Gender in the Age of Demagogues, Dictators and Dopes

Mar 8, 2017 · 8 min read

Written by Narelle Hooper
Artwork by Carla McRae

Four of us from different parts of corporate life were swapping notes over drinks recently. After three days at a bootcamp for women entrepreneurs I was pumped. I’d met confident, kick ass women who were doing everything from running Uber for trucks, managing AI customer platforms, and inventing digital wristbands that make exercise enticing for kids.

By contrast, one of us was about to run a gender equality workshop for a bunch of senior men and had been hit by the weight of the status quo after walking with a group of former career women turned stay-at-home mums.

“Quick give me some optimism, I need it desperately” she said. “Give me some counterbalancing.”

Another of us, recently in between big jobs, told us how she’d decided at the last minute to turn down an attractive new role. “I just couldn’t go back in. These roles are all consuming of people.” she said. Her son was going to get his learners permit this year and while her husband had been the main carer at home, the thought of 120 compulsory driving hours with her son was (bizarrely) something she couldn’t put a value on.

And herein lay a tiny patch of the complex tapestry we’re dealing with as we try to work towards a more inclusive, gender equal society. The exciting possibility of the new emerging economy fighting for space and straining up against the heavy threads of the unthinking custom that has long shaped and dictated the tempo of society.

As mixed race, educated and relatively privileged women, we had to remember to check our privilege at the door. We were not fearful, nor were we scheming to squirrel away spare change and leave a violent, controlling partner with two young daughters in tow like someone close to me.

It is a reminder that we’re all dealing with this world, this period of flux in our own ways. Times like this weigh heavily on our souls. With more precarious economic futures ahead, institutional leadership lacking and discontent that so many of us are missing out, the demagogues and dictators are on the rise, nurturing fear as they attempt to shush the voice of feminism. These are charged times where our words and our actions are more vital as there is more at stake than ever.

At the end of our drinks, we four did a kind of give and get, an informal swap meet: who needed support, connections and where and how we could help each other.

We reminded ourselves of the long game: how the women who fought for the vote and property rights and education and birth control must have felt over the decades.

We walked away with a bit more oomph to go back into the fray and battle on. And amidst the increasingly toxic public discourse, stepping back to look at the long game is not only helpful, but vital.

World Economic Reform data shows Australia’s long game has not just flatlined but has gone backwards on the gender front.

The WEF tracks 144 nations across four groups of measures: economic participation, educational attainment, health and survival and political participation.

In 2016, Australia slipped to 46th from 36th but more shockingly, in the decade since 2006, we’ve slid from 15th spot. Typically, at the summit of the top ten are northern European nations who embed gender equality principles, and enable access to parental leave and childcare — Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden. No surprise these are among our most innovative nations.

The penny has dropped in countries like Slovenia as they’ve made rapid progress up the list, while our neighbours New Zealand have tucked into the top ten at nine. Strangely enough, Rwanda, which managed to slaughter most of its young men decades ago is in at number five and has the highest participation of women in politics.

Gender equality is a proxy for a nation’s capacity to maximise the use of its human capital, its capacity to tap 100% of its talent. That is what will help determine survival and success in the new economy. On this score, Australia has become a wastrel.

We have long ranked at number one for women’s educational attainment. What is letting us down is the decline in women’s participation in politics and business leadership. Since 2006, on the participation in politics score, Australia has slipped from the 32nd to the 61st spot.

Not only has the political sphere become a more hostile and toxic space, many basic equity measures have gone by the wayside. For example, once a pioneer of policies such as running budget and policy initiatives through a gender lens (The Economist rates this as smart economic planning. It avoids unintended consequences like block headed budget measures and when policies work for women and girls, they tend to work for the economy.) Australia ceased the practice under the Abbott Government in 2013.

As the WEF Gender Gap Report says, while there’s a clear values-based case for parity when women are one-half of the world’s population and deserve equal access to health, education, economic participation, earning potential and political decision-making power.

But it’s “equally fundamental to whether and how societies thrive and has a vast bearing on the growth, competitiveness and future-readiness of economies and businesses worldwide.”

On that score, the Canadian — US border offers a live case study of the divide in years to come. An inclusive feminist PM with a diverse cabinet embracing social equity on one side while on the other is a sabre rattler who wants to build walls and round up minority groups.

Stop trying to fix women, fix the system

It is the design dilemma that we’re struggling with now for gender equality. Even as we have to deal with the depth of overt bias and efforts to roll back progress, it is the covert stuff, the unthinking practices and social, cultural and economic norms and conventions that are baked in deep to our daily lives and institutions and language. Even today it is so infuriatingly difficult to gain traction on equality for women.

From automotive crash test dummies designed to average male dimensions (until US research showed the smaller female frame was more likely to receive serious injury) to the flawed science of how we calculate economic performance (GDP measures that exclude the massive contribution of housework and caring), to the peculiarities of superannuation linked to employment right down to taxes on tampons.

You wouldn’t set out to design a retirement incomes system that actively disadvantages the person whose time in the workforce is interrupted by time at home rearing children. The end result of which is that women have to start saving earlier or end up working up to 15 years longer than men to break even on super.

Catherine Fox in her cracking new book, Stop Fixing Women: Why Building Fairer Workplaces is Everyone’s Business, argues that we’ve spent decades putting women in a box with the deficit model. The structures holding women back are part of a system that is deeply rooted in a male way of being.

“Women are told they need to back themselves more, stop marginalising themselves, negotiate better, speak up, support each other, strike a balance between work and home…insisting that women fix themselves won’t fix the system, the system built by men,” she writes.

Which means men, and particularly powerful men, need to use that clout to create change where it counts.

That means not just talk but action on flexible work, affordable, accessible child care, pay parity, who gets the jobs and development opportunities and getting men and women to stand and work together in partnership for change. Gordon Cairns, chair of Woolworths puts it “Men invented the system, men largely run the system, men need to change the system.”

As Fox writes employers and leaders holding on to traditional gender norms of primary male earners and women as secondary income providers need to adapt to the realities of their workforces and future markets for their goods and services rather than the other way around.

Progressives V The Pretenders

White Anglo men remain over-represented at every level of the corporate pipeline and institutional leadership. Noted US gender authority Aviva Wittenberg Cox reminds us that gender balance happens in companies only if it is personally and forcefully led by the CEO. She describes three types of organisations: the progressives, the pretenders and the plodders.

The Progressives

Companies that are truly balanced, with a mix of genders in a range of roles on their leadership teams. There are very few in a corporate world which still holds true to traditional stereotypes, but you see some large corporates like Pepsico, McDonald’s, P&G, Mirvac are some examples.

The Pretenders

They’re saying all the right things, it’s very visible on their website and they run a lot of women-branded initiatives, but you’ll see women only occupy noncore P&L roles on the executive team. Most organisations are in this category. This is where there is great room for change and focus is needed, calling out the gap between walk and talk and driving accountability.

The Plodders

These are ignoring the issue and stick unapologetically to their all-male status quo. Actually, Plodders is a euphemism, probably best we call them what they are, a hangover of The Patriarchy, the boys club. They’re so bent on doing things the way they’ve always done them, they are hostile to any alternative. You’ll recognise these. The corporate culture is so unreconstructed in these companies that they have trouble keeping the women.

On the ASX200 listed company boards there were 16 of these companies as of December 2016. There are many more out there we need to ferret out, educate or run around or over.

Since some people are talking about rounding up people and camps, it might be more productive to round up member of the patriarchy and send them to reeducation camps.

At a recent discussion on innovation, the glaring absence of women in venture capital funded businesses (around 9%) was raised as was Australia’s increasingly urgent economic dilemma.

The predictable lines rolled out. “It’s changing but it’s slow. It’s really tough”. So how would we get a step change was the question. There was muttering of burning platforms. Larry Marshall, CEO of the CSIRO was more frank.

“I think Australia has a really good standard of living,” he said. ”I think we’re going to have to go through pain before we change.”

I’d hope Australia is smarter than that.

“No great shift in the status of women as citizens and workers nor any civil or human rights movement, can succeed purely through the efforts of the marginalised group” concludes Catherine Fox

“Just about every ultimate victory in fighting slavery and racism, and winning basic voting rights for women, had to be eventually supported and championed by established male power groups which, usually reluctantly, had to give up some of their entitlement to help tackle injustice.”

Change happens only when things get personal and those with the power step up and lead the change.

Realising, like the suffragettes of a century ago, that if we believe it is possible to shape a very different future we must stand and fight for the future we want to see.

And remember, don’t bring a plate, bring a bloke.

Narelle Hooper is an adviser and co-author of New Women New Men New Economy: how creativity, openness diversity and equity are driving prosperity now (Federation Press) who presented the Women in New Economy session at AAW 2016.

All About Women

All About Women celebrates what matters to women and is presented by Sydney Opera House.


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A melting pot of stimulating conversation and provocative debate. Presented by Sydney Opera House.

All About Women

All About Women celebrates what matters to women and is presented by Sydney Opera House.

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