Jen McDonald, Principal of our sister-company For Pity Sake Publishing, reflects on Catherine Fox’s 2017 Ashurst Business Literature Prize-nominated Stop Fixing Women: Why building fairer workplaces is everybody’s business.
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WHILE reading Stop Fixing Women I was reminded of a scene in the 1988 film Working Girl. Tess McGill (played by Melanie Griffith) is a secretary from the wrong side of tracks working at a Wall Street investment firm. Desperate to get into Mergers and Acquisitions, she passes herself off as her own (ironically) female boss to gain a seat at the table. When the ruse is discovered, Tess says to the big businessman client, “You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you’re trying to get there. And if you’re someone like me, you can’t get there without bending the rules.”
Herein lies an essential theme of Catherine Fox’s excellent treatise, one that endeavours to get to the bottom of why, in 2018, we’re still having this interminable conversation about women’s equality and advancement in the workplace.
Fox knows a thing or two about working women having written the ‘Corporate Woman’ column in the Australian Financial Review for several years and authoring a 2013 book entitled Seven Myths About Women and Work. When her introduction cites several examples of naggingly persistent assertions (chiefly made by male executives) that women themselves are to blame for the depressing lack of gender diversity in the upper echelons of Australian business, I’m inclined to believe her.
The book’s introduction reads like a business-world equivalent of slut-shaming. Women don’t ‘back themselves’ enough, or don’t put their hands up enough for promotions and board positions. And while there have been several (usually female) high-profile champions of women’s advancement in the workplace; the establishment of many businesswomen’s networks plus the availability of countless seminars and programs for upskilling, confidence-building and networking – the lack of actual progress in this arena is staggering. And guess what? Women get blamed for that too.
A few pages into Stop Fixing Women, I confess to becoming a little depressed. While trying to avoid sounding like a victim myself, as a small businesswoman and mother, I’ve always felt the game of work is rigged against us girls. Fox’s book, underpinned by an abundance of scrupulously researched examples, makes it impossible to deny that this corporate match-fixing exists. Furthermore, this bias against women is so ingrained and pervasive that I’d actually stopped noticing it. Now that’s dangerous territory. When you can’t even see how the odds are stacked against you, why not fall into the trap of believing it’s your fault if you can’t win at the game of work?
Don’t get me wrong here, folks. Stop Fixing Women is not just a depressing summation of how this country’s corporate sector is going to hell in a handmaid’s basket in relation to gender equality in the workplace. Catherine Fox frequently refers to one significant pinpoint of light in the form of an Australian initiative called Male Champions of Change (MCC). This growing movement comprises male CEOs who are coming to the realisation that, just as history is written by the victors, the rules of the gender-equality-at-work game are set by the people (read men) at the top. Interestingly, many of the members of this group were inspired to take up the mantle of change while witnessing the obstacles faced by their wives and daughters. Smell the irony?
This progress notwithstanding, the real source of my depression about this whole topic stems from the realisation that debates about workplace flexibility and diversity are still framed as ‘women’s issues’. Surely men could also benefit from more flexible and (okay let’s call a spade a spade here) humane work environments that accommodate life outside the office?
Clearly not or at least, not yet. In chapter two, entitled ‘The fight for flexibility’ Fox states, ‘…flexible working is still viewed as the exception to the rule in the majority of Australian companies…While flexibility can clearly mean many different things to different cohorts, there is still a tendency to equate it with part-time work for mothers.’ The author goes onto say that the few men who’ve tried to access flexibility options such as varying start/finish times or working from home are ‘battling the legacy of this remedial approach to fit women into a traditional male breadwinner model.’
Furthermore, those men who’ve taken up the offer of flexible working conditions (where these opportunities even exist) usually face a distinct lack of support from their bosses and peers. They also suffer that pesky ‘curtailed career advancement and income prospects’ thing that an overwhelming majority of women are confronted with after having the temerity to take maternity leave.
It would seem that work cultures and systems that are stacked against women are actually detrimental to working blokes as well. This surely begs the question why, in the high-stakes game of Australian business, we are still playing the woman and not the ball?