The following article was reported in the Australian Financial Review on 7 January 2014.
Male leadership not enough: gender equality need everyone's help
The gender debate rages on. Women continue to flow out of their careers way too early. Too few return after career and maternity breaks. Others opt for self-employment.
Some argue that “the system was built by men so it should be fixed by men” and they lure male CEOs of prominent businesses to do the trailblazing. An example is the group known as the Male Champions of Change that was formed mid-2010 and includes ASX100 leaders like Mike Smith (ANZ), David Thodey (Telstra) and Alan Joyce (Qantas).Yet there are concerns. Are these groups patriarchal? Is it condescending to women if an all-male group is asked to fix things for them? Does your average businesswoman rely on a man to fix other things in their lives that are outdated or broken? Rarely: these days women are extremely capable at attending to most things.
Having recently spoken to more than 100 leaders in Australia and Asia about boosting productivity and growth through greater diversity, I have observed a number of conflicting views on the issue.Firstly, some people question why women are asking men to fix things. While there is an acceptance that seeing male captains of industry stepping up to make change is a powerful signal to other males, there is also a concern that senior and powerful women female leaders might be abdicating their responsibility to do the same. If women in power – like Gail Kelly (Westpac), Katie Page (Harvey Norman), Jane Hemstritch (CBA) and Carolyn Hewson (BHP Billiton) – were invited to join the males above in a group simply called Champions of Change, would that not demonstrate each gender’s mutual respect for the talents and valuable contributions of the other?
Secondly, why not ask all leaders at all levels to help? We often hear people saying that the key to gender balance is skilled, inclusive leadership, but then they look only to male leaders in the biggest businesses, and generally they are referring to the CEOs. We need all leaders at all levels to step up – male, female, old, young, senior, not so senior – to demonstrate change. For example, younger leaders who need no convincing about gender equality are generally overlooked ‘until they have grey hair’. High-potential young leaders blocked by the system generally leave it; giving them a voice to influence their peer groups is a wiser move.Thirdly, why focus solely on business leaders? The selection of males invited to lead on gender are an elite group of big business and a few government representatives. Would the initiative not have greater ability to penetrate attitudes more broadly if it included leaders of sports institutions, educational providers, religious organisations and political parties? These organisations are considerably influential in shaping the gender attitudes in society that affect workplace diversity.
Next, we need social change to make diversity stick. There is a belief that the relatively new ASX requirement for listed companies to report on gender will result in sustainable change, benefiting our whole society. Yes, it may positively impact suppliers and customers. However, we cannot expect business to drive a shift in the attitudes of parents, teachers, preachers, sports coaches and community leaders about the roles of girls and young women. Encouraging them to believe they are should be free to select any career, sport or pathway in life is the responsibility of everyone who influences them throughout their journey in life. It is a societal issue and requires everyone’s attention.Finally, where is the cultural view on the gender situation? Unfortunately, most of the advocates for gender equality are not thinking outside gender. Most of the people championing change are Caucasian. We pride ourselves on having a multicultural society, so let’s have a multicultural solution to achieving gender equality. Caucasian people can’t presume to know the needs of non-Caucasians any more than males can presume to know the needs of women.
All of these observations point to a deeper issue: the prevailing assumptions of the Australian culture about the roles of males and females. To change assumptions, we need a broader group of leaders to influence communities across all of business, government, industry and society. We can dream that our children will have the choice of any career and take on any role at work or home, but dreams only come true when you commit to making them happen.Pamela Young, author of Stepping Up: Lead culture change for diversity and growth in the Asian century (growthcurv, 2013)