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Catherine Fox: Women’s ‘female-only’ destructive powers still blamed for wrecking the joint

/ Apr 24, 2013 0:00AM / Print / ()

Catherine Fox: Women’s ‘female-only’ destructive powers stil...

While Alan Jones's radio program may not be regular listening for business executives, the publicity from his "Destroy the Joint" comments had an eerie familiarity for many women in the corporate world.

It's the sentiment they recognised – the unstated but potent belief that femaleness and failure go hand in hand when it comes to senior jobs. The message from countless performance reviews and interviews, meetings and tea-room chat. The media reports that attribute any mistake by a woman in business leadership to her gender, and crucifies her for everything from clothes to hair colour. The stark lack of women who have braved the parapet.

And like women from all around Australia, they had the same gut reaction: anger and exasperation built up from years of being insulted, bullied, fobbed off or told to calm down.

Not too long ago it was unremarkable to hear senior management explain away the lack of women in their ranks in exactly these terms: as a failure of female nerve, talent and ambition, borne out by the sad failures littering the pathway to the top. Of course we have tried women in these jobs, they would tell me, but it wasn't a success. Not too far below the surface of these fatuous comments – how many women, for example, did they actually appoint or even encourage? – was the unspoken but bedrock belief that women can't really manage or lead, particularly if they have a family. They don't want the roles, and if they happen to get them, disaster soon follows.

Destroying the joint? The very cogs of international commerce – and those smoothly run consensual board meetings – were at threat, many of the great and the good in the executive suite seemed to think. The sheer irony that one gender was overwhelmingly running the joint as the Global Financial Crisis unfolded has been commented on but is rarely held up as proof of male inadequacy. Women are tarred with the same brush when it comes to leadership failure but not men, it seems.

It's all a question of perspective. But absurd negative generalisations about gender in the business world tend to apply to one sex more than the other. Would a man have been subjected to the same kind of vitriol faced by former Pacific Brands CEO Sue Morphet after she closed down several clothing factories in 2009? How could a woman do this, asked one media report. Stories about Gail Kelly often focus on her steely demeanour and her superwoman status to explain her lone role as head of a large listed company. But most examples occur behind closed doors, a combination of biased attitudes and systems that are then used to bolster a story about the fate that awaits those women who get too big for their boots. This idea is still so pervasive in business circles when gender is discussed that the name for the syndrome – the deficit model – is just another part of corporate-speak these days.

Where to start with the illogical thinking and the lack of evidence for these claims?
Certainly, women in business leadership roles are still so rare you'd be struggling to get a quorum. The gender composition of upper ranks has barely shifted in decades despite agitation. There are only twelve women CEOs and just 9.2% of executives in the ASX500 are women. The glass ceiling may sound passé these days but it doesn't mean it's disappeared. Most business sectors have similar profiles when it comes to a gender breakdown: even where women outnumber men, the senior ranks are male dominated and the picture has barely changed at the top end for a decade or so.

In practice, this ridiculously small number of women business leaders means they have novelty value and are often scrutinised through a gender lense – not for what they do but the way they do it. Even if you accept women have a set of unique qualities that they alone bring to the table there is still no accepted norm for women as leaders. The result is a reliance on stereotypes, which means women executives are more likely to be held up to higher, 'caring' standards of behaviour than their male peers, for example. It's not as though men in leadership are entirely free from stereotypes either – research from the US and Australia shows tall, good-looking men are far more likely to succeed in business than their plainer, shorter peers no matter what their talent quotient.

But why let pesky facts, such as the binders of research showing intelligence levels are not linked to physical appearance or gender, get in the way of some well-established and convenient scapegoating? Thus the business world has resisted changing the political – moribund traditional business structures and processes – and gone for the personal when it comes to a rationale for the male-dominated C suite.

Women, it is routinely asserted by business management, are the problem, and just need more confidence, backbone, rigour and ambition. They lack networking skills, emotional control and even, amazingly, problem-solving ability, according to an Australian study by Bain and Chief Executive Women in 2012. The research found men in senior jobs thought men were twice as good as women executives in this fairly essential skill, which came as surprise to many CEW members. Women, we often hear, also basically hate each other and go out of their way to stab female colleagues in the back. And so on.

As a psychological package, this list of inadequacies (or just a failure to match up to a male stereotype, when you think about it) makes it a wonder the whole lot us haven't been committed to a joint rather than just accused of destroying it.

This deficit of innate skills that gives women their destructive power is largely anecdotal and highly subjective. Even those 'female-only' behavioural patterns that stand up to some scrutiny through research (less likely to ask for a pay rise or speak first in meetings, for example) probably simply reflect the dynamics of a minority group dealing with a more powerful cohort. In her excellent book The Loudest Duck, US feminist Laura Liswood explains why many qualities deemed particularly female – better empathy and listening skills, more collaborative – are classic behaviour for an 'out of power' group. So-called female intuition may be more about survival tactics in the face of dominant groups than an inherent gender trait. In fact, minority racial or subservient groups historically exhibited similar patterns, she points out.

Australian psychologist Cordelia Fine, in her book Delusions of Gender, clinically dissects and debunks the idea that women's brains and thinking are vastly different and usually inferior to men's. There is simply very little evidence of any major differences at all and certainly none showing significant female weaknesses. Women are just as capable of learning maths and science, although tell them often enough they are lousy at these areas and they start to perform poorly – it's called stereotype threat.

The focus on women's supposed failures as a rationale for their minuscule numbers at the top – and their joint-destroying tendencies if they get there – often comes at the expense of more rigour around the actual mechanics of who does the recruiting and promoting in business. Time and time again research shows that people with this role are much more likely to select candidates who look and sound like them. This was recently corroborated by a study in US law and consulting firms by Lauren Rivera, from Northwestern University's school of management, in a paper published in the American Sociological Review.

She found, after three years of laborious research, that 'similarity was the most common mechanism employers used to assess applicants at the job interview stage' and that 'hirers at these elite firms favour people like themselves'. One law firm partner told her that the company was 'looking for cultural compatibility, someone who will fit in'. More than half of the 120 people she interviewed rated the candidates' ability to fit in culturally above analytical thinking and communication skills.

It's becoming clear from studies such as these that even those who believe women are joint destroyers may find it a struggle to continue blaming women, and women alone, for not getting up the ranks. Men are clearly still in charge and making most of the decisions about who gets ahead, gets the pay rise or who looks like they will fit in. Similarly it will be more and more difficult to rely on the old excuse that there are not enough qualified or experienced women for senior jobs. The evidence is simply irrefutable.

Women are in the workforce in ever increasing numbers with their participation increasing to 65.3% in 2011 from 60.3% in 2001. More are staying in their paid jobs even when their children are small (under 5 years of age), with the number of women in this category increased from 61 to 66 per cent between 2001 and 2009. And they are pouring out of universities, with women awarded more than 60% of undergraduate degrees in Australia. About 66% of law school graduates are now women.

But as Alan Jones's comments show, it will take more than the facts to change minds. Even the most optimistic advocates for better gender balance in workplaces have been surprised by how tenacious the old excuses are. Biased and blinkered, but with a strong incentive to see the business world remain in their 'safe' hands, this is a group that is clinging on to power with all their might.

Women in business aren't wrecking the joint, but they are increasingly holding it together while being paid and rewarded less than their male colleagues – the current average gender pay gap is 17.3%, the same as twenty-five years ago. Even at this bargain price they are also expected to behave well and keep the team happy while bearing the brunt of the household and caring chores too. Their failure to climb the ladder isn't due to some mysterious female deficiency that opens the hobs of hell, but plain old-fashioned and lazy discrimination, which relies on familiar models of authority and equates difference with risk.

Alan Jones, of course, ticks all the boxes of this outdated pale, male and stale model. He, like many of the men running our corporates, is deeply uncomfortable with and affronted by the notion of women in charge. Even a scarce few at the top are to be feared for the inherent female ineptness they bring to the decision making table. What an excellent reason for not letting them get anywhere near the pinnacle in the first place. Business as usual – no matter what. 

This is an edited extract from Destroying the Joint: Why Women Have Changed the World, published by University of Queensland Press. The collection of essays, analysis and memoir fiction by some of Australia's leading writers and thinkers and edited by Jane Caro, was inspired by Alan Jones' September 2012 comments that "women are destroying the joint".





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