Leadership | Diversity | Inclusion

Shattering of silence marks extraordinary year of change for women

A profound shift in women being taken seriously has marked an extraordinary 2017, journalist Catherine Fox and writer and commentator Jane Caro told a CEDA Women in Leadership event in Adelaide.

In what has become a regular fixture on CEDA’s South Australia calendar, Ms Fox and Ms Caro discussed the take outs from the year, a year that has seen extraordinary developments neither speaker anticipated back in January. 

The year began with a series of women’s marches around the world organised to protest the election of Donald Trump instead of Hilary Clinton, seen by many as a better-qualified candidate. In Sydney 10,000 women and men took part in a march, attended by both speakers, at the end of January.

“It was an uplifting march… that feeling of solidarity, which I know is an old-fashioned word, I think you really can’t underestimate. It was quite impressive,” Ms Fox said. “It set us off on a course that’s been fascinating around what I’m calling ‘shared female power’ which I think is something that’s become somewhat of a theme this year.”

That shared female power shone through in sexual harassment scandals that have engulfed a number of high profile film and television personalities in 2017. According to Ms Caro, this has marked a profound shift in attitude towards women who speak out against wrongdoing.

“There was a head of steam building up and it had been building up over a period of time and it came to a head for a whole lot of women just at the same moment,” Ms Caro said, stressing it’s not just about women starting to speak up.

“Women have always spoken up and many have paid consequences for it.

“What’s changed is that, for the first time, people are listening and the consequences are falling on the people who behaved badly rather than the women who were actually the victims of it. And that is huge and not what I expected.” 

Ms Fox recounted her experiences over many years of observing Australian workplaces engaging in largely unhelpful programs aimed at ‘fixing’ women so more can move into leadership positions.

“Businesses of all kinds, organisations of all kinds have been wasting huge amounts of time, money and attention on trying to ‘fix’ women,” Ms Fox said.

She recalled how women are sometimes said to somehow, biologically, lack traits required for leadership such as being averse to risk, lacking confidence or not having ambition.

“We know it’s not working. We know that. So why do we keep doing the same things over and over again?” Ms Fox asked.

Ms Caro elaborated saying, “What we haven’t been acknowledging, and we suddenly are, is that one of the reasons women don’t ‘lean in’ is because they are being actively pushed out by a message that says, ‘This is a male space and if you enter this space you must expect to put up with whatever way we decide to treat you.’

“Lots of men - most men - treat women perfectly fine. But there is a large enough number who don’t.

“And a woman doesn’t know when she first walks into a workplace who’s going to be a good guy and who isn’t. And the problem is you have to then treat everyone warily. And that’s awful for the good guys but it’s much worse for the women themselves.”

Ms Fox and Ms Caro noted the accelerating interest in women’s sport this year, particularly the success of the AFLW, as a very positive development.

On the negative side, another take out of the year has been the growing number of women over 55 living in poverty and even becoming homeless. 

Ms Caro said all of the issues that have come to light in 2017 are linked as women are describing an intrinsically hostile-to-women workforce. But, she said, things have changed very quickly in ways she couldn’t have imagined in January.

“Silence protects perpetrators. Silence allows abuse to continue. When the silence is shattered the world becomes safer for the vulnerable and riskier for those that do the wrong thing,” Ms Caro said.

“Because suddenly, I think, a great many people who would misuse and abuse their power if they had the opportunity, they’re on notice if they do it to a woman it is much less likely that that woman will just put up and shut up than even six months ago.”