I don’t need fixing! Why we should start fixing businesses and not women

Thursday 7th September, 2017

I am a young, 20-something woman. As such, there are a multitude of well-intentioned resources available to guide me through the jungle that is (and will be) my career. Articles titled with a variant of "Five Simple Tips for Success from Successful Women" aren't hard to come by, and over the years I've read many books with the same theme, let's call it: self-fix your way to success.

The articles and books confidently assure me that success will be mine if I follow their simple self-fix formula:

"leaning in",

finding the right mentor,

speaking with confidence,

being assertive whilst staying authentically feminine, and

dropping the words "just" and "sorry" from my vocabulary.

You might think I am being reductive. I am not. I know there is no simple fix, or a single cookie-cutter recipe for success. Moreover, devotedly following any number of advice certainly does not guarantee a clear path through the woods. Even so, at times I am daunted and overwhelmed by the efforts I seemingly must make to ensure that I'm having the right kind of impact in the workplace. This feeling has been exacerbated by recent news suggesting that the good fight for gender equity has stalled; that the glass ceiling remains very much intact.

I come from a generation in the developed world that has grown up with the belief that gender disparity would one day be a thing of the past. Our equitable future guaranteed by the hard work and sacrifices of the generations that came before us. All we really must do is follow the formula and keep pushing onwards; if we make sure the wheels don't fall off then progress will keep chugging along.

However, the release of recent ABS data* revealing that management of Australian businesses is still dominated by men (even though one of the biggest changes in the workforce over the last 40 years is the increased participation of women) tells a different story.

In businesses with 200 people or more, only 12% of principal managers are female, and in small businesses of between five and 19 people, only a quarter of principal manager positions are held by women. These statistics are incongruent with the fact that women are graduating with tertiary qualifications at a greater number than men.** It doesn't make sense and I think the contradictory stats point to clear and present structural and cultural barriers to female advancement.

With that in mind, I can't help but feel we need to place less emphasis on "fixing women" and our "deficits" that are perceived to hinder workplace success, and focus more on fixing the problems in the male-centric structure.

I have been heartened by the various initiatives that have been implemented by some of Australia's most well-known companies to increase and sustain women's participation in the workforce, as well as increase female representation in senior leadership. For example, Telstra, ANZ, the ASX and Westpac have introduced All Roles Flex policies. At Telstra, this has seen female representation rise to 42.9 percent in 2016, from 36.7 percent the year before, whilst Westpac sees it as key to meeting their women-in-leadership target of 50 per cent.

Interventions designed to remove structural barriers are likely to be more effective in changing the rules and norms that created the barriers in the first place; whether it is changing recruitment systems so that male and female graduates are offered the same opportunities; or introducing gender pay audits instead of coaching women to negotiate better.

Don't get me wrong, efforts by the individual matter. I will continue to read and develop and seek the advice of women (and men) who have gone before me and built successful careers. I am certainly not turning my back on the likes of Sheryl Sandberg any time soon. But if women are expected to lean in, businesses should be too. 


Jessica Fox is a Consultant at Evolve Intelligence.