Not much has changed for women

When I was a young, enthusiastic uni student (still enthusiastic but not so young!) I believed that we had really made some head-way with equality in the workplace. Sure, there were some pockets of sexist idiots but basically the feminist project had worked. As I get older and gain more experience of the world I am, sadly, revising my position on this. All of the media activity in the past 24 hours has got me thinking about this again. It seems that the media is full of discussions about women in leadership in Australia and why there seems to be so little progress in getting more women into the top echelons of management in both large and small organisations.

For example:

Australian firms trail world for women in top roles – http://theconversation.edu.au/australian-firms-trail-world-for-women-in-top-roles-11008?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+conversationedu+%28The+Conversation%29&utm_content=Google+Reader

Female Leader concerns despite triumphs of ASX200 – http://www.hcamag.com/article/female-leader-concerns-despite-triumphs-of-asx-200-146777.aspx

While this is important I can’t help but think that this is not where we should be spending our energy. Of course we need more women in leadership roles (if they want to – that’s another story). I think that there is definitely a lot of work to do about entrenched sexism in the Australian workplace generally, not just at the management/executive level. By and large, these are educated women who can look after themselves and potentially seek employment elsewhere with a more appreciative or flexible employer should the need arise. It is the women further down the workplace food chain that worry me. The women too dependent on their jobs to take a stand, the women with few skills who think that they have no options, the women with no confidence who don’t feel like they can argue back. These are the women who still need help. An older female colleague once said to me (rather unbelievably) that we shouldn’t “rock the boat”. Her perspective was that she’d made it by “playing the game the boys’ way” and that the problem was, more or less, “solved”. I couldn’t, and still can’t, believe this attitude from a woman who really could have made a difference.

Just yesterday I was powerfully reminded of this by a phone call from a friend who had just had an appalling experience when applying for a job. My friend, a woman, works in hospitality management, specifically managing pubs and clubs. She has a lot of experience in this area and had applied for a new role that would be a promotion. Although this can be a male dominated area she’d never really come up against blatant sexism before…until last night. She got an email follow-up to her interview. They told her that she was a great candidate and they would definitely hire her for one of their other pubs but that for the job she had applied for the selection committee had decided that they needed a man to do the job. They actually put than in an email. She was, naturally, shocked, angry and upset. The only reason they had given for not getting the job was her gender. The most galling thing was that there doesn’t seem to be any recourse. Sure, you can go back to the employer and complain but where will that really get you. Legal avenues are risky and expensive. She doesn’t want her currently employer to find out that she’s applied elsewhere and she’s conscious that this is a small world and she doesn’t want to get a reputation for “being a trouble-maker”. What else is left?

I can’t believe that this can happen in 2012. At least these guys were honest though to give them some credit. How many employers make decisions like this every day but cover themselves with platitudes about not being the right candidate, stiff competition and all that. None of that helps my friend and women like her though. This is a situation that must play out repeatedly across many industries and roles across the nation. I’m lucky, I’ve always worked in a female dominated field. That hasn’t always stopped inappropriate questions about when I might start a family or whether my husband agrees with a decision I’ve made but by and large that’s as bad as I’ve ever had to put up with. The fact that I’ve ever had to put up with this at all is a truly sad indictment of the Australian workplace and we need to do something about it. My daughter is one year old and I am sad that this is the world she will one day need to navigate.

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