Proposals for positive discrimination for women are potentially perilous pursuits as to advance women’s leadership, power and respect in not just the corporate world but across politics, sports, science and the arts et al focus on gender as the definitive issue. One article in The Age this week featured comments by the chairwoman of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Elizabeth Proust, articulating she had to ‘rethink’ boardroom quotas for women as the pace of change had been ‘glacial’. Initially against the introduction of quotas, she is now arguing for at least a 30 per cent quota for women on boards in Australia. On the same day, The Age published an article about ‘bullying’ in the Victorian fire service, quoting a female firefighter, Emily Trimble, who asserted that ‘singling out’ females simply ‘degrades us’. Reconciling these two perspectives is for me one of the most pertinent issues I’ve contemplated most of my life; a very complex conundrum without a simplistic solution. The real question for me is how do you INDEED promote and enhance equal opportunity for women at the same time as NOT focusing on their gender per se. To reconcile these two different, if not intrinsically opposed perspectives, is the issue that must be addressed. Furthermore, is equal opportunity a mere myth or is it now well entrenched in political, business, social and economic practice as a couple of men have emphatically told me. If indeed the latter is the truth, why then is their such a gender imbalance not just on boards in the ASX 200 companies in this country and in so many other socio-political organisations? Do women not want these roles as much as some men? I certainly do not adhere to the philosophy of what was couched in the 70s as ‘token’ women, and in the years since the parlance might have changed but in some ways, even with introducing quotas, its implicit positive discrimination amounts to much the same thing with women appointed, chosen or selected for no other reason that being women; albeit with the right qualifications and experience. The need to introduce quotas implies on one level that females ARE being discriminated against because of their gender; nothing more or less than that, but would having more women on boards change and/or improve business management and administration or would it just be a facade of equal opportunity for females irrespective of how disingenuous that might be? One of the underlying issues about this is do women per se think and operate differently to men? And how many men on boards think the same, too? I have recently read research that companies with women in senior management and CEO roles in some Western countries were more successful in not just surviving the GFC post-2008, but enhanced productivity and increased company profits more so than several male-dominated companies. Despite these economic truths, there appears a reluctance to acknowledge that research as a factual basis for change. Moreover, the research further suggested that women seem to be, certainly in terms of crisis management, better managers than their male counterparts. Indeed, the research ‘singled out’ women managers, but was this only about their gender per se or a gender irrelevant recognition more to do with their innate skills, experience and individual talents? The research I read did not reveal where and how these particular women acquired their experience and developed their skills. It went on to elaborate that women were more likely to stay calm and focused, were more risk averse, worked more collaboratively together and were more in control than men when confronted by crisis, implementing their management strategies and plans with a cooler and less panicked response. Certainly, it made for fascinating reading, but that notwithstanding, in Australia, we seem to lag far behind in balancing business and gender equality. But is it a gender issue? This involves a myriad of confusing and inter-related issues that are not always easy to clarify; furthermore I contend gender is not implicitly the definitive issue. The argument for quotas seems to imply extant negative discrimination against females per se in business boardrooms and all I can ponder is firstly, is that actually the reality and secondly, is it that women may just not be interested in that kind of work commitment and/or role? As a country are we intrinsically a less advanced nation in recognising women’s talents or just lazy and less work obsessed with most women choosing a more laconic lifestyle that precludes board room assignations?
A few weeks ago another newspaper article detailed the introduction of feminist studies at Year 10 in an inner, suburban secondary school quoting one 16-year-old female student who suggested that young girls who achieved academically at school still did not think they were ‘smart enough’ to match it out there with males in the big world. Too often, she said, they were labelled as ‘aggressive’ in a denigrating and demeaning manner as she had been for being ‘ambitious’. That suggests it not just about quotas per se, but that underlying the issue of female equal opportunity is a more profound and disturbing reality that many women themselves do not feel ‘smart enough’ nor confident enough about their intellectual abilities, talents and knowledge to compete with men. Moreover, these young girls (the ‘bitchiness’ between females starts early) then ‘attack’ women who do feel ‘smart enough’ with psychologically nasty, violent and/or slanderous language.
Quotas are but a bandaid solution to a problem that embodies not just women’s possible (probable?) untapped potential, but whether women have the self-belief and confidence to aspire to these positions. To simply suggest quotas as THE answer is to ignore the root causes of boardroom imbalance, leaving these causes unexplored, unaddressed and unchallenged so that women need to be ‘singled out’ as women per se with a gender significance that can be spurious.
Decades ago, my own experience was that my ambitious aspirations were in fact, ‘delusional’, the criticism from women more than men. Moreover, my own family female members condemned me similarly, as if my ambitions were misguided, abnormal and even psychotic. I was ‘sick’ for being ambitious and confident, endowed with self-belief when they were not, copping their unconscious resentment and demeaning which took some years to clarify. Indeed, both male and female shrinks labelled me thus, too. I grappled with those judgements for a few years after they nearly ‘killed me’ for my self-belief and confidence, daring to stand up for myself, albeit aggressively and angrily. Later I recognised, as I had already realised previously when I penned my books ‘The Circle War’ and its sequel “At The Front’, (though those realisations got buried in my unconscious psyche courtesy of psychotropic drugs I took unnecessarily), that my fervent stance of just standing up for myself against all the ‘usual’ social and economic norms for females was unconsciously ‘threatening’ to their innate, conscious social, political and economic attitudes about women. I wrote 35 years ago that I wasn’t ‘most’ women, or most people actually, men included, in so far as I didn’t want marriage with kids and a 9-5 work lifestyle in an office or a house in the suburban wilderness. I was a ‘particular’ woman with unique and individual needs and wants, indeed, imbued with positive attitudes about myself, for myself and of myself, which were sadly at great odds to the status quo. I certainly ‘paid’ a huge price for my perspective as I’ve written in blogs previously. The tragic reality I’m wondering about now, nearly forty years later, is whether too many females put themselves down, albeit unconsciously, with the lingo ‘I’m not smart enough’ to protect themselves from the contempt, jealousy and psychological violence (bullying) of others, particularly by other women. Or is society implicit in engendering this attitude in too many young females about themselves because to ‘break’ that mould is too risky, too unusual and altogether too abnormal? Where, why and how are they forming these self-deprecating attitudes: from their mothers and grandmothers, teachers at school, friends? Is it about ‘fitting in’ with all the usual social messaging about being female that doesn’t seem to have really changed for centuries on some levels? I haven’t done extensive research on this; I do read the newspapers and watch TV and have read many books about both men and women over the decades and I’m not at all sure what the answers are to these questions. I’m sure that they’re indeed complex and we need to expose and explore the root causes of so much negativity for women about themselves and by others, men and women, too, included. Wanting, even needing, something other than marriage with kids, albeit with a career, though part-time and not all-consuming, is just too ‘freaky’ for most women to even consider. Fragile self-belief and lack of confidence could be just manifestations of the still extant historical and traditional second-class status manufactured by our social milieu that we don’t want to confront. And it’s not just women either, as men who don’t ‘conform’ to their norms, albeit different ones too many women’s, can be just as condemned as women.
Another newspaper article focused on women being ‘unkind’ to women, without any deep analysis as to why this was a reality we still live with in this 21st century. Moreover, it’s not the first time I’ve read this, but I have to ponder how valid is it and why is it so? Today was yet another article by a forty something female social commentator, a former journalist, bemoaning the boy’s club network of long lunches and golf sessions, referring to ‘guilt’ if she indulged in one of these long lunches. Why guilt? What is that all about? Can’t she enjoy taking ‘time out’ eating good food with males without a guilty conscience? She mentioned having healthy food at her desk; well, you can certainly dine in a restaurant and eat just as healthily; albeit more expensively. The cost however wasn’t her issue. Her ‘guilt’ is of more concern to me than any boy’s club network! Similarly I read about many women with children who feel ‘guilty’ about working at all. This errant nonsense, as I call it, must be faced too as I contend these women have psychological problems beyond anything to do with gender discrimination or gender imbalance or even so-called lack of equal opportunity. It appears yet again that by abandoning some traditional female roles such as being a mere inferior secretary (who wouldn’t be invited to the lunches at all) or a full-time house-bound mother, too many women feel damn guilty and we need to explore why! That this particular female commentator felt guilty angered me as I worked long and hard, but also took time out when I could for a ‘long lunch’ and at one time in my working life, even had an ‘expense account’ which she decried as somehow gender biased; a male only privilege denied to women.
There are so many permutations to this gender relevance argument that I can only wonder at the writer’s basis for her ‘guilt’; does she not believe she was entitled to indulge some enjoyment at the same time as ‘doing business’ with her colleagues? Of course, she didn’t want to drink after work as she wanted to get home to her family (read children) and therein is another complexity; women and work and their attitudes to it all. It’s not just about them considering themselves ‘not smart enough’ but how they actually feel about their commitment to their work and their attempts to balance that with family. Having quotas will do nothing to address that issue. Many women simply do NOT want a 24/7 work lifestyle.
The issue for me too was not just however about women attacking me as delusional and ‘who do I think I am’ syndrome, but in my younger days, I too drank with the boys I worked with, indulged in long lunches and played the same game as well as being damn bloody good at my job; often better than most of the boys. I encountered another manifestation of attacks; albeit discrimination and harassment as well as far less pay and slanderous verbals that I was a lesbian and ‘mad’ feminist for daring to stand up for myself and demand my rights as an equal. I read too that in 2015 the Victorian Police is permeated by similar diatribes against females in the force; so too among the surgeons. The Victorian Police Commissioner at least acknowledged the reality when he said it’s pervasive in our society. So where does it all start and how can we change it without singling out women per se? Quotas per se won’t and don’t begin to address the far more prevalent and important issue about reconciling genuine equal opportunity for particular women who want it without reference to their gender at all. Will we ever stop shouting ‘wow, she’s a woman!’ who’s made it because she’s the CEO of a top bank, or a Prime Minister (Julia Gillard was certainly ‘attacked’ as a female per se for being unmarried, childless and an atheist et al, but simultaneously, she was also just as erroneously applauded for ‘making it’ as a female) or even a jockey who wins The Melbourne Cup! And as the UN Secretary-General is due to vacant his position in 2016, it has been suggested by some countries – ‘…Britain appears keen, as are many nations, to see a woman become UN chief for the first time’ I can only contemplate yet again, that appointing a woman, for no other reason than her gender (but of course, she will have the right qualifications and experience behind her) smacks of the same ‘tokenism’ decades now past. I quote from another The Age article, but why even mention a male or female; surely, the significant issue is a person with the right qualifications and experience; gender irrelevant. It is but another positive discrimination perspective to just suggest having a woman at all! When will gender stop being the definitive issue, both negatively and positively? Remarking on gender only reinforces ‘tokenism’ betraying a more profound need for gender irrelevance across most workplaces where women succeed and/or fail too.
The reality is whether we like it or not, women are singled out by gender per se and it may degrade us negatively or encourage applause positively, depending on not just outcomes, but a plethora of norms often adjudged by males based on their beliefs, attitudes and opinions entrenched in our human history socially, politically and economically. I’m not talking patriarchy either (women are part of our society, too), but a reality where men in almost all spheres of life have traditionally been the power brokers in our world. It has changed of course, but if the pace of change is indeed ‘glacial’, we must first understand WHY this is the case where laws now exist against discrimination on many levels. These laws focus on negative discrimination and it now seems women want laws for positive discrimination that I was talking about forty years ago in the UK. A 60something male friend of mine believes equal opportunity does exist; it is women who don’t want to work an 80-hour week to meet the demands of business et al for a myriad of reasons such as having a work/life balance that denies such long hours. He also acknowledged many men don’t want that 80-hour week either and for me, one of the problems is when a particular woman does want it, what happens then? Certainly, that was my personal experience 40 years ago and I am left pondering whether particular woman who do want that now are not getting a fair and equitable opportunity at realising their want. Singled out as women to be generalised about and discriminated against just as much as I was. The reality in the police force and in surgeons’ training etc seems to suggest this may well be as true in 2015 as it was in the mid 70s. I don’t know but a real beginning to find out what the accurate truth is behoves us to start talking together and sharing experiences to ensure these issues are indeed exposed by exploring, addressing and challenging what is taking place in our world so that any woman who does want to make a commitment to a boardroom is listened to and heard as much as any man who may want exactly the same opportunity. Legal measures haven’t stopped pervasive negative discrimination and trying to introduce positive discrimination legislation isn’t any more an answer either. Attitudes, with their implicit conscious and unconscious assumptions about gender, both about themselves and of others, are the apex of the problem, for women and for men, too. If men have ‘ruled’ the world for centuries past, women must accept their responsibility and role in allowing them to do that. Maybe women have just not wanted these roles, but the integral issue is when one woman does want that role, be it on a board, or in cabinet or as Prime Minister, what happens then? Is she ‘generalised’ about as just a woman with kids and a husband to look after without the time to devote to the job or maybe even, she is just not capable enough for no other reason than being a woman! These attitudes are not just adhered to by many men, but many women too, who don’t want to confront the implicit assumptions intrinsic to the gender bias. Legislation might be a solution in one perspective, but proving beyond reasonable doubt that one individual woman has experienced negative discrimination opens a minefield of debate that is too often obfuscated by irrational and illogical arguments that prove nothing; either one way or another. To enact positive discrimination about quotas can be just as perilous and fraught with exactly the same irrational and illogical arguments.
There is no easy way of dealing with these issues; but all I can hope is that as a society we can engage in an intellectual discourse about the complexity inherent in these issues without allowing our assumptions to sabotage the discourse. We need to abandon the generalisations and start on a mutually respectful and equal playing field where both men and women listen and really ‘hear’ each other without fear of recrimination or retribution. Only then might the pace of change be less than glacial!