A few years ago I was providing corporate communications support to a company that was about to gain a new director who would be their only female board member. During a meeting I suggested we contact professional women’s publications because they might be interested in running an article on the company’s only female director.
A senior leader of the company, who also happened to be the only male in that meeting, looked at me quizzically. He raised his eyebrow, before a look of realisation washed over his face.
“Oh…I get it. You want to play the gender card!” he said.
“I beg your pardon,” I replied stunned.
“You want to play the gender card in the hope it will get us some publicity, eh?”
In his next breath he proceeded to tell me that the only reason there were so few women in senior management roles in a major bank he ‘once worked for’ was because there were no women good enough for the roles. That despite all the well-meaning targets and quotas, this bank simply could not find enough women with the right skills and experience to take up senior roles.
I was stumped. But I wasn’t the only one who sat in that room in silence. The two other people in the room that day were also women, and they too sat quietly; a roll of their eyes towards mine was their only register of disbelief.
I often reflect on that meeting and berate myself for not speaking up. I probably held back because he was a client and I didn’t feel equipped to eloquently provide him a counter argument without the risk of losing my cool. The other women in the room probably sat quietly because he was ranked senior to them; calling people out can be hard, especially when they sit higher on the corporate ladder. It’s also hard when myths are used like curve balls to catch you off guard.
Fast forward a year or so and I had the good fortune of landing a contract at Microsoft Australia and the opportunity to work with Managing Director Pip Marlow. It was at this time Pip had an opinion piece published in the Australian Financial Review busting the many myths she has heard bandied about in boardrooms as the reasons behind Australia’s low female workplace participation rates.
Myths like setting targets mean dropping the bar, despite the fact that the concept of ‘merit’ isn’t an exact science and can be swayed by bias – both consciously and subconsciously – about what a leader looks like. And in many cases this stereotype is a male.
Myths like there are not enough women in the recruitment pipeline, despite the fact women outperform men in most tertiary courses (in the legal profession more than 60 per cent of law graduates in Australia are women) and in the early years of professional life.
Myths like women are opting out of promotion, which is true in many cases, but it’s not because they don’t want to work anymore. Many women (like myself) want to combine being a parent with their professional career but the only thing stopping them are companies that are yet to adopt truly flexible work cultures. Too many companies still struggle to see that productivity is about pace, commitment, adaptability and a genuine output – it has nothing to do with the amount of time you are seen sitting at your desk.
And now, with the beauty of hindsight I wish I could go back in time and have my moment in that meeting again. I would declare: “Actually, yes! I do want to play the gender card.
“Because it’s good for your company: more studies, like the one from consultancy firm McKinsey, show that when women are included on executive committees, average return on equity improves by 47 per cent and average earnings before interest and tax improve by 55 per cent.
“Because it’s good for the economy: the Grattan Institute has found that increasing the female workforce participation by 6 per cent has the potential to add $25 billion each year to the Australian economy.
“Because of all the directors of companies on the ASX 200, only 20 per cent are women and on the ASX 300 only 18 per cent are women. We still have a long way to go and every single story about a woman (or a man) playing their role to support balanced gender participation is an important story to tell: to provide role models; to change common perceptions about what a leader looks like (that they can be female); and to shed light on how people are doing it.”
Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing and so are the many conversations taking place today about gender equality in the workplace. And as I listen, learn and engage I become more empowered to challenge the myths that are too easily used as excuses.
So next time I’m asked if I’m playing the gender card, I’m leaning in and putting that card on the table.