This week leading up to IWD, my Instagram was inundated with companies posting photos of their female employees captioned ‘Proud to be a leader and champion of gender equality!’ Even the newspapers, this long weekend, were soaked in a myriad of feature articles on closing the gap and breaking down the barriers for women in all business. Countless industry lunches were posted on social media showcasing sorority-like groups standing in solidarity hash-tagged with pledging to celebrate all women’s achievement within their own organisations.
Now I’m the first person to put my hand up to say we should be celebrating the successful stories of women in our businesses and more broadly the industry. Um hello, Gazella! But I have a bone to pick – just hear me out. I have diagnosed myself with gender fatigue. Gasppp! Yep, you better believe it! It’s actually taken me a little to put my finger on it and actually articulate how I’m feeling, but there it is.
We are all constantly presented in the media with case studies on gender balance being good for business. Example articles like that seen in the AFR (2 March 2020) present research from Macquarie Business School, suggesting large companies that have boards with three or more women tend to be more profitable, have a higher return on asset and better market performance. I don’t know how many more of these articles will present themselves before even I, stop reading them.
Is there a risk of making so much noise about the case study for gender equality in business that people stop listening? Can we move on from banging on about the business case and start talking about the actual impediments here? How are our businesses working towards demonstrating action on gender equality? I have had enough of people justifying the business case. What we need to start discussing is how organisations are working on implementing their gender policies into practical action that really works.
At thirty-two, I am amongst many female friends and peers who are working to dispel the notion of not being able to have your cake (family and career) and eat it too. What am I referring to here? Take flexibility; in most organisations a promise of flexible work is now very common. This in theory, would allow oneself to go off, have a baby, and after 6-9-12 months come back to work, flexibly.
How many of you have seen this work practically? I have looked on, as many women masking their deep inner thoughts with an upbeat smile and positivity, work flexibly (that is, working the same hours pre baby) instead from home, under someone who used to be their equal and potentially overcoming a fear of guilt for not being able to keep up like they used to. Many of these same women explaining how grateful they are for the opportunity afforded to them by said company just because they are somehow allowing them to work ‘flexibly’.
How many IWD events occured this year with a discussion around how effective an organisation’s strategy on flexible work arrangements are evolving, working convincingly for both the worker and the employer. Let’s not pretend employers don’t have the same frustrations around whether it is working for them either. Where are the examples of tried failure? No organisation or individual is perfect, so why aren’t we talking about it?
Let’s stop pretending everything is hunky dory by masking the celebration of IWD with success stories of companies with women in them (yay!…eye roll) and start highlighting the real experience and challenges around driving bigger cultural changes to support the retention of women in business.