Eva Cox: broadening the boardroom options

Guest Blog by Eva Cox

One of the failures of feminism has been our inability to change the culture of most workplaces. At all levels but especially at the top, the holders of power still believe the following myths:

  • Longer hours are more productive than shorter ones
  • If you can’t do long hours, you are not serious about your job
  • Being there is proof of competence.

The survival of this culture is the basis for Carolyn Hewson’s comments on the need for nannies to allow women to rise to the top of the corporate ladder. This seems to me to defeat the feminist idea of change. Replacing the older form of corporate wife support by paid servants to ensure women can also do top jobs is not what we wanted. Feminism wanted to redesign working hours so all could participate meaningfully. Instead, the time demands of workplaces on male and female workers have dramatically increased over the past few decades, with Australia having very long hours. This change is despite increasing the numbers of women in the paid workforce and even in senior ranks.

The continued lack of women on boards and in the most senior ranks of the private sector shows that the macho cultures of the upper echelons excludes anyone with a serious life outside the workplace. Women without children, with stay-at-home partners or with surrogate carers, are over-represented among those who make it to the top.

Even when women make it up there, they tend to have to deny their possible feminism by not changing the cultures. They conform to what is there. Some try to mentor other women to fit into the square holes that were designed for men with family support. The few men who want time with their children mostly find themselves out of the picture as well. Yet there is no evidence that this model of longer hours and presentism is really productive or that those who rise to the top have the best available talents and experiences. It limits the field of potential candidates to those who are available for long hours and who have limited personal responsibilities.

It is therefore not surprising that the quality of management is not as good as it could be, with constant examples of problem senior managers and board failures. Some of the critiques of the lack of women on boards, such as the Citi group’s analysis of the ASX standards states:

“As new principles and recommendations on diversity came into effect on January 1, 2011, this is likely to lead to increasing focus on the approach companies take to address various diversity issues, including women’s representation on company boards. Board diversity may enhance effectiveness, by providing a wider range of perspectives and knowledge.”

The introduction of a new book on boards, states the figures and the problem:

“Board appointments must always be made on merit, with the best suited person being selected. Nevertheless, it is concerning that in Australia women comprise: 50.2% of the population, nearly 50% of the workforce, 56% of all higher education students, 55% of all university graduates and yet only comprise 4% of line managers, 8% of senior executives and 12.5% of directors of Australia’s top 200 companies. This has raised questions as to whether companies and boards are in practice recruiting for these roles based solely on skills, experience and performance, without a gender bias.”

Few question whether the current management models may be flawed and if we need changes to the assumptions behind the time and attendance demands in workplaces. Despite possibilities for part-time and flexible work at lower levels, it rarely emerges at the top. It is therefore not surprising that Carolyn Hewson suggests that women who want to succeed must ape the behavioural patters of men who have little or no life outside the office.

The problem with the Hewson model is a) it doesn’t question the workplace cultures and b) it suggests that some women succeed at the top by exploiting others in low-paid jobs. Comments posted on site of the article pointed out the slave-like conditions of many overseas nannies and the higher but often inadequate pay locally.

One complained about male roles:

“Men have to work because there is no support for them to look after children and stay home. Go to any kindergarten or primary school and see how many men are around. If Ms Hewson and people like her were really serious about getting women to stay at work (and hence get to board level), then rather than blaming men or a lack of nanny culture then they would spend more of their time and resource on supporting men to be able to with their children. How many members of the boards of the companies that Ms Hewson is on, have taken time off to spend with their children?”

Despite his angry tone, the writer is saying something important. We need to change the cultures of workplaces so we can all be good parents, relations, friends, citizens and good workers. Then those at the top could really be selected on merit, rather than on limited experience and availability.