules are about creating awareness about “unconscious biases and stereotypes”.

Those same stereotypes were attacked in the speech given by Sheryl Sandberg, who told the World Economic Forum on the weekend women are given messages from their infancy they aren’t expected to succeed – and stereotypes in the workplace confirm that.

“As a woman becomes more successful, she is less liked, and as a man becomes more successful, he is more liked.”

Sandberg spoke a lot about gender stereotypes in the workplace, and especially how employers can fall prey to these without even realising it.

Stereotyping in performance reviews

One of Sandberg’s main points involved two items of children’s clothing – one had the phrase, “smart like Daddy”, while the other said, “pretty like Mommy”.

Sandberg said this type of stereotyping exists in the workplace, when employers can make unnecessary judgments about their employees without even realising it.

She said managers need to stop making comments such as, “she’s great at her job but she’s just not as well liked by her peers”, or “she’s a bit aggressive”.

“They say this with no understanding that this is the penalty women face because of gender stereotypes,” she said.

“Should you really be working?”

At one point, Sandberg asked men in the audience to raise their hands if they had ever been asked to reconsider working, given they had children. None did. When asked the same question, several women raised their hands.

Legal problems

Sandberg said she once had a conversation with her lawyer, who told her not to publish an article telling women to “lean in” to their careers before starting a family. It could promote backlash, he said.

“Then I thought, he works for me … If someone wants to sue me because I’m talking about gender discrimination, go ahead,” she said.

No encouragement for women

Citing one of the bigger gender stereotypes facing women, Sandberg said the workplace doesn’t automatically encourage women to improve. Instead, it cheers men on without any regard for promoting women ahead – which is why it must be done consciously.

“Think of it like a marathon. Everyone’s cheering the men on. The messages for women are different: are you sure you want to run, don’t you want to run, don’t you have kids at home?”

 

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Patrick Stafford

Patrick Stafford is a freelance journalist and a former deputy editor of SmartCompany.

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