Enough with fixing women

Blaming women for their own marginalisation is a way to avoid tackling structural biases, writes Catherine Fox.

A young woman in a management role is pulled aside after a meeting by her older male boss for some feedback. He explains she is too “emotional” when she contributes to the discussion and suggests she watch some of the others in the meeting (mainly older men) to learn how to more effectively participate.

Given she had simply asked a few questions, the advice leaves her puzzled and annoyed. Just weeks before she had attended a workshop for women in her company which encouraged them to speak up and ‘lean in’ at the table or risk getting left behind.

She is not the only one finding that advice routinely handed out to women on how to navigate the workplace is often about copying male norms. Nor is she alone in finding this tip is more a hindrance than a help.

I speak at many events about these issues and just about every time I hear from women who are frustrated by the contradictory advice they are getting. They are fed up with the message that women bring a set of deficiencies to the workplace that need to be remedied. Which is why I wrote my latest book Stop Fixing Women: why building fairer workplaces is everybody’s business.

This approach to bridging the gender gap – often dubbed ‘the deficit model’ – seems to come in and out of fashion as an explanation for the problems women still face. Although many observers hoped it had started to disappear as a more sophisticated understanding emerged of how structural sexism operates in workplaces, the evidence would suggest otherwise.

That’s possibly due to the renewed rhetoric about the challenges women face and the move to use levers such as targets to address the problem which triggers fierce backlash. Some see these steps as unfair and eroding the principle of merit (although there’s little research to suggest this is the outcome).

The economic case for gender equality

Blaming women for their own marginalisation is a way of maintaining the status quo and avoiding tackling some of the more difficult structural biases in how employees are hired, promoted and paid.

Dismantling these barriers is far from some politically correct, feel-good exercise. More equal societies score more highly on just about every economic and social indicator there is, and they are more productive and happier too.

There is a clear correlation between gender equality and gross domestic product per capita, the level of economic competitiveness and human development, according to the World Economic Forum. To put it another way, a 6 per cent increase in participation in the workforce by Australian women could add $25 billion to GDP, according to a 2012 report by the Grattan Institute.

And improving women’s workforce participation broadens the tax base, generates a return on investment form education, and reduces dependence on the pension as women can consistently save for their retirement.

Given all these positives, it’s seems sensible to ask what would deliver progress instead of relying on telling women to pull their socks up.

My research suggests effective action includes:

  • addressing recruiting practices that fail to include marginalised groups on shortlists and interview panels
  • challenging bias in promotion decisions because of assumptions made about women’s appetite for leading or risk taking
  • scrutiny of gender pay gaps, particularly after parenting leave periods.

The ‘fixing women’ message plays a role as a decoy and excuse for every one of these barriers, and is much more than an irritation. In many ways it reinforces the stereotypes – that women lack confidence and negotiating skills for example – which are part of the problems leading to gender imbalances in the first place.

And it’s led many businesses down the garden path with some popular corporate ‘remedies’ for women which are expensive, time-consuming and have little impact on outcomes. That includes some versions of mentoring for senior women, unconscious bias awareness which is not supported by further training or measurement, and sending women to empowerment training.

While some of this advice is individually helpful (and could benefit men as well), make no mistake – it will not do much to shift the causes of gender bias. No amount of ‘leaning in’ will breakdown the old boys’ club.

That’s because the ‘deficit approach’ is all about addressing the symptoms and not the cause of gender discrimination. And it usually, by definition, focuses on half the workforce while the impact of the norms and behavior of the other half remain largely unexamined.

Structural fixes are needed

Expecting women to fix themselves up and solve structural sexism and bias is not particularly logical either. How can women be both the problem and the solution when they make up just under half the workforce, but only a tiny minority of decision makers?

The real culprits of rules and attitudes driven by tenacious stereotypes need to be dismantled by those who have the clout to make change happen. This means the top team and they are still overwhelmingly men.

And that’s where the idea of male advocacy ‘to deliver a fair go’ for women comes in. Luckily quite a few male chief executive officers agree – and are trying to do something about it. Leaders such as Martin Parkinson, the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; Lance Hockridge, the former CEO of transport company Aurizon; Angus Campbell, the Chief of Army; and Simon Rothery, the CEO of Goldman Sachs.

They are some of the men I interviewed in detail about how to intervene to ensure better outcomes and not just talk about them. As I point out in my book, these men not only run the system, they are the system.

Enough with fixing women. It’s time for the people at the top to lead the charge and fix the workplace.

Stop fixing women: why building fairer workplaces is everybody’s business was released in April 2017.