Since a majority of people agree that women are under-represented in senior leadership positions and as the ‘Role of Women in Governance’ is the subject of this year’s Indian Newslink Sir Anand Satyanand Lecture (on July 27 at Pullman Auckland), I wish to raise a provocative question.
If women were well represented in governance and senior leadership roles, would that necessarily mean that outcomes are better for all women?
International and domestic research shows that women spend more time caring within the household and doing voluntary and community work, much of which is unpaid.
Women at risk
Those working in female-dominated industries like aged-care and nursing are paid less than those in male-dominated professions that require comparable skills.
Between 2009 and 2012, about 96% of partner homicides in New Zealand involve men killing their current or ex female partner.
According to the Ministry for Women, the biggest risk factor for being a victim of intimate partner or sexual violence is being a woman.
The common denominator between these outcomes is attitudes towards women, gender roles and stereotypes.
Research carried out over 40 years ago in America and Canada indicated that less than 1% of elementary school children drew a woman when they were asked to draw a scientist.
Research on women’s representation in science published in 2014 in the ‘Journal of Educational Psychology’ tells us that gender-science stereotypes still persist and that they affect outcomes for women in science primarily in terms of unconscious discrimination when hiring scientists.
From birth, we are conditioned to think in ways that are considered acceptable by the society. The stereotypes we are conditioned to believe influence our actions. Therefore, when we talk about inequitable outcomes for women, including the dearth of women in corporate governance, we must also talk about gender stereotypes.
Recently, I read a fascinating report entitled, ‘Women on Boards: A Conversation with Male Directors,’ published in 2011 by the International Finance Corporation, which is a member of the World Bank Group.
The Report was a compilation of conversations with 15 chairpersons, Chief Executives and Directors of various companies. All of them talked about the need for increased gender diversity, with many saying that such diversity was desirable because of its economic benefits. Only one man, Nasser Saidi from Lebanon, mentioned fairness and equality and that woman have a right to be on boards.
Tough and loud
When asked about their experience of being on boards with women, most men described the women as tough, driven, strong and loud.
In response to how policymakers could encourage better female representation on boards, almost all of them said that women should ensure that they are better at networking, more assertive, louder, less cautious, more proactive and better trained.
Their responses are problematic for a few different reasons. Firstly, there is the stereotype that women are generally cautious, timid, quiet and not that great at networking. Then there’s the stereotype that those who are successful in boardrooms display traits generally considered ‘masculine.’
Finally, there is the notion that women need to ‘become something else’ to succeed in the boardroom.
The United Nations Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights defines a gender stereotype as ‘a generalised view or preconception about attributes or characteristics that are or ought to be possessed by, or the roles that are or should be performed by women and men.’ It goes on to say that ‘gender stereotyping is wrongful when it results in a violation or violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.’
The under-representation of women in corporate governance is an issue that must be addressed. So is the under-representation of people from ‘ethnic’ communities in the boardroom. And if you are a woman of colour, it is double whammy.
However, there are so many other conversations we need to have to ensure that we address the underlying issues of women’s under-representation, and not just the symptoms.
We need to talk about work-life balance for both men and women.
We need to talk about more inclusive forms of leadership and not just push women to lean-in and become more aggressive and assertive.
We need to ensure that young girls have female role models in diverse professions and trades. It is OK for women to be in Parliament, to be scientists and surgeons or forklift drivers and to be represented in the most influential boardrooms.
We must value our women who choose to stay home and look after children, elderly and the disabled or to work in industries that are female-dominated.
It is only when we start addressing the underlying factors that hold women back in life, including in governance that benefits would begin to positively impact all women.
Priyanca Radhakrishnan is a strong advocate of ethnic and gender diversity in corporate governance and in public life. She is a Member of the Labour Party Policy Council and lives in Auckland.