Editor’s Note: We are thrilled to cover the Australian Executive Women’s Leadership Symposium which was held on 22-23 May in Sydney. Elisa Limburg reports on key issues executive women are talking about.
The Australian Executive Women’s Leadership Symposium focused on topics such as equal opportunities for women, mentoring, leadership and maintaining a better work-life balance. Facilitated by Suzi Finkelstein of Women & Leadership Australia, the symposium was a successful two days for provoking thought and networking.
There were two sessions which most women could identify with. One was; ‘Busting the seven myths about women and work and why it matters more than ever’ by Catherine Fox, Deputy Editor AFR Boss Magazine and Corporate Woman columnist. The other was; ‘Can we really have it all?’ by Mia Freedman, publisher of mamamia.com.au.
According to Catherine Fox, the seven myths about women and work are:
1. Work hard and you will be rewarded.
‘As long as you have merit you will be rewarded’. This is not always true. Women are often excluded from informal networks within companies, yet women put more importance on building relationships than men.
2. The gender pay gap is grossly exaggerated.
In Australia there is an 18% gender gap, which hasn’t changed in 20 years (calculated on hourly earnings of people doing the same jobs). This issue does not get the attention it should. It can start just one year out of university, where males are immediately paid more than females. “It’s disturbing and we need to pay attention to it to resolve it”, Catherine said.
3. Women have children and choose to lose their jobs or lose interest in their careers.
Our careers usually span for about 45 years. For women who have children, on average they take about two years off work, so it’s not a huge amount of time. The myth is about the ambition, that if you take time out from your job to have kids then you’re not as interested. Of course you have to shift your focus if you have kids. Catherine said there are too many assumptions being made on behalf of mothers in the workplace. For many women it’s not a choice to work, they need the income. Some women may only be able to do part-time, but this doesn’t mean the end of their career and that doors should slam shut.
4. If women just behaved more like men at work and stopped being so emotional they would succeed.
“Not a good piece of advice and if it had worked, wouldn’t we already be doing it?”, said Catherine. Women are typically penalised for being aggressive, but they shouldn’t act differently to try and fit in. Encouraged to lower their voices, dress, walk and act more masculine – the worst advice is to be different to who you really are.
5. Programs and targets for women in the workplace are unnecessary and unfair
Men often complain that it’s unfair for women to be mentored. Women don’t have an equal paying field in the workplace, so sometimes special measures, such as mentoring programs, are introduced using affirmative action to help those who are not getting a fair deal.
6. Women are scarce at the top because there’s not enough of them in the pipeline.
This is simply not true, women are just not being promoted, it’s not that there’s a lack of supply. Women make up half the workforce and 60% of women of working age are employed. There are more women graduates coming out of schools and universities (approx. 55%). We need to look at why educated women are not going up in the ranks.
7. Time will heal all
That has not been proven and, the longer that we fail to see women in leadership positions the more convinced some will be that women are not suitable for those positions. We need to keep promoting women’s progress and remind our colleagues and peers there’s a lot at stake here.
Catherine Fox’s final advice is sharpen your pins and puncture the myths. Set the record straight.
Mia Freedman discussed if women can really ‘have it all’? Claiming to hate the phrase, she said it puts unrealistic expectations and unnecessary pressure on women. She also said she finds it very frustrating the way women are reflected in the media as it bears no resemblance to the average roomful of women.
Mia showed the juxtaposition of glamorous magazine shots of her in ballroom gowns versus the realistic tired shots of her without makeup, wearing her food and multitasking to try and get things done.
“It’s easy to look at someone on the outside and think they have it all”, said Mia.
She spoke about her experiences of juggling a busy professional and personal life. She said she knows she’s not the only one who has to make little sacrifices because she too often does “the best she could do at the time”.
Mia spoke about the disappointing and unrealistic misrepresentations of women in magazines, not just of models, but of real women having their images altered and being ‘stretched’ to look more attractive and appearing in control of their lives.
Mia commented on how the phrase ‘having it all’ doesn’t seem to apply to men. They’re either a father or a worker and society just accepts that.
“It’s funny how you never hear about the angst of men balancing their lives and trying to ‘have it all’. “It’s either a job and kids, or not. The end”, she said.
According to Mia, there are 3 reasons why ‘having it all’ is too clichéd and unrealistic:
1. Having kids and a career suggests that women are only happy if they have both. Some women don’t want to have kids, some can’t and there are different circumstances for everyone.
2. Having it all sounds greedy, like there’s entitlement and it’s not a good thing when people start to become over-entitled.
3. Working after having kids is not a feminist declaration, it’s often out of necessity and financial need that mothers have to work.
To wrap up her discussion, Mia said we’re all juggling but “’having it all’ dumbs down the complexity of the decisions we have to make in our lives”.
An amusing story was told by one of the attendees who works in the defence forces and is the only female in her department. She said when she asked her male supervisor for permission to attend the symposium, his response was; “why do you need to attend a leadership event, you have no one to lead”. Her response was, “exactly, that’s the problem”.
There was certainly a lot to take away from the Australian Women’s Leadership Symposium. Key points reiterated were that women need to continue to support each other, do the best they can do under their own circumstances and fight harder for equal rights in the workplace and for more leadership opportunities.
Tickets are still on sale for the Melbourne event which will be held at Park Hyatt on 24-25 June. Woman.com.au subscribers pay only $895. Standard rate is $2,295. Book your discounted tickets or find out more.