Be patient? I’ve waited 30 years for the promise of equality at work

02 Mar 2016
Susie Babani Susie Babani

Please stop telling me "Be patient, it will get better over time!"

In 1978 when I started work, women were actively entering the professional workforce in large numbers - not just thinking of a job until they got married but believing they could also have a fulfilling career.

We had a female prime minister in Britain and even characters from Dynasty like Crystal and Alexis Carrington, with their wide shouldered power suits and red painted nails, showed women could run multi-million dollar businesses along with the best of them.

Finally the 'time' so often referred to had arrived; things would never be the same again. Yes, it wasn't always easy to be a woman at work but revolution was in the air. 

I wish. 

That was 30 years ago – yes, 30! A newly minted graduate female entering the corporate workforce at age 22 would now be 52 - a prime age to be in a C-suite role or even a CEO - and indeed for many of her male contemporaries that's exactly the case. But despite all the promise of those days, we now know it's not the case for women.

So we've tried the 'give it time' argument. It hasn't worked. Nor will time alone change much in the next 30 years. Something else is going on.

In my world, which is focussed around sourcing and developing talent for ANZ, I am getting more and more interested in the systems around those processes and whether unconscious bias borne out of deep stereotyping impacts them and how we can push back.

So have a think about an orchestra, by definition and nature a coming together of diverse instruments to create a musical whole much greater than the sum of its parts. Hardly the place, you would think, for rigid structural skews.

Yet, as the Guardian newspaper noted, “it would be hard to deny that there was such a bias in the composition of orchestras. As late as 1970, the top five orchestras in the US had fewer than 5 per cent women, but by 1997 they were up to 25 per cent and today some of them are well into the 30s. What is the source of this change? Have they added jobs? Have they focused on work that appeals to women?" 

So what did change? Auditions. They were made “blind".

Since the 70s, more orchestras have begun using blind auditions. Candidates are situated on a stage behind a screen to play for a jury that cannot see them.

Even when the screen is only used for preliminary screening, it has a powerful impact; researchers have determined this step alone makes it 50 per cent more likely a woman will advance to the finals.

“And the screen has also been demonstrated to be the source of a surge in the number of women being offered positions," The Guardian says.

To me the orchestra story is very powerful. There is no doubt those selecting members for the orchestra would have truly and honestly believed they were selecting the best musician every time, yet this research and the subsequent change in approach to hiring had a significant effect on the orchestra mix, suggesting what they thought of as 'a normal looking orchestra' in their mind's eye had a far greater impact on who they selected than they realised.

So consider the TV show The Voice. It's often a shock for the judges when they see the person behind the screen - they have preconceived ideas of what someone will look like based on what they hear. Often they are very wrong; to the point of not even knowing the gender of the singer. Think of the wonderful Susan Boyle – and watch the audition on YouTube if you haven't.

So what about corporate recruitment? Here at ANZ we have a policy of requiring at least one female on an interview panel and indeed encourage a broader range of people to be involved in interviewing candidates for management roles.

Google and Facebook both ensure that four to five different types of people interview each candidate to get a much richer perspective of suitability for a role as well as fit for the culture of the company.

50:50 MIX 

Recently we have pushed further a 50:50 mix for all first layer of management roles. We hope this will help us be more proactive in sourcing females to ensure we get to see an equal mix as well as hopefully achieving more balanced outcomes in appointments.

Some companies are also introducing a policy whereby initial circulation of CVs no longer includes names but instead are numbered to de-identify both gender and ethnic background. I am also considering this option and would be interested in others' views.

Now I agree appointments to any role should be based on merit but I do know if I didn't mandate 50:50 and left it to traditional approaches of 'fair and merit-based selection' we would see a skew towards male candidates being successful. I know this because I have seen it happen time and time again which is why we took a stand.

For example, one of my senior colleagues was hiring for a mid-management level role and had to push back on the search consultants he was using - three times - to meet his request for female as well as male candidates (search consultants also have entrenched, and often out-dated, stereotypes about what kind of people banks are looking for). Eventually they responded with one person!

The funny thing is she turned out to be the best for the role - so he hired her. So let's also push our search consultants to earn their fees by providing us with a diverse range of competent candidates.

If, in 2016, we are comfortable with a world where women, even in the lowest level of management in developed economies, make up at best around 40 per cent of management but then fall to around 30 per cent at senior management, then to 20 per cent at execs and only 5 per cent at CEO level, then we are accepting a reality which makes no logical sense and suggests we are all missing out on a key source of talent.

I try to remain optimistic. I saw something wonderful recently where 34 young girls were asked to draw a scientist and 30 of the pictures were of girls. I was also excited to hear that the new Canadian PM, Justin Trudeau easily picked a 50:50 cabinet. When asked why, he responded "because it is 2015".

Sometimes, I have to confess it is difficult. I just watched the movie Suffragette where a young washer woman gives evidence to then Prime Minister Lord Asquith. She explained for the same job women earned 13 shillings and men 19 shillings - so 68 per cent of the male wage.

Today, we see on average women earn 80 per cent of what men earn. Back then, there were no laws to prevent women getting paid unequally to men for the same role; today those laws have been in existence since the 1970s. The movie Suffragette was set in 1912 - so please stop asking me to be patient.

This article first appeared on BlueNotes, and is provided here with permission. See the original here.  

Susie Babani

Susie Babani is Chief Human Resources Officer at ANZ    

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