In Australia the ideal female worker is white, good looking, shrugs off sexism and loves being part of the boys club.
It was the first evening of product manager Katrina’s company conference and the CEO had just started the audio visual presentation.
“It began with a woman’s naked silhouette and went downhill from there,” she said. “The company had paid an actress and filmed her sucking on a lollipop and talking about having sex with a piece of equipment our company distributed.”
Katrina had just returned from a weeklong work trip to the US feeling positive about work for the first time in years.
“For the first time in ages I’d actually felt comfortable at work. On my last day in the States I’d looked around the room and realised there were all these women in senior positions, something I’d never experienced in Australia,” she says.
“Not only were there more women but they were also quite different – it was ok for them to be who they are, they didn’t have to adhere to any stereotype.”
“In Australia you get the sense that what you look like matters. Managers would talk about hiring only attractive women because ‘they worked better with clients’. It was openly discussed what the women in the team looked like and they were ranked amongst other people who worked in the company.”
As she sat in the conference with her colleagues watching the on screen train wreck, Katrina started mentally sending her CV out to US recruiters.
The last straw was when the CEO put up a mock Aston Martin ad of a woman in a G-string. “She was bending over with one leg up on a bench with the tagline ‘you know it’s been used before but do you really care?’”
When Katrina confronted him later that evening, he was confused as to how anyone might find the presentation offensive.
“If the kind of things that get said in Australian boardrooms were said in the US,” says Katrina, “that meeting would be shut down and that person would be sent straight to HR.”
In Australia, however, Katrina’s HR rep was part of the problem.
“The HR enjoyed being part of the whole boys’ club. She aspired to be [like them] and the CEO was her mentor.”
Professor Susan Ainsworth, an internationally recognised expert in gender within organisations, says it’s not unusual for women to take part in sexist behaviour at work as a survival strategy.
“Women may have less power and try to fit in to an existing corporate culture or risk being marginalised and stereotyped themselves.”
“It would be one thing if it was unusual for that workplace,” says Katrina, “but I think it’s pretty reflective of Australian culture.”
Too often, says Ainsworth senior managers fall into the trap of ‘The Boss’s Illusion’ – “they think everything is okay because from their perspective it is.”
Personally speaking, I’ll never forget being a fledgling yoga teacher years ago at a Fitness First induction. The facilitator showed us pictures of the board members and explained that the only woman on the board, he told us, had just gone on maternity leave. “So I guess that’s the trouble with having women on boards,” he said.
To my shame, I said nothing.
“Sexism can be subtle, that you’re not always sure how to vocalise it, or recognise how you might even be contributing,” says Katrina.
After Katrina confronted her CEO several others also complained. “They eventually made some very poor efforts to deal with it, but you could tell they were only doing it because there was so much evidence of systematic sexism that if they didn’t appear to be doing something, that they would have a bigger issue to deal with.”
What can be done?
From my own experience at a university teaching young women, many believe that sexism was largely eradicated in the 1970s and nothing more needs to be done. But in many ways we’re going backwards and the gender pay gap is actually increasing.
“Don’t assume things are getting more equal,” says Ainsworth. “The most dangerous belief is that the situation will inevitably improve. I’ve heard this many times over the last 30 years. Left to itself, corporate culture tends to reproduce itself.”
Fortunately, says Ainsworth, there are many examples of organisations taking a more proactive approach. “BHP, for example, set a 50:50 gender target for its workforce by 2025.”
Recognise that reducing sexism benefits men
It’s not only women who were ‘allowed’ to be themselves in the States, says Katrina.
“The expectations on men to be masculine are very different. In the States men are allowed to be more effeminate than they are here.”
Professor Susan Ainsworth agrees that gender roles for men are too narrow within Australian corporate culture.
“This is important – we need to make it okay for men to behave in ways that might be considered traditionally ‘feminine’, like taking time off to care for children and sharing the household responsibilities. Change for women also means change for men.”
“People complain about quotes, but really quotas are adjusting along the way for all of those intangible things that people don’t recognise or feel able to call out that discriminate against women along the way,” says Katrina “Quotas just redress that imbalance.”