Just as society has managed to shake off the shibboleth that women have lesser sexual desire than men, it’s now time to also rid ourselves of the fantasy that women do not crave positions of power and influence as much as their male counterparts.
It has become popular to explain away the fact that women do not advance as far up the chain of command as men with the claim that women are, in some innate way, less driven to compete, less ruthless or less hungry for success.
Women, we are told, are more scared of rejection than men, less inclined to talk ourselves up and too shy to ask for a pay rise. Women are not driven to ask and because they don’t ask, they don’t get.
I’m sorry, but it is simply not true. Any ring of truth can be traced to the social conditioning of young girls, rather than their nature. It is parents and society that tell little girls to be polite and wait their turn, while indulging tearabout boy toddlers.
If it is indeed the case that some women are too shy to ask for pay rises (as some men are too), the answer is not to conclude this is a feature of their DNA, but to encourage them to speak up and barter for a better deal. (The best tip my dad ever gave me for bargaining on price is to always ask the sales assistant: “What is the best price you can do on that?”. The best tip I can give on negotiating pay rises is to ask for double what you want, then you’ll be happy when you get half.)
But while both sexes are equally able to be driven by a desire for power, money and status, it does appear men and women have developed different strategies for attaining it.
In an upcoming study, a Harvard University psychology professor, Joyce Benenson, has explored the different ways men and women choose to compete. Benenson conducted an experiment in which participants were divided into groups of three and asked to compete to win money. They could either go it alone, team up with one partner or simply all three agree to share the profits. At this simple stage of the experiment, men and women were just as likely to go it alone or team up.
Participants were then told they faced social exclusion by the other two if they chose to go it alone, but also that if they paired up they could instead do the social excluding of the third party.
Women were found to be more sensitive to the threat of social exclusion and more likely to employ a strategy of social exclusion if they felt threatened. Yes, women can be even more backhanded and ruthless than men in their pursuit of money and power.
So why have women failed to attain equal representation in Parliament, executive jobs and company boardrooms? The answer to such a question obviously extends beyond DNA.
Governor-General Quentin Bryce breathed new life into this long-standing debate this week by using International Womens Day to argue Australia needs quotas for female representation on company boards.
But the focus on boardrooms, rather than executive jobs, is misguided. Boardrooms are the departure lounges of corporate Australia, composed largely of men in the late stage of their career. Some of these men will always struggle with the idea of treating females as intellectual equals. The boys’ club was established at high school or university and it never really ended. Some patience will be needed as we wait for this old guard to change. In the meantime, any women appointed under quotas will only be seen as “tokens”.
Rather, energy should be expended removing the structural impediments to women achieving top executive positions earlier on in their career. There is evidence that a large part of the gender pay gap is due to interrupted career paths as women are forced to take time out to have children.
If an athlete stopped running at the halfway point, of course you’d expect them to finish last. Studies suggest there is no real pay gap between men and women in their 20s, but something goes terribly wrong at about 30, neatly coinciding with the average age a woman will have her first child.
Solving this pay gap requires a more equal distribution of responsibilities for child-rearing. Such a world is possible. In the Netherlands, where there is explicit paid paternal leave and one-third of men work part-time or cram a five-day job in four, the expression “daddy day” is common. It is expected that men will take time off to contribute to raising children. In Australia, such time off is viewed as “soft” or indicative a man is less serious about his career.
The Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, recognised this in her speech this week. She proposes to rebadge the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency as the more gender-neutral Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Which is nice, but unlikely to seriously change workplace perceptions.
The proposal for compulsory reporting of gender outcomes carries more weight. Companies with more than 100 employees that fail to report will be excluded from government contracts and grants. Not only does this provide a real financial penalty for companies that ignore gender equality, the data should also make it easier to identify what is driving the pay gap.
But at the end of the day, men and women must be empowered to ask for more flexible working arrangements. And here there is hope. The ageing of the population will increasingly shift the balance of power towards all employees. An ever-dwindling pool of workers will be more able to dictate the terms on which they want to work. Women and men will be able to demand a better deal. Bring it on.