Historically, people have long viewed men’s ambition positively whilst women’s ambitions have often been tinged with mistrust. In retrospect women were kept out of the workplace for generations, forced to fight for the right to vote, and to prove themselves worthy to contribute outside the home and to gain financial independence. Socially, a woman’s value had long been intrinsically linked to her gender –and her requirement to take the lion’s share of responsibility for the raising of a family all whilst also playing a supporting role to her breadwinning partner.

Historically men have not been so constrained and enjoyed the benefit of being free from having to contribute these. It certainly suited men not to encourage women, and to maintain women in positions of support, whilst men were recognised for their leadership.

Anything outside these basic aspirations has been viewed as problematic to the status quo. In fact, ambitious women are often viewed as ‘difficult’ while our male counterparts are still praised for the exact same attributes. Women are often be labelled as ‘bitchy’ for our strong views when the same behaviour is more positively seen as ‘assertiveness’ in men.

Professional women more often have to prove themselves to the male leadership whilst men are often ‘assumed’ to bring capable skills. There is also a common misnomer that when women have successful and full  family home lives, professional aspirations come secondary. Men are not asked to make the same compromises – no male CEO has ever been judged on his presence and abilities as a parent. Men have been valued for their dominance and leadership whilst women are often perceived negatively for it.

Furthermore, when women do aspire towards professional leadership, they often lack the same support systems. Still  fewer men are responsible for the care of families, whist women are often the glue that holds the family unit together, adding significant pressure to keep these domains separated. Our role as matriarch is a delicate balance between provider and protector, between breadwinner and caregiver. We no longer feel pressured into choosing one over the other and want to be able to do both. Young women in business now expect to be able to have both but the practicalities of doing so are still often against them. Women are moving ahead but we also need men to step up!

A recent study from organisational behaviourist Ekaterina Netchaeva and gender researcher Leah Sheppard analysed seven years of meta-data, tracking the ambitions of 138,000 women. The study concluded that among the last three generations, men have consistently displayed higher aspirations for leadership than women, which could of course be a key reason for the much discussed gender pay gap.

Closing the Gender Pay Gap

According to the ABS, the national gender pay gap was 14.1 per cent during August 2022, signifying an increase of 0.3 percentage points since the start of that year. ABS data showed that men earn an average of $263.90 more than women per week. Taking into account the number of women working casually and part-time widens the gender pay gap for all employees to 29.7 per cent.

The ABS also noted that the cost of living continues to climb as inflation hit 6.1 per cent this year. However, average salaries have only risen 2-3 per cent this year, highlighting that real wages are shrinking compared to the rapid rate of inflation, meaning women are twice as likely as men to struggle keeping pace with the cost of living.

Policies are helping to undo the history of rigidity and patriarchy that has permeated through society, creating more awareness of the biases and obstacles women face. It’s an uphill battle since we’re talking about centuries of imbalance, a long-standing history of men disregarding women’s place while making critical decisions behind closed doors.

Shockingly women are at times still made to justify their presence in long-standing boys’ clubs that are built on exclusivity and nepotism. Closing the gender pay gap means involving women throughout the process, amplifying their voices to find more equitable solutions.

A Willingness to Compromise or Keep Quiet

Women have a tendency to be more self-aware than their male counterparts, there still instances where men are completely out of touch. Still women find that in order to reach the top they have had to prove themselves over and over. I’ve never seen a man turn down a role or promotion because he felt underqualified for any requirement, even if he was. On the other hand, I’ve found that women are often more ready to be vulnerable enough to recognise their own areas for development and willing to admit them to others, which can play against them and raises doubt, even if only in their own mind.

Historically, women have always been told they must prove themselves – both as women and as individuals. Whenever we fail, we’re judged on our gender. And often our successes are viewed as us as an outlier; a significant achievement made ‘in spite of’ our womanhood. I came from a generation of working women where we we’re regularly expected to go above and beyond, dispelling the misconceptions held by our higher-ups that our place was a support one rather than a lead role.

I’ve also seen how women are less comfortable expressing discomfort or correcting the leader in the workplace. The current generation of young women are getting better at speaking truth to power and asserting themselves, women haven’t always been the best at speaking up, pushing boundaries, or ensuring those boundaries are respected. Across certain industries, women have long had to endure toxic environments with the ever-looming threat of discrimination, hostility, and exclusion.

In a Man’s World…

Our society has always valued masculine dominance, perpetuating the belief that authority is synonymous with leadership. Alternatively, women’s ambition and dominance have often been viewed with far more negative connotation. Men are rewarded for their assertiveness and their ability to take charge of a situation without second guessing themselves. However, those same personality traits in women will see us regarded as uncooperative or unfeminine. We saw this recently in a case that highlighted the issue.

Women view their accomplishments differently too, deflecting attention and praise to help maintain the status quo. Men are often more motivated by a personal sense of accomplishment in comparison to the reward of collective effort. I’ve often found women are more content giving, sharing, or deflecting praise than receiving it.

And while we’re sometimes  more reserved in our ambitions, women often have a clearer idea of what they want and how far they’re prepared to go to get it. This may come from a greater awareness of our limitations, barriers, and societal expectations, but sometimes it can just be that we don’t want the added pressure of eighty-hour workweeks when trying to start or support a family.

There’s been a significant shift in how people view their work lives, striving for more autonomy and flexibility. How employees choose to work is one of the major determinants behind motivation and engagement. We’ve seen some organisations implement four-day workweeks with resounding success, experiencing improvement in productivity, employee wellbeing, and overall retention. This also empowers women to feel more secure in their positions, in turn supporting their personal and professional ambitions.

Disparity in Opportunity and Leadership

The WGEA’s (Workplace Gender Equality Agency) 2020-21 census found that 3 in 5 employers are offering paid parental leave with the vast majority making paid leave equally available for both parents. However, gender inequality remains as half of the organisations in male-dominated industries do not offer any form of paid primary carer’s leave compared to only a quarter of organisations in female-dominated sectors.

WGEA also found that women hold 17.6 per cent of chair positions, 31.2 per cent of directorships, 19.4 per cent of CEOs, and 34.5% of key management personnel. This increase in female directors is supported by the 2022 Board Diversity Index released earlier this year, which showed that the number of women on boards increased by 34 this year (to a total of 667) and 19 per cent of female directors occupy 48 per cent of female seats.

However, this figure signals a step backward from progress made in 2021 when 29 per cent of female directors held approximately 51 per cent of female-occupied seats. And while the number of female chairs is increasing, trends are showing that women are emulating the exclusive clubs started by their male predecessors. Of the total 2,053 board seats examined, 32 per cent of roles were filled by women and 90 per cent were found to have come from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds.

I’m a believer in hiring people based on merit rather than filling a diversity quota. However, it’s also important to remember the obstacles that have historically held women back from achieving any kind of professional or financial liberation. Afterall, it was only 50-odd years ago that Australian banks began granting loans to women without a male guarantor.

Organisations may speak of diversity and inclusion, but they often forget that these initiatives were introduced to correct a long-standing history of male hegemony. And whilst not all of this is entirely malicious or conscious. Our societal biases even bleed into our technology, like Janet Hill’s Apple credit card limit being ten times less than her husband, Steve Wozniack, co-founder of Apple. Despite the couple sharing bank accounts and assets, an AI algorithm quantified archaic beliefs to assess this successful woman’s financial viability.

Going Beyond Incremental Improvement

Creating equality requires end-to-end change, a reimagining of the various systems and support networks that got us here. Quotas are too simplistic in nature – they don’t address the heart of the issue. Real diversity and equity begin with education; unlearning the biases and misconceptions that have been embedded in us since childhood.

It will take concerted effort across all industries and social sectors. We need greater collaboration between policy makers and industry experts to address long-standing barriers that have prevented women and minorities from entering certain social and professional space.

This means improving accessibility to education and training, particularly in STEM. We’re facing an ongoing talent shortage, so creating more opportunities to underserved regions and people only brings more diverse experiences and ideas that help drive progress.

Creating equality also means implementing dedicated programs to decoding social biases and misogyny. We need collaboration between women and men to create a shared understanding about the different barriers women face as well as the behaviours that maintain these common obstacles.

And while I believe quotas can be restrictive, it’s undeniable that they help improve the diversity of businesses, subsequently widening the talent pool to people who often get ignored. However, we need more partnerships between industry, academia, and public sector to make education and employment more accessible to all. If we’re to achieve true inclusion and diversity, it will take a multi-faceted solution to this pervasive and long-standing social challenge.

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