Dumbing down the gender debate

If there really is entrenched anti-women discrimination in business, then the recent work published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics is likely to set back, not advance, the gender equality movement.

The ABS study, reported at http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features30Dec+2012, was a study of women in leadership in Australia. It concluded that “While in 2011-12 women represented close to half of the labour force as a whole (46%)… women remain under-represented at senior levels within both the private and public sector.” The author comes to that conclusion by observing that in the ASX200 companies, the representation of women on boards was 12.3% and the proportion of female CEOs was 3.5%.

This inference, that senior executive representation of women should be equal to the proportion of women in the workforce, otherwise women are being discriminated against, is the crux of the analysis. And it is completely flawed. There is no way that all the individual men that make up the male workforce could be considered to be potential directors or CEOs of the top 200 publicly listed companies in Australia. Many would be completely unsuitable because of a lack of skill, experience, attitude, effectiveness etc. Further, many men would simply not want the roles, given the nature of what is involved. The same goes for women. Not every woman in the workforce should be considered a candidate for CEO. By pointing to the discrepancy between the proportion of the workforce that is female and the proportion of the CEOs and directors that is female as evidence of underrepresentation, there is an assumption that the proportion of women in the workforce that is willing and able to take on senior roles is the same as that for men.

Any credible study should therefore get to the heart of the matter. Of the potential suitable candidates there are for any given senior role, how many are men and how many are women? Once you know the available pool, only then can comparisons be drawn between the proportion of senior leaders who are women and the proportion of willing and able candidates who are women. Studies such as that released by the ABS denigrate women by dumbing down an argument and risk being seen as an exercise in social engineering rather than valid statistical analysis.


One thought on “Dumbing down the gender debate

  1. Interesting thoughts on women in the workforce. But why do people focus on these stats? Because it’s beneficial for women to be on teams and in senior roles and boards. And females on average get paid less than men – not only in Australia but throughout the world. From a female perspective things aren’t exactly fair, a Google HBR search will highlight those stats.

    On the issue of a lack of females for roles, let’s take professional services as an example. How many senior females are there in your organisation? How many female partners/directors are there in law, management consultants, accounting companies? It’s an industry where men dominate – often women drop out of their professions mid career or are set back when they time time out. Progressive organisations recognise it’s not healthy to have male dominated teams and for years have tried to figure out why there aren’t senior females in their organisations and try to build a supportive culture to encourage women to stay. But the stats you highlight would indicate that’s not working.

    I don’t have children and I’m a female. In Anglo American democracies, the female is the one that usually takes time off if she has a child and if she has married well she often does not go back to work at all. But for women that do, having a child then taking one or two years off can be very disruptive personally or for the organisation she works for and sometimes it’s a negative in a female’s career. Men don’t face that situation in Anglo American democracies but at the same time most don’t have access to taking off the same amount of time as women do after they have a child. What if the situation were reversed and men were the ones that took a three months to two years out of their careers?

    With all the studies showing the benefits of diversity – especially equal gender representation – in the workplace, can anything really be done in Anglo American democracies when societal values and norms are for women to take time off after childbirth? Should governments be thinking bigger on this issue? Should we looking at how other countries are doing maternity, paternity leave and childcare?

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