Some women just don’t want to break the glass ceiling
It has been reported in recent times that the proportion of women on corporate boards and in the top management of Australia’s leading companies is actually shrinking has come as a shock to many.
Australia was once ranked second only to America in the number of top companies with a woman senior executive, and we now fall last on a list of comparable nations including New Zealand, Britain, South Africa and Canada.
In Australian about 55% of the top 2000 companies have at least one woman in an executive management position – compared to 85% in the US.
Despite the decidedly male countenance of the “ocker” Aussie, we have always been a nation of pioneers when it comes to the equality of women. We were one of the first countries in the world where women won the right to vote and be elected to parliament. Dame Enid Lyons became a Cabinet Minister in 1949 – a very long time before feminism became fashionable.
Participation rates for women in the Australian workplace have been increasing rapidly over the past 30 years. We even “gifted” the world with one of the most outspoken feminists ever in Germaine Greer.
So how and why has this decline in Australian women figuratively banging that old glass ceiling happened in recent years?
In today’s world it’s just a little too simplistic to look at figures such as these on face value and describe them as “disgraceful” as the president of Chief Executive Women Naseema Sparks did.
We need to ask whether these statistics reflect a dark and backward trend of Australia’s top women being actively discriminated against, their talents sadly underutilised, or do they have more to do with the personal challenge of achieving that elusive “work/family” balance that has become the modern-day juggling act for many professional women.
Given the skills shortage and the internationally competitive nature of Australian companies, I’m inclined to think that our top corporations would be desperate to utilise the best available talent -regardless of gender. It would clearly be contrary to their own corporate livelihoods if they didn’t promote capable women where they were the best person for the position.
So I am a little skeptical that the long-term trend of women’s advancement in the workplace has suddenly been turned around by the renaissance of a new-age “boys club” mentality.
But there seems to be a growing social trend that is rarely talked about, rarely acknowledged, and that many modern feminists won’t even consider – that some professional women are making a conscious decision not to pursue a high-powered career.
Some professional women have come to the conclusion that, as our Governor General Quentin Bryce so eloquently put it, “you can have it all, but you can’t have it all at the same time”.
Undoubtedly there are women deciding that the “work/family” balance just gets too out of whack at the highest professional level, and they are making the decision that “having a life” comes before pursuing a career – for now at least.
Perhaps it’s no co-incidence that this data on women’s declining role at the Executive level is released on the same day that a study by the University of Sydney shows that Australians work some of the longest hours in the developed world.
About one in five Australians now work more than 50 hours a week – and in professional jobs, there’s no doubt that proportion is much higher. What time does that leave for having, let alone enjoying, a family?
The trend towards women taking up part-time employment and rapidly increasing participation rates in those aged over 50, also suggest that family-based decision making might be a factor.
Perhaps women are making the “sacrifice” of not pursuing their career in order to ensure that they are able to manage the work of running a home and caring for young children, of which working women still do the lions share in most Australian households.
A recent study found that on average Australian fathers spend just one minute a day alone with their children during the working week. One minute a day.
The argument could of course be made that women are being “forced” to take up the slack because men still aren’t taking equal responsibility - that for all the advancements over the years, we are still essentially “chained” by the drudgery of these “chores”.
No doubt a case can be made for the need for quality childcare, for family friendly and flexible workplaces, for the menfolk to pitch in with the housework more – and these are all factors that affect women’s participation and advancement in the workplace.
But before we cry “gender foul” and raise the spectre of discrimination and the need for “quotas”, we must also allow for the possibility that a growing proportion of women- including university educated professional women - have made a choice not to pursue their careers to the highest levels. That they’ve worked out where their priorities (and the joys in life) actually lie.
We must allow for the fact – not often debated and discussed in polite circles - that many women, while immensely enjoying their careers, view parenting as their most satisfying and important role in life.
There’s a chance that Australian women have actually figured this out and are making choices based on what’s right for both them and their family unit. Women are smart like that.
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