Why is Gender Equality still a conversation?

Mar 23, 2020

Elizabeth Houghton

Sutton Full Potential Founder

I have never felt discriminated by those around me due to my gender. The men in my life have always treated me like an equal and they have never laughed at my ambitious goals. I am fortunate to have been supported by men who truly believe in equality rather than just preaching it. Yet, I am not equal. I fear that I may not be truly equal in my lifetime.

At a session facilitated by Suzy Miller at the Opportunity Collective, we discussed these ongoing concerns and how in today sociality the gender equality conversation is still very much alive and well. Suzy reminded me of the phrase unconscious bias and its subtle impact in our nation’s workforce. It is one of the major reasons why Australia is not a true meritocracy or a failing meritocracy. Our nation may lead the world in numerous fields but gender diversity and equality is not one of them.

Australia’s equality and meritocracy problem

Australia is one of the most highly developed nations in the world scoring very high in factors such as quality of life, education levels, human development index, gini coefficient, and several other social and economic factors. Australian women comprise 46.2% of the nation’s total workforce but women hold less than 20% of all board directorships in ASX200 firms and account for a mere 5% of all CEOs. Why does one of the most advanced and industrialised nations in the world have this problem?

As a nation, Australia strongly believes in the cultural and legal significance of a level playing field between all women and men. We have among the toughest anti-corruption laws, anti-discrimination laws, ACCC and competition laws, and anti-insider-trading laws in the world. We like to believe that we operate under a principle of meritocracy but we operate under a system of false meritocracy. Otherwise, why would women be under-represented in the highest echelons of the corporate ladder and the pay gap still exist?

Will women far better by hiding their identity?

The United States faces similar problems, and it was even evident in one of the most democratic of arenas: the symphony orchestra. Until the 1980s, most major symphony orchestras in the US consisted of males who were mostly handpicked by the individual director. Favouritism seemed rampant and women were unable to make any headway in this arena. Beginning in the 1970s, auditions became more democratic as openings were widely advertised in popular TVs channels and newspapers in an effort to get more women to audition.

However, this did not lead to any noticeable difference as favourites could still be identified by sight and by resume. Another set of procedures were adopted in an effort to achieve true impartiality and this method involved the adoption of blind auditions. The identity of the player would be hidden from the jury by a blind screen, and this change in audition format allowed the researchers to test the existence of bias in symphony orchestras.

The chances of women advancing past the preliminary round increased by a staggering 50% on average and when you compare the amount of women in the biggest orchestras in the US now with 1980 levels, you can clearly see the difference. The New York Philharmonic contained 11% of women in the 1980s, but it now comprises of 35% of women.

This is not limited to operas alone. Studies have shown that an increasing number of female authors are likely to either use their initials alone or take up a male pseudonym because they correctly believe that men are more likely to read fiction written by male authors.

Why is the Australian workforce not merit-based?

Men made the system. Men still largely benefit from the system. Most men and women may not even realise this as we like to believe that we live in a post-gender discrimination world. Meritocracy is significantly affected by cognitive bias in our nation, and this is why meritocracy becomes subjective not subjective. This does not affect men alone. It affects anyone who isn’t tall, good-looking, the right skin colour and the right gender. According to our Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson, there is a tendency to promote people who look like him and he believes this qualifies as ‘merit’.

The playing field is not level. In 1976, McKinsey published a list of recommendations that were intended to serve as a guiding light for gender equality. The firm recently republished the same, and it is quite shocking how those principles are still universally applicable 40 years later. My father may have hoped for a life of equality for me but the sad truth is that my daughter may never get there as well. Only by changing this false system of meritocracy and levelling the playing field will we be poised to achieve gender equality today.

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