Equality still a distant goal

In Australian boardrooms and C-suites, women have made some progress. In some industries, and in some enterprises such as the big resource companies, they have made inroads on the front line. But in manufacturing, at the supervisor and direct management levels, the news is not so good.

A production manager in a Melbourne factory tells me that younger men in particular “don’t like being told what to do by a woman”. A woman who manages a large South Australian facility talks about what a struggle it is to employ more well-qualified women. “A couple of men on the team will say ‘you only want to employ her because she is a woman’.” Like the others I talked to, these women work for large corporates whose CEOs (male and female) regularly appear in the media espousing gender equality.

Research by Teresa Cardador at the University of Illinois found that where women engineers are promoted to management, there may be negative consequences. “Having more women in managerial roles validates the widespread stereotype that women in engineering are less technically proficient than their male counterparts, and more suited to roles that involve caring for others and fostering relationships.” Women make up Australian manufacturing’s largest pool of untapped talent. In 2016, women accounted for 46 per cent of the Australian labour force but only 27 per cent of the manufacturing workforce. The other serial offenders are power (22.2 per cent), transport, postal and warehousing (21.7 per cent), mining (13.7 per cent) and construction (11.7 per cent).

According to US research by Deloitte, less than 15 per cent of women in manufacturing believe their industry is very accepting of family or personal commitments and allows them to meet these commitments without impairing their career.

Nearly three quarters (72 per cent) of women surveyed believe they were under-represented in their organisation’s leadership team, with a significantly higher share of junior management (78 per cent) believing they were underrepresented when compared to senior management.

They also say standards of performance are not equal. Of those surveyed, 71 per cent believe standards of performance differ for men and women and 87 per cent of these believe the standards are higher for women.

A study from McMaster University found that those employees who express their desire to achieve work-life balance are penalised, while those who mask their efforts to achieve it face no such penalties.

Eight years ago, the Criterion Institute started talking about Gender Lens Investing, “choosing investments that take gender into account, specifically those that promote women’s issues and female leadership”. And there is a real need for support for women who work for themselves. The International Finance Corporation says “only about 10 per cent of women entrepreneurs globally have access to the capital they need to expand their businesses”.

But discussions about gender equality distract from the bigger issue of diversity. A report from Canada’s Rotman Institute for Gender + the Economy notes that “even in the second decade of the 21st century, we have yet to create a culture where LGBTQ employees consistently feel safe being out at work. And while the boards of our top 10 companies actually have a higher percentage of women directors than the global top 10, both do badly when it comes to, say, the number of Asian directors. And that includes the Asian companies!

Now here’s the bad news. Despite the belief that companies with women on the board perform better than those whose boards are all-male, Wharton management professor and vice dean of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, Katherine Klein, says while “it’s good to have more women represented on boards for a variety of reasons, the research evidence ... [says that] changing the gender composition of a board does nothing for company performance. It doesn’t make it better; it doesn’t make it worse.“When you look at the meta-analyses on these – which are statistically rigorous efforts – they essentially find zero relationship between the diversity and the gender diversity on the board and company performance. There is no business case for putting women on the board. There is no business case for putting men on the board. Gender has zero impact.” One of the reasons is that women who get to the C-Suite and the board “don’t differ much in their views and values from male executives”.

Julie Connolly