Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Women At The Top

Westpac Bank has just announced a target of having women in at least 40% of management positions in the next four years. Although it is not the first big company to make such an undertaking, it is one of only a very few. In many ways it seems difficult to believe that such matters remain an issue after half a century of feminism, and long standing equal rights legislation. Surely this is a battle which was won long ago. We have a woman as Prime Minister, and a woman as Premier. In fact, by the time Kristina Keneally became the first woman to be Premier of New South Wales, nobody particularly cared one way or another. All other things being equal it would be reasonable to expect men and women to be more or less roughly equally represented in the top jobs. And yet, for some reason the numbers of women in leadership roles remain significantly and disproportionately lower than men.

Working out just why that might be is not entirely simple, but it would seem that community attitudes and perceptions still play a prominent role. Despite the progress which has been made over the decades, old prejudices are slow to completely disappear. It might have been in the 1960s when Star Trek first showed women in positions of responsibility, but it was still another thirty years before they put one in command of a Starship, and even then the television networks were worried whether the audience would accept it. And that’s just a work of fiction. Here in the real world there are still people who believe that women are somehow not equipped to take a leadership role and that it is somehow wrong that they should try. And some of the people who have said such things to me are actually women themselves. While those views are becoming much less prevalent, I have been shocked to discover they have not entirely disappeared.

Of course, it’s one thing for a handful of old fashioned people in the general community to cling to some old fashioned ideas, but it is entirely another thing for those ideas to hold any sway in the board rooms of our biggest companies. It is hard to believe that modern business, which is so obsessed with bottom line thinking, might be making decisions on executive appointments based on anything other than qualifications and competence. Is the propensity of boards to favour the appointment of men based on old prejudices, or is it the result of a lack of suitable candidates? If it is the latter, then why is there a lack of suitable candidates? Has there been a failure by companies to provide adequate training and opportunities to advance for women? Is there still an “old boys” culture within some companies where jobs are awarded to mates, and all the mates just happen to be men? The truth is that all of these things are contributing factors.

But it should also be remembered that while women fought for the right to work in the top jobs, they did not fight for the obligation to do so. Women fought for the right to have a choice of whether to pursue a career, to have a family, to do both, or to do neither. One woman told me that she believed that women have far more choices than men, because society does not condemn them for staying home and letting someone else be the bread winner, while very few men would be allowed to consider that as an option. On that basis, women would seem to be better off than men, not worse. And besides, who said that running a big company is the only measure of success anyway?

I’m sure that plenty of women are capable of doing it… it’s just that some of them quite happily choose not to.

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