Why aren't there more women in our boardrooms?
Sexual discrimination is rife in the corporate world. Trouble is, half the time we’re not even aware of it.I had lunch with a friend last week. She’s a highly successful businesswoman (and multi-millionaire) and got to where she is of her own volition. As a result of her success she only flies first class or business class whenever she travels. She’ll regularly find herself as one of the only females in the cabin.
Enter sexual discrimination example number one.
My friend says that almost every time she’s on a flight, the attendant will ask all the men in the rows around her “Would you care for a paper, sir?” When they approach her, the question usually changes. “Madam, can I get a magazine for you?” incorrectly assuming that she wouldn’t be interested in the Financial Review.
Last time this happened my friend cordially approached one of the attendants when the flight took off to have a chat about what she’d said. Genuinely surprised, the female attendant apologised and was able to admit she’d been doing that for a long time, and it had never even occurred to her to keep the question the same for her female passengers. In fact, she said, she thought she was giving a higher level of service by offering something different. The attendant also admitted, after my friend probed some more, that she had just assumed my friend was a wife of a businessman.
Once she was aware of her thinking and conditioning, she vowed to be more diligent and thoughtful in the future.
A similar thing happened today. I was in a course and the trainer was talking about his consulting work at the C-level of some company. A discussion followed about this and one of the participants commented about the C-level subject, “Oh, he shouldn’t have done that”. Now who’s to assume that the CEO or CFO or whoever the trainer was talking about was a male?
The problem lies in the covert. It’s the language we use and the assumptions we make that are holding us back.
Female representation on ASX 200 boards in Australia dropped from 8.7% in 2006 to 8.3% in 2008. It’s hard to believe that the rate declined in this period, despite the fact that Australia shares first place in terms of education levels (according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report).
I reckon a lot of it can be attributed to the clandestine discrimination that exists everywhere. And it’s not only men playing this game. Women unconsciously do it too.
Another friend of mine works for a major bank and is based in WA. She told me how it’s part of her role to organise the annual ‘team building’ activity for her management team. They all happen to be men. For the past three years her manager has insisted that they go rally car driving as the team building activity, and of course my friend has obliged in organising this.
It only occurred to her to question the choice of activity after we chatted about it. It was like a light had been switched on. “It’s not about the activity that now upsets me”, she said, “it’s more that because it’s such a male oriented thing, it sort of makes it hard for any of the females in the department to aspire to their level. It’s like this invisible person saying ‘well this job is only for men’. It’s not that they come out and say it like that, nor do they even probably realise it, but that’s the underlying message it sends”.
Have you had any similar experiences? What can we do to make sure we’re lifting this situation?