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Leadership & Communication

Gender Agenda: The lady vanishes

16 Jan 2015, by Informa Insights

By Jenny Strachan* Featured image

On June 12, 1902, Australia became the first country in the world to give women** the right to vote AND the right to stand for Parliament. Exactly 110 years later, in 2012, I decided to commemorate and celebrate this huge leap forward for women by putting together a performance piece called the Sydney Suffragette Show.

It was a great success wherever I presented it, and no wonder. Things were looking up for us. The World Economic Forum had just ranked us No 1 in the world for women completing higher education, a field in which we have always led the way – Sydney University admitted women on the same basis as men in 1891, one of the first in the world, while it took Oxford University until 1920 to do the same and Cambridge until the following year.

In 2012, women were in positions of real power and responsibility: Julia Gillard, Prime Minister; Quentin Bryce, Governor General; Marie Bashir , Governor of New South Wales; Anna Bligh, Premier of Queensland; and Lara Giddings, Premier of Tasmania.

I am now preparing the show for 2015 and I have a problem. The ladies have vanished; there is not one woman left in a comparable position in Australia.

What happened? Did women suddenly become less intelligent, less capable, less responsible overnight? I don’t think so.

In fact there’s another, far more likely explanation. It’s something called “unconscious bias”, an unintended gender discrimination embedded in recruitment, promotion and appointment in many organisations.

It’s a human instinct to be drawn to people just like us and to reject those who are “outsiders”.

We are programmed by evolution to see the world as “us” and “them”. So our loyalty goes to our “in group” whether in our social lives or at work. So the status quo is maintained by men appointing leaders who are like them – that is men.

In 2002 a study of Canadian companies by Brown and Anastasopoulos “Not Just the Right Thing, but the “Bright” Thing” indicated that companies with three or more women on the board outperformed those with all-male boards. And in 2010, a study by UNESCO, Credit Suisse and the IMF, showed that the proportion of female graduates across the world averaged 54%. Yet when leaders are asked why women are not promoted they say that there are no women of sufficient merit to be promoted.

However, when the Bain Report (2011) “What stops women from reaching the top? Confronting the tough issues” analysed the impact of both structural issues (policies and work practices) and cultural issues (beliefs, stereotypes, values) on the advancement of women. It found that because women approach work with a different style from most men, and men in leadership roles prefer working with others whose style is similar to their own, a woman has to convince her superiors that, although her style is different, she is the right person for promotion. This extra requirement to “fit in” can mean that women are often overlooked for promotion, and those who do succeed are made to feel like outsiders.

It’s this unconscious bias that is reasserting itself and turning the clock back. In the process it’s holding back the advancement of Australian women and, if that Canadian report is right, Australian business itself.

**Aboriginal women in Australia won the right to vote in 1962


*Jenny is an award winning author and international conference presenter and trainer with over 25 years experience in the corporate sector. She has designed and delivered communication, influence, personal presence and leadership programs, and as an executive coach to facilitate change in organisations.

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