Watching the reshuffled NSW ministry unveiled by new Premier Mike Baird last week with a grand total of five women left many of us with sinking hearts. I had a similar reaction when I saw the publicity about a new book examining why women lack confidence (The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman).
We are still looking in the wrong direction for answers to gender inequity after decades of debate. The dogged belief that men are just better suited for leadership and power has barely shifted so blaming women's deficits (in confidence, negotiating skill, motivation) doesn't get us anywhere. The problem is about a system designed around a particular set of masculine norms.
All of which got me thinking about turning the focus onto male stereotypes in the workplace in the same way I examined the hampering effect of assumptions about women in my book 7 Myths about women and work (New South Press 2012).
These inaccurate generalisations and male stereotypes aren't just irritating or good for a laugh – they are surprisingly potent and are propping up stubbornly traditional attitudes about who is most valued and rewarded at work, as well as the family and social roles that often leave women in a double bind.
Here's a few I stumble across quite often:
- Men are mostly unemotional and rational. This is an oldie but a goodie and repeated by men and women alike. Most of the brain research shows there is actually little neuroscience to support the idea that men have a particular brain function that ensures a strong grip on emotions while women are just naturally all over the shop. But certainly nurture rather than nature reinforces the idea that women can't keep a lid on it and men are stoic (but more prone to mental health issues from bottling it up). The problem is also one of definition – are we talking about bursting into tears (a female-only affliction) or the full array of emotions? After all, anger is an emotion and I've seen plenty of angry men at work and also some very upset blokes too. I've also seen quite steely women. Isn't it human to feel emotion particularly under stress and in a place where many of us negotiate our identity and status and compete for power and money? Could this be more a question of personality type and environment than gender? Just a thought.
- Men are not as good as women at empathy, communication and collaboration. This is such an absurd stereotype in an age when the buzzwords are all about teamwork and collaboration but it lingers on. Actually, while some people don't have great skills in these areas, myths like this ensure different expectations for men and women. When women don't show enough empathy they tend to get penalised or demonised. When a man fits the stereotype he's much less likely to get punished or labelled difficult. This old myth lets some men off the hook – and can become self-perpetuating. Everyone needs to works on these skills and blaming gender is a lazy cop out.
- Men aren't as good at parenting/serious workers don't use flexibility. There's nothing about parenting that can't be learnt and practise makes perfect. Dads can be highly effective carers when they are encouraged/want to be - and of course more and more are stepping up to the task these days. But rigid demarcations around caring and paid work means men often face penalties if they want to take time off for children, which stymies attempts to mainstream flexibility and leaves women stuck on the mummy track with few real choices. And the 24x7 extreme worker model is not a long-term option for anyone wanting to live a healthy and productive life, as we know very well from international research. Changing the parameters of what success looks like and removing the male breadwinner burden would be a step in the right direction.
- Only men know how to 'lean in' and that's why they get ahead. There's good evidence now that women in many organisations are taking most of the steps considered necessary to be recognised and rewarded, not just men. This includes asking for new jobs, secondments, and pay rises. Last year US compensation specialists Payscale found that women were just as likely to ask for a raise as men at every income level up to US$100,000 -- and slightly more likely in some cases. They also found as women become more senior, they become more likely to ask for a raise, but that men outpace them on aggressiveness as they rise on the career ladder. Research by US firm Catalyst also found that the career tactics that work for men don't always have the same result when used by women. So assuming men are just naturally more proficient career climbers – and women don't try -- is certainly not the whole story. There are plenty of subtle advantages that favour men from early on in their careers and backfire on women.
- The gender pay gap is small and only exists because men work longer hours. Actually, the gender pay gap can be looked at in many ways but it's certainly not insignificant, and career breaks have a serious compounding and negative effect on women's salaries (and superannuation savings). As for working less, there are of course more women working part-time than men but their pay reflects the reduced hours. And women in flexible roles waste only 11.1% of their time compared to an average 14.5% for the rest of the working population, according to 2013 research by Ernst & Young. In management ranks in listed companies, everyone has to work hard or they simply don't survive. But there is still a pay gap at this level - women in senior jobs were paid less than men, according to this month's Financial Review Boss magazine, with their pay packets 20% less than their male peers. A more useful exercise than comparing notions of 'who works harder' could be looking at improving transparency and accountability for productivity, which could also help narrow the pay gap.
- Men are mates and support each other. This is often seen as the flipside of the ''women are bitchy and stab each other in the back'' syndrome. Mateship is a strongly masculine concept in Australia, historically associated with team sports or the battlefield, and typically is used to describe positive male networks and friendship at work but not women's friendship/support. But while it stands for an ideal of selfless support, mateship can be often used to exclude rather than include at the workplace, creating a club rather than a team. It can also become an excuse for supporting the status quo, and preventing genuine merit from being recognised. There's a big gap between mateship rhetoric and reality.
- Men are better at leading. This myth is the prize winner and the most pervasive. Whether you dress this up as the 'merit' argument, or a consequence of more experience or tenure, or innate skill, there is far too much adherence to such a classically sexist idea. Even when women were regarded as having the same abilities and outcomes as their male peers, Australian research found men were twice as likely to rank other men over women as being highly effective problem solvers (Bain/CEW What stops women from reaching the top? Confronting the tough issues, 2011). Leadership and masculinity are so closely aligned that even traditional alpha male features – depth of voice, height etc – are disproportionately represented in leadership ranks across society and in business. We still have plenty of work to do in prising apart these concepts and proving that leaders come in all sorts of packages.
Catherine Fox is a journalist, author and public speaker with a particular interest in women and the workforce, workforce trends, management and career. Catherine worked for the Australian Financial Review until November 2012, and has written three books. Her latest is Seven Myths about Women and Work. She is on several advisory boards, including the Defence Force Gender Equality Advisory Board.
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