Let’s not celebrate gender equality statistics but moan behind closed doors about ‘boys clubs’

Gender equality is not enough, writes Wavemaker’s Victoria Brennan. We need to talk more, especially about the things that are uncomfortable, and we need to change the way we relate to each other.

Gender equality. It’s a prickly one. We’re lucky to work in an industry that is leading the charge in many ways. The latest industry census figures from the Media Federation of Australia (MFA) show that women hold 37% of all management roles in media agencies – higher than the Australian average of 30.5%. What’s more, the MFA Census also found that we’ve already achieved pay parity in media agencies, with women earning on average 1% more than men.

That being said, I don’t think equality stops at statistics and, if we’re honest, there’s a lot more work to be done before we can say we have truly reached a state of gender equality.

Let me be specific. While I have no doubt that 99% of the men I encounter daily are in favour of equality, I do wonder if we’re prepared to put in the hard yards to create an environment of equality day to day.

Here’s a scenario to get started: The manager has two direct reports: one male, one female. Monthly catch-ups consist of a coffee with her and a beer with him. No offence meant, it’s just more appropriate that way. Sound familiar?

But it’s not just about coffee versus beer. I still regularly hear talk of “boys’ clubs” from women in the industry – there are golf days and sporting events and track days (while the equivalent for women is to get our nails done), and that’s all fine until you start to think about the corridor conversations we’re missing out on. There are no statistics measuring the frequency or impact of this sort of cultural behaviour.

Of course, nothing is straightforward in the era of Me Too. A sledgehammer has been taken to the patriarchy, which does make things a bit more complicated, doesn’t it? Women want the same invitation to the pub, to have that informal chat and the opportunity to bond with our bosses – but without the possibility of inappropriate behaviour niggling in the back of our minds.

And this isn’t just about women. It’s just as important that men feel supported to be their true selves in the workplace. Male suicide in Australia is at an all-time high. There are endless statistics showing that toxic masculinity is having a significant impact on mental health. We need to support men, ask “Are you okay?” more than one day a year, and be honest about how we really feel.

There is no denying there are biological, physiological, and psychological differences between men and women. Equality is not about ignoring them, but embracing them to bring us closer together rather than driving us apart. It’s not about stereotyping, but an awareness and understanding that there are ‘norms’ in the workplace that aren’t normal for everyone. And if we want true equality, which I think most of us do, we need to create a new normal – one which incorporates more balanced understanding.

The point of this article is to start a conversation about the little things as well as the big things that are holding us back. If we do, we’ll have a better chance of smashing the last few barriers to gender equality.

Honest discussion is really the key here. The next time you feel uncomfortable, tell your boss, tell your colleague, tell that stranger. Open up and tell them why they made you feel that way. Help them learn, and learn in return.

Most of us are coming from a good place and we’ll only start to realise that if we’re brave enough to have the conversation. Yes, it’s tough, its hard work and no one wants to do it, but if we bite our tongues we’re only holding back further progress.

Let’s not celebrate statistics and then moan behind closed doors about boys’ clubs. Instead, let’s use empathy to drive real equality. Let’s treat people as individuals and focus on helping each other through this tricky time – everything is changing and we’ll do better if we go through it together.

Victoria Brennan is national head of technology platforms at Wavemaker and the Gender M lead for Group M’s diversity and inclusion initiative


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