Category Archives: Living a good life

Getting out of our seats and off the boat

The man who opened the Women of Influence Awards last night spoke about how our earliest Wahine sat through their journeys to New Zealand. Only males were allowed to row.

He looked out at an audience full of trail blazers, misfits, disruptors and survivors and said “look at you now, you are the navigators of our country”.

Of course, because it’s 2018, New Zealand and an event celebrating women, another man finished the night by telling a top female executive that ‘the problem with women is they lack the ability to lead’.

In these crazy times, it really shouldn’t be surprising that with these two, unintentionally profound statements, it was men who got to the heart of the issue of women and leadership. Michelle Duff puts it this way:

“The ultimate end-game of feminism was not and has never been to simply slot women into all the positions of power currently held by men. The idea is not to uphold the structures that already exist.

It is to tear them down.”

It’s been 125 years since Kate Sheppard secured the signatures of a quarter of all women in New Zealand and made us the first country in the world to give women the vote. I suppose the hidden detail in this story is that it happened in a time when courier pigeons were considered an efficient mode of communication, when there were literally no women in parliament to get on the team. Damn right, it was a powerful display of leadership. But when Kate threw out the playbook, she gave us a much more powerful lesson in what happens when women lack the ability to lead like men do.

Of course some people struggle to see women as leaders, our approach is virtually unrecognisable. And it has been unrecognised, even by us, for far too long. Thank god we can finally say goodbye to the days women felt they had to ‘act like men’ to get to the top and embrace everything that happens when women lead like women.

A revolution is happening and when you know where to look, you’ll see it everywhere.

You’ll see our Governor General acknowledging the failures of her generation to fully grasp the gender battle they were fighting. “We thought things would change – it was just a matter of time. We now know that we were wrong – or at least too optimistic”. Female leaders don’t see failure as a sign of weakness, they get strength from talking openly about the lessons they learned along the way.

You’ll see an award winner walking onto the stage arm in arm with two friends. Her name is on the trophy but the success is shared. I can’t think of a better showcase of how women lead through lifting each other in the good times up and holding each other up in the bad.

You’ll mistake vulnerability for a lack of confidence. You’ll judge a woman for being too emotional, then watch her change the entire atmosphere of a board room using those same emotions.

Yes there is a problem with women and leadership, but the problem isn’t with women, it’s with leadership. That narrow definition we’ve all subscribed to for far too long is being forcibly expanded and traditional leadership structures are finally starting to collapse under the weight of women doing things their own way.

The problem with women and leadership is this: We don’t want to take over the navigation of this boat. We want to build a new one.

Reducing the gender pay gap

Apparently 80% of the 12% gender pay gap in NZ ‘can’t be explained’… Which is weird, given since the latest stats were published, Ive heard plenty of explanations:

“Oh well, in those top, top jobs, it takes a certain personality type. Im not saying its a good type, it’s pretty aggressive, you know. Not very focused on soft skills…”

“I suppose it depends what side the stats came from. They differ depending on who does them.”

“Well equal pay for equal work is great, but maybe its just that some people get to the top of their pay scale because they are better? How do you ensure people are paid fairly?”

I think I’ve kind of had enough debating. We’ve been debating for years. How many times do the stats need to show that there is a pay gap and it’s caused by deeply ingrained ideas about gender? It’s not #allmen, it’s not even just #onlymen, it’s all of us and we have proven that we wont fix it just by talking about it.

More and more research has come out explaining unconscious bias, it pretty much nails the reason it’s impossible to change by talking about the gap:

“Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we’re good decision makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate or a venture deal and reach a fair and rational conclusion that’s in our, and our organization’s, best interests. But more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception.”

So, let’s stop talking and just start acting. Worst case scenario, we’ll learn faster what wont work. Here’s 3 things I think we can do immediately:

1. Do an organisational diversity stocktake

Many years ago, I did some work for a Government group working to address the gender pay gap. One of their big findings was that people genuinely believed they had a 100% neutral hiring policy, the gender pay gap and gender stereotypes were not an issue in their organisation. This group offered workplace reviews and almost without fail, they found bias.

It’s not because people are bad and undervalue women, it’s because our brains use unconscious bias to create shortcuts when faced with millions of pieces of information. My mum was working when The Equal Pay Act was passed. When she started her career, it was expected that women were not the bread winners and it *made sense* to not pay them as much as men. In her lifetime, gender roles have changed so dramatically it’s almost impossible to really know how far our subconscious has moved forward and what assumptions our brains still make.

But if we live in a world of unsubstantiated assumptions, we don’t know what needs fixing. So create transparency, prove your organisation is as neutral as you think it is. Be the standard others aspire to. And if the results aren’t as clear cut? Well proceed to step 2.

2. Turn the tables. Justify why you didn’t hire or promote a woman.

Got a board, organisation or role made up of more than 50% males? Then do like PledgeMe did and hire a woman next.

Actively looking to fill a diversity gap may feel controversial. You may get asked why you don’t just hire the ‘best person’ for the job. Well, Anna answered that question for you too:

“Often that ol’ “most skilled person” line is used to justify the default stale, pale and male approach. This response indicates a belief that there aren’t women with those skills. It also shows an unconscious bias from the person using it. Like being on a board is akin to a mission to Mars where only rocket scientists need apply.”

I’ve heard a lot about the genuine desire to get more women to the top, except women haven’t been promoted fairly in the past. There is no one in the pipeline ready to go. Put them there. Make it organisational policy to know your company makeup at different levels. If there is an imbalance, and you hire someone who doesn’t address the imbalance, then the inability to find a suitable woman needs to be explained.

3. Check yourself

I talk a lot about all the things that feel so unfair about being female. The expectation that our last names are borrowed, that we will be the primary caregiver to children, we have to negotiate carefully to not appear ‘aggressive’, that we have to be careful when we earn more than partners to not undermine their confidence… The list sometimes feels endless.

A friend of mine made a really good point about the frustrating nature of negotiating gender roles during wedding/baby/career progression. We have been planning this stuff for years, but it is only now we are having conversations with the men in our lives about our roles. It seems shocking to me how many men genuinely haven’t questioned why women change their names when they are married, but her point is ‘why would they?’. It takes a huge level of empathy to spend time contemplating a social norm that doesn’t adversely affect you. We arrive to court with armfuls of evidence and face an opponent who hadn’t even been aware a crime was committed.

So, I get it. But I think we all need to try harder at actively contemplating social norms. We do a million unconscious things every day, we let a million things slide, we say things flippantly, we don’t stop and question why. We should do it a lot more. We should be actively paying attention when we are faced with a female CEO, male nurse or any situation where traditional roles are reversed or changed. We should be paying attention to our immediate reaction. We should be comfortable acknowledging that ALL of us will catch ourselves feeling some feelings that sit outside our conscious beliefs. And we should start working on them.