Fixing women or fixing workplaces?

Nigel Hearne, managing director, Chevron Australia hosted the most recent CEO Roundtable. One of the commitments upon becoming a CEO for Gender Equity is to host a CEO Roundtable inviting their peers to discuss gender equity, inviting others to share their journey, and discuss what’s working and what’s not.

The roundtable was co-hosted and facilitated by Diane Smith-Gander, a non-executive director and keen advocate for women at work.

At the CEO Roundtable, three key themes emerged for further exploration.

Damned if they do, doomed if they don’t.

The corporate leadership gap between men and women is a persistent feature of many workplaces, leading to the stereotype of “think-leader-think-male” despite the many contributions made by women in leadership. 

Women’s confidence and leadership style are often considered a contributor to this gap. However as ‘atypical’ leaders women are therefore caught between impossible choices. Those who try to conform to traditional leadership stereotypes, that is, male leadership behaviours, are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

A CEO at the roundtable had recently undertaken a qualitative analysis of staff professional development plans that showed the language used by women to assess their own performance was less positive, less aggressive and less masculine. Of particular concern was that they underestimated their contribution compared to their supervisors’ assessment. The opposite was found for men, who often overestimated their contribution compared to their supervisors’ assessment.

Is the solution to fix the women or fix the workplace?

No matter how much women are primed, pushed, prepared and promoted for leadership; workplaces will continue to lose on top talent if they fail to recognise the impact of workplace bias that is deeply embedded in workplace culture that is, the way we work strengthened by workplace symbols and systems that unconsciously lock women out of male-dominated workplaces and senior roles.

Fixing women

A backlash effect for many women seen as too feminine is that they will not get the same opportunities as men. If women are seen as too masculine, they are often judged as capable but judged as undeserving of future opportunities on account of communication and personality ‘problems’.

Much of the advice provided to women to network more, ask for more, lean in more only addresses one side of the problem. Research by Catalyst has shown that more women than men ask for pay rises, network more and seek higher roles. And the workplace push back and backlash is real.

In addressing the double-bind faced by many women in the workplace, there is much research and many resources for women. Advice for women however only addresses one side of the problem.

Fixing workplaces

Many CEOs at the roundtable recognised that stereotyping and unconscious bias has an impact on women. Recognising the significance of unconscious bias, the CEOs discussed the importance and impact of undertaking unconscious bias training.

Chief Executive Women has two tools that examine unconscious bias of leaders, The Leadership Shadow and the CEO Conversation that works with the executive leadership team.

Both tools rely on leaders reflecting on the roles they have in transforming the culture of their organisation to one that is more gender inclusive and diverse.

CEOs role in leading gender equity

In recognising that women alone cannot fix the gender inequity that exists in pay and leadership, the CEOs each acknowledged that they have a key role to play in transforming their workplaces.

CEOs attending the roundtable made several commitments that would realise the full potential of women at work. Workplace strategies that were committed to include:

  • Overcoming workplace bias

Several CEOs committed to engaging and delivering unconscious bias training, linking the training to corporate values.

  • Re-engaging parents returning to work

Parents, particularly mothers, face a number of barriers when attempting to re-enter the workforce after periods of parental leave.  

In acknowledging this, several CEOs made a commitment to lifting their rates of return to work after paid parental leave by having a more granular focus on the barriers preventing parents from returning to work.

In seeking to address this, one CEO committed to personalising contact with parents starting and returning from paid parental leave, letting them know they are welcome and wanted by the business.

  • Recruiting more women at senior levels

Many acknowledged that pools of talented women exist both externally and internally. In leveraging these pools, CEOs agreed to invest more in building a talent pipeline, by engaging supervisors to enhance their decision making and assessments to be more inclusive.

One CEO committed to recruiting a female partner for the first time, by going beyond traditional ‘talent pools’ and recruitment methods.

For those more mature on their gender equity journey, a priority was to maintain the conversation, ‘keep the reality alive’ acknowledging that there is still some way to go.

CEOs for Gender Equity convenes monthly CEO Roundtables.

These roundtables are unique, intimate and in-depth conversations hosted and convened by a CEO for Gender Equity to inspire and influence commitment with other CEOs in Western Australia to create gender inclusive and diverse workplaces. 

Tania Cecconi

Since 2016, I have been thrilled to work with CEOs for Gender Equity as its inaugural executive director. Working with progressive CEOs my goal is to turn the dial in Western Australia. My job is to help them lead the transformation of their workforce by eliciting and sharing their stories of what works and doesn't work to drive and improve gender equity further.