10 / "Girl Germs" in the Corporate World

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March 8, 2011 marked the 100 year anniversary of International Women’s Day – a day that celebrates the political, social and economic achievements of women’s progress through history.

We’ve come a long way in terms of human rights, suffrage and social acceptance; however this rapid progress has slowed down significantly since the 1980’s. Has feminism reached its limit? Have we found gender equilibrium? Do women enjoy the same rights as men in our freedom-loving, democratic and liberally western society?

It seems that when it comes to business and economics, the answer is a confusing one. Male dominated boards and senior managers of Australian businesses have been professing that more female participation on boards would be welcome. Yet the cold hard figures beg to differ.

Women make up only 8.4 percent of members on Australian boards and only a measly 3 percent of chief executives. More than 50 percent of the companies listed on the Australian Securities Exchange have no female representation on their boards at all.

The Australian Government is seeking to remedy this and have recently discussed the notion of introducing a quota for companies to adhere to. This quota system will effectively force Australian businesses to have female board representation of 30 percent, though this is still in negotiation. If these punitive measures are enforced, companies will have to prove this representation in their annual reports.

Elizabeth Knight of the Sydney Morning Herald, in a recent scathing editorial on the subject, said that “If businesses genuinely thought more women on boards and in senior management translated to improved profits, there would be no debate.”

She cited that studies seem to expound this fact; however the male-dominated world of corporate Australia does not seem to take these studies seriously. “If the government ultimately needs to impose female participation quotas on boards, it will be the companies' own fault. They have been given plenty of warnings but, for the most part, have failed to act,” she wrote.

There are a number of issues with this proposal. Firstly, imposing a quota does not automatically solve the true problem. The true problem is the mentality that women are not capable of holding a senior or decision-making role. Despite the studies that have proven otherwise, despite the school and tertiary scores of female students obliterating that of male students, despite the fact that we have a female Prime Minister, there is still an unspoken, lingering attitude in the corporate world that women are not as suitable for high-power positions as men. (Notice the use of “not as suitable” instead of “unsuitable”? It’s this soft discrimination that easily slides by us every day.)

Secondly, the enforcing of a quota can be viewed as reverse discrimination. In theory, the system would ensure fair representation of women in the corporate arena, however if put in practise, it could result in qualified, appropriate male candidates not selected on the basis that they are male and the company needs to ‘fill their quota’.

This line of reasoning is thin and extremely subjective in that one cannot accurately measure the quality of values each candidate brings to the table (regardless of gender). For example, a male candidate may have strong technical skills but weak lateral thinking skills. A female candidate may have the reverse. It is difficult to determine which candidate is better or which skill is more valuable. What is evident now however, is that the male candidate will be more likely to obtain the position because of the male-dominated culture of most businesses. There is no doubt that this predilection for the Y chromosome needs to be remedied in some way.

Studies have proven that women bring a unique skill set to management that is difficult to find in men. Women by nature are more nurturing, better at multi-tasking, creative problem solving and lateral thinking. Women have a higher emotional intelligence than men and greater empathy, negotiation and communication skills. This, coupled with a high intellect, make women the greatest asset for a board… and also the greatest threat to its existing members.

Women make up almost 54 percent of the workforce at large, therefore it would make sound business sense to have female board representation for a female dominated staff. How else can the rights, values and opinions of all staff be embodied? Companies also stand to damage their branding if they continue to cling to the archaic, patriarchal values that should have died long ago.

It is a sad state of affairs when Parliament has to intervene in this ludicrous battle of the sexes. Like a school teacher forcing the cool kids to include the outsider of the playground – they reluctantly do so, but half-heartedly and always harbouring a silent resentment for the unwelcome intrusion. Perhaps forcing a quota system on corporate Australia is the only way to prove that women are capable of holding positions of power and influence, however the fact that it has come down to Government intervention will hopefully shine a light on Australia’s distance from true equality.

Click here to see Daniel Craig's cross-dressing response to International Women's Day.

Click here to watch a satirical clip about women in the workforce, courtesy of the film "Anchorman".