Five unspoken truths getting in the way of gender equality

After Cindy Gallop called out Leo Burnett for hiring five men to senior creative roles we revisit an opinion piece by Nitsa Lotus examining why more women are not working in creative roles.

I was having a corridor conversation the other day about the virtues of gender equality and on overhearing the conversation a senior male colleague asked, “Why are we still even talking about this?”

I agree.

Why the hell are we still having a conversation about gender equality in 2014?

Because although there is a lot of rhetoric on this, the change we need to see isn’t happening quickly enough. The fact remains that there is still an overwhelming proportion of women leaving the workforce – brilliant, talented, competent women who are not getting ahead for multiple reasons. And frankly, I’m impatient.

The issues are well documented and are broader societal problems that cannot be solved by the business community alone. So rather than adding rhetoric, I want to focus on five unspoken truths, how they’ve impacted on me and how I deal with them (sometimes well and sometimes not so well…).

Unspoken truth #1: We have preconceived ideas about how a woman should behave.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that demonstrates unconscious bias influences how we assess people’s performance criteria, from entry-level to leadership. An extensive research study conducted by a British research firm, Catalyst, asked senior managers to rate leadership attributes they associated with a man or a woman. They found that taking charge was perceived as a male trait, while taking care was associated with women.

Unconscious bias is not gender-specific. Both women and men are guilty of it. But how does this impact women? Those at the top of a company, who let’s face it, are predominantly men, will influence how the organisation manages its talent pipeline so that those being promoted will often mirror the traits and biases of top leaders – a vicious cycle in which men continue to dominate executive positions.

In her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg references a Harvard Business School experiment in which students were assigned to look at a case study on Heidi Roizen, a successful venture capitalist. Except half the participants were given a report in which real-life Heidi’s first name was changed to “Howard”.

“Howard” was instantly likeable. People wanted to work for “Howard”. He was accomplished, brilliant at his job and considered a true leader. Ironically, Heidi’s actual accomplishments were perceived by students to be unlikable, aggressive and pushy. Almost nobody wanted to work for Heidi.

This study hit me between the eyes. It was as though I were reading an old performance review I’d been given (aggressive, pushy, etc.). And to be fair, sometimes it was warranted (I’m crap at separating my professional self from my Greek DNA. Seriously. Have you ever heard two Greeks having a conversation? People think we’re arguing…).

However I believe unconscious bias is the square root of the problem – everything else is symptomatic of it. It is this hidden truth that people don’t talk about because they’re unaware they’re doing it. I’ve been guilty of it myself and it’s only recently that I’ve made a concerted effort to catch myself (albeit sometimes too late).

Unspoken truth #2: Many male leaders don’t want to set gender targets because they genuinely believe in meritocracy.

I also used to believe in meritocracy. And part of me still believes (or wants to anyway).

But for the very same reasons as unspoken truth #1 – meritocracy doesn’t really exist. Believe me when I tell you I don’t want to be given a job because I’m a woman – I want to have earned it because I know how hard I’ve worked to get it. But women still get passed up for opportunities because they don’t display the ‘leadership’ characteristics a man did.

According to Catalyst research, the traits perceived as feminine are also seen as less vital to leadership – a situation that can result in women being evaluated less positively than men for leadership positions. The most important advice an old (female) boss gave to me was to put my hand up. And put it up constantly. To not be afraid of asking “…because Nitsa what’s the bloody worst thing that can happen to you? You’re called pushy? So what?” I can still hear that voice ringing in my ears. Easier said than done. (I already had a reputation for being pushy remember?)

I could fight for my team and my peers. But when it came to me, she hit the nail on the head: I didn’t want to appear pushy. Twenty years later I’m pushy. Big deal, so what. Don’t care anymore.

To be fair, I’ve worked with progressive male leaders who have supported me and didn’t see my traits as pushy or aggressive – they liked my style – didn’t see it as any different to the men in the team and respected what I had to offer. It’s those men who’ve promoted me time and time again (yes they do exist).

Unspoken truth #3: Men get paid more than women for doing the same job.

It’s a fact.

It’s what motivated President Obama to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to help women fight back against pay discrimination.

Every working woman faces a moment of truth when she’s pregnant. Particularly if she’s paid less than her husband. So imagine a couple are a having the discussion about who stays home with the baby; a key factor that plays into this decision is the finances. And if her husband is earning more, how do you have a conversation and structure an argument that actually makes sense for the better-paid parent to stay home?

So with many women leaving the workforce because of a logistical, practical problem, how can we expect to retain women when there aren’t enough role models showing HOW you can have a family and have a career.

Some of the best advice came from two very important women in my life: my mother and, believe it or not, my mother-in-law. Both said to me to pursue my career once I’d had the baby and they would both help because “…after all the children leave the home and you’ll be left with nothing…”.

It was a pivotal moment where I once again started to seriously think about how I could have both career and kids. It’s thanks to my immediate family (including my very supportive husband) that I’m able to go to work without guilt.

For those who don’t have that kind of luxury – I urge you to have an open and honest discussion with your boss and your partner about how you’ll enter the workforce again – if of course its what you want. You may not be clear about your needs before you have the child, but keep the dialogue going and be honest.

Unspoken truth #4: One of the biggest fights for equality still happens at home (and we can’t blame the men for that…)

It was the fabulous Joan Collins who remarked, “We should celebrate being women and having the opportunities to do things that our mothers and grandmothers were not allowed to do. They were expected to stay at home and do the cooking and the cleaning. Though now, of course, we are expected to do the cooking and the cleaning and the working.”

The Economic and Social Research Council found that a staggering 70% of the housework at home is done by the women who work full-time. They still run the household and make the domestic decisions. So think about a typical working woman’s day. The first shift starts around 6am – getting kids ready for day care or school – then they rush off to work during the day and rush home to do the night shift; bath, bed, bottle, cooking, etc. And then the working woman logs on to do the emails that just can’t wait till the morning or next day.

It is un-re-lent-ing. And we wonder why women leave the workforce? To be fair, based on my own experience, it’s me that’s made that rod for my own back. It takes a while to let go – I’m no domestic goddess but I like things a certain way. Sound familiar?

So ladies, I have been there and I urge you – stop trying to do it all. Let go. It won’t be perfect. Talk to your guy, make a list and delegate – there’s a good chance he wants to help but doesn’t know how to if you’re doing it all.

Unspoken truth #5: We discriminate against men who choose to stay home.

A year or so ago I bumped into a very talented art director I used to work with that I hadn’t seen in a while. I was getting coffee and he was at the coffee shop with his kids. We got to talking and it transpired in the conversation that he had chosen to stay home with the kids and put his career on hold. His wife, a talented and well-paid lawyer, instead had gone back to work full-time and was “wearing the pants of the family” as his mates put it (his words not mine).

I admired the guy and congratulated him. And then I silently caught myself. Why would I congratulate a parent for looking after their kids? Why is this BIG news? I haven’t congratulated a mother yet for staying home after giving birth to look after her family. It was clear from our conversation that his mates were giving him a hard time. You know the kind. When it’s all jokey-jokey but there’s a sharp edge that digs in somehow?

True gender equality means both sexes will be on the receiving end. When it’s not news that a dad stays home.

So how do we stop talking about this much-debated subject? The issues are multiple, complicated and wrapped up in bigger societal issues. I haven’t given up hope that there will be more women coming up through the leadership ranks – there’s plenty of talent out there. I encourage male leaders to pick up this issue and take a hard look at their organisations to see the opportunity cost of not cultivating a workplace environment conducive to true meritocracy.

And then we can bloody well stop talking about this once and for all.

Nitsa Lotus is general manager at Whybin\TBWA, and current member of The Communications Council’s gender diversity working group ——

This piece was first published on May 22, 2014.


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