A woman working for a large company tells her teammates she’s off to a meeting and will be away for an hour or so. But when she mentions the meeting is for the firm’s women’s network, one of her male colleagues loudly says he thinks the network is unfair and asks why there isn’t a men’s network too?
Surprised and a little lost for words, she dodges the question and leaves. But at the meeting, a number of women tell her they have had a similar reaction from the men they work with, and suggest some strategies to deal with these responses.
Actually that’s what these networks are for – they help to make it clear that these issues are not about individual fault but the way systemic bias, and backlash over attempts to address it, often unfold. Finding out that others are facing and dealing with these kinds of casual but cutting remarks can be a big help personally and in making progress.
And the simplest response to criticisms of unfairness? Maybe pointing out that history has made it clear that equal outcomes don’t come from equal treatment. That’s because groups that aren’t in power – women; racial minorities; and lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people – also aren’t getting the same opportunities or range of choices as those who are part of the mainstream.
It’s fashionable these days to decry the days of affirmative action as political correctness gone mad. But that doesn’t mean we should forget the principles that drove such interventions which maintained that fairness for everyone means giving extra support to those who had historically been left behind.
Women still earn less than men, are notably absent from leadership and bear the larger burden of household work, as we know from the numerous studies and regular reporting data.
The better approach, according to experts such as the former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, is not about blaming individuals – men or women – for this state of affairs but tackling systemic bias by making sure those in power are engaged in the effort.
There’s plenty of backlash around at the moment because of the overt action being taken by many organisations and their male chief executive officers to support women. This is either through networks, targets for women in recruitment or management, or programs to provide career paths.
Actively making sure women are included and given access to choices is one way to get workplace change, as Lance Hockridge, the CEO of Aurizon told a conference earlier this year. He believes that progress means some unequal measures are needed.
“Intervention is critical at every step of the process. I often say if we treat inequality equally, then we will get what we’ve always got,” he told the audience.
And the Aurizon program, which includes a five-year target to increase women in the company from current levels of just 15 per cent to 30 per cent, has been often “uncomfortable and confronting for some parts of our workforce”.
Having received all sorts of feedback about it, Hockridge commented “it’s fair to say it has caused the organisation or at least big parts of it, to take a very deep breath”.
The initiatives by Aurizon and other companies is not part of a zero-sum game where women win and men therefore automatically lose. Rather, these networks and other programs are designed to help women as a cohort have the same – not more - access to opportunities as men.
And if they work well then in the future such measures wouldn’t really be needed.
Until then, these options offer help to navigate and redesign systems that were designed by and for men, or male breadwinners to be more precise.
As David Jones chair and former Lion CEO Gordon Cairns told a forum last year: “Men invented the system, they run the system and if no-one challenges them they have no incentive to change the system."
These efforts to change the system are not feel-good measures but designed to boost capability and productivity from getting and keeping skilled employees.
And there’s always another response to claims that women’s programs are unfair and excluding: that’s to make sure everyone knows they are welcome to join in.
Solving difficult business problems should always be about drawing from the best thinking which comes from all kinds of contributions. And in my experience, most women’s groups in companies around Australia are actively encouraging men to join their activities and become partners in making workplaces better for all. Just like the male CEOs who have taken a lead on this agenda.
Enough with claiming it’s unfair to tackle the systemic bias in workplaces, that means women face particular obstacles. Some of Australia’s top CEOs are intervening and supporting women because they know when everyone can fully contribute there are better results. That’s not unfair: it’s a win-win.