It’s official: men are bad, women are downtrodden. This is the inescapable message to be gleaned from the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) and its latest Census of Women in Leadership. After 10 years of conducting the census, EOWA director Helen Conway laments that there has been negligible change for women in executive ranks. “[F]rankly, you’d expect to see more progress,” she says. “Companies have failed to develop and maintain a strong pipeline of female talent and you can see this in the negligible growth in female executive management.”
Frankly, Helen, I’m fed up with these gender surveys that are big on accusation but light on solutions. Other than the default fallback of quotas, that is. Would it be too much to ask for more nuanced research on gender in the workplace and more nuanced responses?
The good news is the growing proportion of women on the boards of S&P/ASX 200 companies: 12.3 per cent, based on EOWA’s survey period but 15.2 per cent at present, according to the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Progress is slower elsewhere. According to EOWA, women comprise 9.2 per cent of executives in the S&P/ASX 500, only 12 ASX 500 companies have female chief executives and men hold 2148 line management positions in ASX 500 companies, compared with 141 held by women.
But what are these figures telling us? The inference is clear enough. When the Australian Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry asserts that “discrimination impacts upon women achieving high positions in most industries”, the quota lobby will nod in solemn agreement. The answer is unlikely to be so simple. The ready assumption that the barrier to women in management is men smacks of the sexism that so occupies the quota lobby. Surveys present these figures as if they are the whole story but they are not.
Given the limited progress of women in management – especially as this does not correspond with the prominence of women in other fields – let us find out why. Rather than simply pointing the finger at men as unthinking brutes, we must identify the cultural, social and personal factors that shape the gender divide. When we better understand these causes we can create the workplaces, cultures and public policy frameworks that will make it easier for women to plan their careers.