Leadership | Diversity | Inclusion

Women in Leadership: The merit myth

Waiting to be promoted on the strength of a good business case is a waste of time for women because the workplace system works against them, a CEDA Women in Leadership forum has heard.

Waiting to be promoted on the strength of a good business case is a waste of time for women because the workplace system works against them, a CEDA Women in Leadership forum has heard.

The forum, the final in CEDA's Women in Leadership series held in Adelaide in 2012, heard that quotas, backed by tough consequences for companies that fail to promote women, should be the first steps towards gender equity.

ABC's The Gruen Tansfer, Panellist and advertising expert, Jane Caro, along with Australian Financial Review, Boss Magazine, Deputy Editor, Catherine Fox, SA Premier's Council for Women, Co-Chair, Kate Gould and Comedian Corinne Grant warned it was futile for women to wait to be promoted on merit.

"We are going to have to stop being apologetic and just take it - we're half the population, we're entitled," Ms Caro said.

The speakers said that while 2012 had produced a turnaround in attitudes towards women, there were no guarantees this would lead to women in leadership positions.

Ms Fox said Norway had introduced penalties to force female board representation to 40 per cent but this had not carried through to increasing the number of women in leadership positions.

"The merit myth is that, when we are in an organisation, we will be promoted, recognised and rewarded on the basis of what we do - outcomes, results, how we do our job - and over time for many women it has become blindingly obvious that that is not the case," she said.

"If you look to the top of your organisation and you see a cohort that is homogenous, predominantly male, white and of a certain age group, then how can that be representing merit?"

The forum heard that there was already a strong business case for women in leadership positions.

Ms Gould said a study last year of 800 $10 billion businesses found that the financial results of those with women in board positions were 26 per cent higher than those without women on the board.

However, Ms Fox warned: "We've never asked men to make a business case for being in the workforce. When we do that around women and we say they bring special qualities and they change the financial results, we are backing ourselves into a very awkward corner.

"Women are half the population - 50.7 per cent of the Australian population. We are not a special interest group but neither are we possessing of special skills or a wand we can wave over the bottom line.  What we can bring is different life experiences."

Ms Fox said women were continuously asked to prove their right to be in a role but business leaders should be talking about quotas of 50 per cent for women in leadership positions.

The panellists said women still face a range of "poor excuses" for their advancement in the workforce including:

  • We tried a woman in that role once but it didn't work out;
  • We just can't find any suitable women for the role; and
  • Women don't want the top jobs.

Ms Fox said: "So it's not about you. Understanding that so many of the women around you have been through or are going through what you are going through can be a liberating and encouraging process...It's not about us, it's about the way the world operates."

The forum heard that several key issues marked a change in attitudes to women in politics in 2012, particularly the:

  • Prime Minister's watershed "misogyny speech";
  • Global Twitter campaign making fun of Sydney radio personality Alan Jones's comment that women in leadership were "destroying the joint"; and
  • Importance of the single woman's vote for Obama in the US Presidential elections.

"You can no longer speak about women in these appalling...deeply insulting ways and expect it to have no consequence. That's what this year has changed," Ms Caro said.

"Suddenly if you want to be a misogynist and you want to win votes, you are in trouble."

Social media and humour rather than complaining were critical in the campaign to gain greater authority, the forum heard. The panellists advised women to "just do it" - take the top job and not be plagued by self doubt and the need to prove themselves to be better than the male competition.

"I am of the view that social media may be as important for...women gaining full equality as the invention of the pill. It is giving women unmediated access to the public conversation for the first time in history," Ms Caro.

"The only way to get power is to take it, which is why I am so inspired by what is going on in social media - women are finally taking power, taking their own power back...The world is changing...the way of doing business is changing," she said.

However, Ms Grant warned there was a danger in drawing too much attention to gender issues.

"I purposely don't talk about any sexism I come across in my industry because as soon as I do, that is what I will be known for - I'm not a lady comedian, fighting the good lady fight. I'm a comedian," Ms Grant said.

"I'm not saying that sexism doesn't exist in my industry. I'm just saying that when more importance is placed on gender than it should be, women's achievements get overshadowed.

"We're never going to get anywhere if we keep finding it extraordinary that women can do things. What it says to the next generation is women are not really built for this stuff and isn't it freakish when they do it?"