When Julia Gillard was named Prime Minister, I was working in Europe, watching on proudly as Australia sent a message of supporting female leaders, from an international stage.
I then watched as the Australian press ridiculed her, critiquing everything from what she wore to how she spoke, to her marital status. The implicit message this sent to other women was: occupy a leadership position, beware ridicule.
After Hillary Clinton’s announcement that she’s running for Presidency, I am again, years later, watching another high profile woman being scrutinised, as she attempts to “shatter the highest, hardest glass ceiling of them all”. Has anything changed?
Symbolism as a cyclical process
The amount of visibility any community or group has impacts how they are perceived, and by effect, perceive themselves. Having low visibility of a minority or under-represented group only serves to imply they are less capable, educated, knowledgeable – and worthy of these roles. The effect is that eventually, even on a sub-conscious level, members of those groups start to believe it in some small way. You’d be surprised how many highly educated, qualified women catch themselves calling themselves and their daughters the same names others have called them.
Consider the coverage Gillard received in press. As her tenure unfolded, Gillard was subject to ridicule that rarely accompanies male leaders: about what she wore, her haircut, her voice, what she said and, of course, her marital status. It sent a message to women, both locally and internationally, to ‘be careful’ about what they say, what they wear and how they act – both at work and socially.
Women are socialised to believe their ambitions are second rate, their talents not as good, their voices less valid. This holds both men and women back – half of the population are not working and performing and living at their full capacity. In business terms, this makes no economic sense – and on a community level, it doesn’t adequately serve our society.
Simply put, having more women in positions of power aids everyone. If it were normal to see women in senior positions across the world, at home, at work, in politics; the discussion changes completely. Parental leave wouldn’t be a ‘women’s issue’. Male senior leaders would also be asked how they ‘juggle work life balance’ in media interviews.
Ingrained attitudes towards men and women start young. I came from an environment where both my parents worked. Both my brothers and I had to equally help around the house, and from a young age, there was absolutely no question I would likely go onto pursue my own businesses or senior roles. I had male and female teachers, lecturers, mentors and leaders who were supportive.
There was no gender differential as a child but that changed the further or higher I went up the ranks. The symbolism of having high visibility female leaders such as Hilary Clinton plays an enormous part in changing the perceived power of women, collectively, in Australia. Even if it’s as small as a young girl in Alice Springs reading about it in the news, when she’s deciding what she wants to be when she grows up. The fact there is a woman as President or Prime Minister means anything is possible for her.
Press is a mirror to current attitudes towards women
Women and men are discussed differently in press, particularly those in power, which is an accurate indication of how we are perceived in society as a whole.
The narrative of a famous scandal illustrates. A married man had an affair with a junior female member of staff. He was the most powerful man in the world at the time, and allowed the world to hear every, nitty gritty detail of the sexual encounter.
Not one journalist, male of female, named it what it was – an abuse of power; an extra marital affair with a junior member of staff. Female journalists called the young girl a ‘tart’, ‘bimbo’ amongst many other names. Her career was ruined as was her professional reputation and earning potential. Her entire sexual and personal history – unlike his – was broadcast around the world. She was publicly shamed for an error of judgment.
Monica Lewinski was only 22 at the time. The time it took for her to speak out and own her experience at a brilliant and brave Ted Talk, 18 years later, speaks volumes about the issue of women’s visibility; one which is massively absent from the world stage.
Employing visibility tactics
The more women in leadership positions (from political to local), the more it becomes ‘normal’, and the more likely we are to challenge limiting gender based biases during formative years. The more women are seen at a senior level, the less we’ll be needing to have conversations about the earning gap and opportunities for senior roles with our female colleagues, daughters and friends.
Consider how many women shy away from positions of power and why. The way women are ridiculed and bullied in press has a direct link to forming attitudes and where they sit in terms of having a ‘valid’ voice.
In a perfect world, we’d hire the most capable, connected and articulate individual for the job. But the reality is a little different. For men and women to be equal, for women in positions of power to be the norm – needing tactics are an unfortunate necessity.
This is where employers and senior decision makers have a role to play. Demonstrate a commitment to making a work environment that promotes visibility as part of your Corporate Social Responsibility. Introduce board quotas or targets.
Embrace and actively encourage a diverse workplace. Ask for recommendations outside of your immediate networks. Reward team members who speak up against casual sexist remarks in the workplace.
Introduce paternity leave benefits for men. Consider financial incentives for people who decide to have children to return to work at a senior role. Provide opportunities for your team members to lean in and thrive – without being penalised.