Skip to content

Tag: Karen Brooks

The real barriers to women in leadership

I was honoured and thrilled to receive an Australian Leadership Award at the ADC Future Summit. But, oh irony of ironies, one of the lasting impressions I took home from my trip to Melbourne for the summit was just how much work we still need to do to give our girls the opportunity to shine in leadership.

Picture me sitting there with more than 50 business leaders. I looked around, and I realised that I was one of only 5 women in the room. We made up less than 10%. Do women contribute less than 10% to the world’s wealth and wisdom? If that were the case, then I guess a less-than-10% representation in leadership could be expected. But it’s not the case, is it? If any proof were needed, according to APEC, women are vastly underrepresented in leadership positions compared to their contribution to the economy and business, and their level of education.

Some of the barriers to women becoming leaders are tangible, such as inadequate childcare and lost chances for promotion for many women when they take maternity leave. But most of the barriers are culturally embedded, which makes them far more slippery and hard to pin down. Research has shown that in our culture there is a deeply ingrained belief that the qualities of a leader are assertiveness and competitiveness, and that these are male traits, while women are meant to be nice and compassionate. (Why our culture sees being nice and compassionate as at odds with leadership is an interesting question in itself.)

The workplace that today’s girls will inherit is undoubtedly a fairer one compared with previous generations, as there is now legislation to protect them against discrimination and harassment, and to enshrine their right to maternity leave. But you can’t legislate against cultural constructs. In fact, legal and accountancy firms and banks have found a way to get around the legislation so they can keep clinging to a deeply rooted cultural construct: that one of women’s roles in the workplace is to provide “some eye candy for the boys”, as Nina Funnell wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald. (Karen Brooks also wrote a great piece about this, in the Courier-Mail.) The law prevents senior management from telling female employees how they should look, so increasingly, companies are bringing in independent style consultants to tell female employees how they should look. (The men get to stay at their desks and keep working. I guess their wives and girlfriends should sort out their clothing choices for them, right? *Sarcasm alert!*)

In these “training” sessions, what do the stylists suggest women do to be taken seriously in their careers? Keep up with fashion. Wear high heels. Wear conservative makeup — and that means lipstick only, no lip gloss.

Okay, ladies, what are you waiting for? Now you’ve been let in on the secret, get out there and boost those statistics for women in leadership!

Danni vs the fashion police -- I do love a nice kaftan

I felt like a rebel at the ADC Summit and updated my Facebook status to: “Channelling Nina and Karen today in the fight against the corporate fashion police. Am one of only 5 women in a room of 50+ business leaders. Every one is in black or grey. I’m wearing my uber bright kaftan and have daringly glossed my lips.” How crazy is it that the act of wearing colours and lip gloss can feel like a radical statement for a woman?

All of this got me thinking about the messages we send girls when we criticise their fashion choices or shame them for turning up to school wearing lip gloss. Are we inadvertently reinforcing the sense that it’s okay to judge girls by what they wear rather than what they do?

Corporations bringing in style consultants might be a new phenomenon, but underpinning it is a very old idea: that no matter how accomplished and talented a woman or girl is, she must still fit within a narrow ideal of femininity. For teens, that ideal is expressed in music videos and ads and movies in which being a woman is all about one thing: how hot you are. In the grown-up workplace version, high heels and lipstick maketh the career woman. Hillary Clinton gets picked apart for failing to wear makeup when giving a speech. Julia Gillard’s bottom is a topic of public debate. This policing of appearance is undoubtedly a major barrier to more women taking leadership roles. As one of my Facebook friends commented, “Why would you want to leave yourself open to that?”

The revelations from my time at the summit went beyond fashion. David Moffatt, Chairman of Asurion Australia, gave the opening address, in which he discussed something very laudable: that companies should create flexible, family-friendly workplaces. He talked about his moment of truth, when his son called him at work and said, “Dad, you have been travelling for work half my life. I want you to come home.” His son was then 10 and David had indeed spent the equivalent of 5 years travelling for work. David left the office, went home, played with his son and vowed to back off on the travel. The audience were tremendously supportive and literally sighed at what a great guy he was to have rushed home and slowed down.

And I applaud him for doing it . . . but I also couldn’t help wondering whether a woman would have dared to share a similar story, for fear of being judged a bad mother. Rather than supportive sighs, I imagine she might be met with shocked silence as the audience thought to themselves: “What? She missed half her child’s life?” I turned to the woman next to me, who was looking fondly at David, and asked her what she honestly would have thought if a woman had shared the same story. “Truly? I would have thought, ‘Suck it up, princess, you made your choices!'” she said. She and I both reflected on what a long way we still have to go.

Another moment that got me thinking at the summit came when a social entrepreneur was introduced and at a particular line in his bio — “He also enjoys jumping on the trampoline with his son” — there were very warm smiles from the audience, giggles and looks of admiration. Would a woman leader have dared include this in her bio, for fear of looking frivolous and lightweight? Would the response have been the same? She might have had a tough job convincing the audience that she had a serious message to get across. There is a persistent and infuriating double standard at work: child-rearing isn’t meaningful work — unless it’s done by a man, in which case it’s not only meaningful, it’s beautiful and heroic.

I deeply respect both men for stepping up at home and for sharing their parenting stories in public. I think that if more men did both of those things, we would all benefit — men, women and children. But I question the current mind set in which male business leaders who take an active role in parenting are seen as almost noble, whilst women who try to combine motherhood and business are seen as either unprofessional at work or bad mothers at home.

In the plane on the way back to Sydney, I read in the papers about the virtues of attachment parenting (read: “attachment mothering”) and that studies have shown that children are sad because their parents work too much (given how strongly men have been encouraged to be career focused for generations, read: “mothers work too much”). Yet the surveyed children were simultaneously unwilling to help around the house to maximize the time they had with their parents at home.

Indeed, housework is a domestic battleground at my place. I don’t think my family are by any means unusually uncooperative: I am far from the only woman who walks in exhausted from a business trip to be greeted by mountains of laundry, a messy house and kids with a list of domestic grievances. The reality — and one of the most firmly established barriers to women attaining leadership — is that no matter how much women work outside the home, they are still expected to do the lion’s share of the work at home as well.

How do we get rid of this barrier for women, and for the women our girls will soon become? We chip away it, bit by bit. We try to teach our children, boys and girls, from an early age that there is no such thing as “women’s work” or “men’s work”. We play music and dance to try to make housework fun. We write long, impassioned letters to our kids about the unfairness of expecting their mother, by virtue of being a woman, to do everything around the house. (Okay, maybe it’s just me who does that!) At school, we think twice before saying, “Take this note home to Mum”, and when we notice that the girls are doing all the “housekeeping” type of tasks in a mixed-gender group project, we step in and make the boys responsible, too.

The Government’s New Body Image Policy

bodyimagecodeLate last year in this blog, I gave my assessment of the National Strategy on Body Image proposed by an advisory group that was appointed by the federal government. Kate Ellis, the Minister for Youth, has just released the government’s body image policy in response to the proposal. So, how has the policy shaped up?

I had praised the advisory group’s recommendations for a Body Image Friendly Schools Checklist, so I am happy to see that the government will be distributing posters based on the checklist to every primary and secondary school in the country.

Regarding the rest of the policy, I think the intentions are good and many of the principles are undeniably sensible. Stores stocking a broad range of clothing for all shapes and sizes? Of course I believe in this recommendation, and many similar recommendations. However, I also believe that girls and young women deserve stronger action than what this policy takes.

The government has introduced an industry code of conduct designed to encourage the media, fashion and advertising industries to promote more positive body image messages. I agree with most of the guidelines in the code, such as calling on companies to: promote positive body image messages; include images of a range of body shapes, sizes and ethnicities; not undermine positive body image editorial messages with negative advertising; use models who are of a healthy weight and appropriate age; and cater to diverse women. One aspect of the code I am suspect of is that it asks companies to not digitally alter images to an unrealistic or unattainable degree, and to tell consumers when they have altered images. Frankly, this recommendation seems inadequate. Doesn’t any Photoshopping send the message that women are not good enough the way they are? That aside, in large part, I think it will be a healthier world for our girls to grow up in if companies follow the code of conduct. But—and this is a big but—the code is only voluntary.

This seems profoundly naive to me. What media, fashion or advertising company is going to invest time and money in following a voluntary code—unless it’s good for their bottom line?

This brings me to my next reservation about the new policy . . .

A national body image friendly awards scheme is to be launched. Organisations, initiatives and products that receive awards will earn the right to display a body image friendly symbol. It’s like the body image equivalent of the Heart Foundation’s tick of approval. But surely companies will only vie to win an award if it helps their bottom line. Are we seeing the start of the commodification of positive body image? That’s a possibility that truly makes me shudder.

Already we have seen companies such as Unilever using the body image issue to sell products, through their Dove “real” beauty campaigns. Given that Uniliver employs incredibly negative body image messages to sell some of its other brands, such as Lynx, Slim Fast and Ponds Skin whitening cream in Asia, I think it’s fair to conclude that at least in that company, profit is more important than positive body image. (There has also been some questioning of just how real the images in those Dove campaigns are. If you want to find out more, there are articles in New York magazine and Jezebel about a hypocritical casting call for “beautiful” and “flawless” women for their next real beauty campaign. Dove has since put out a statement that they didn’t approve the casting call—though I notice that they haven’t denied an association with the casting company that issued it.)

My main concern is that a body image friendly symbol could become just another marketing tool to drive profit—and one that may well be fairly meaningless to the consumer if it doesn’t reflect the whole reality of a company’s body image messages.

Last year, I noted that the proposed national strategy had nothing to say on the sexualisation and objectification of women and girls. The government’s policy also fails to address these crucial issues, even though the pressure to be too sexy too soon is a major part of many girls’ body image dissatisfaction. Experts in child and adolescent development, parents and social commentators have identified the damaging rise in sexualisation and objectification as something we as a society need to act on now.  The Australian Psychological Society has issued guidelines and has lobbied extensively in Canberra. So, why the deafening silence in the government policy?

Melinda Tankard Reist has written a couple of thought-provoking blog posts on this gap in the policy. Among other things, she discussed the absurdity of the media touting the size 14 model Laura Wells as the ultimate in positive body image simply because she is not thin and is happy to pose almost nude, squeezing her breasts together for the camera. I agree wholeheartedly with what Melinda wrote in a follow-up post:

You can have a range of body shapes, sizes and ethnicities represented, but they can still be posed and styled in sexually objectifying ways. Objectification in a size 14 is still objectification.

Associate Professor Karen Brooks, of Southern Cross University, in her column in The Courier-Mail, like me agreed in principle with the aims of the policy but had reservations. She believes, as do I, that it is unfortunate that the advisory group did not seek opinions from a greater number of outside bodies and individuals with expertise in these issues. Karen also notes that the government’s allocation of funding has opened the way for beauty industry involvement in the teaching of positive body image in schools. I think such involvement is a whole world of wrong, akin to a fast food chain going into schools to promote healthy eating. That’s why Enlighten Education will always remain proudly independent, never accepting sponsorships or partnerships with corporations of any kind, especially beauty and fashion companies.

I also share Karen’s view that it is key for any in-school body image initiatives to be targeted at large groups of girls, over a sustained period. This is something that Enlighten believes in very strongly, because evidence shows that large-group interventions—say, with an entire grade—are far more effective than small-group ones of only a dozen or so girls. It is critical to spread the message to as large a number of girls at once as possible. That way, a girl’s whole peer group is speaking the same language, so the message isn’t undermined.

Over the next few months, the criteria for earning the government’s body image friendly symbol will be fine-tuned. I join with Karen Brooks in urging the advisory group to use this time to consult more widely with experts and with young people. I applaud the government for its good intentions and for acknowledging that negative body image among young people is a real issue that we all need to be concerned about. However, given the policy’s limitations, I again urge parents, teachers and community leaders to keep up the good work of combatting negative body image messages. In the end, it is our responsibility to be body image role models for girls and to send positive body image messages in what we say and what we do.

Sticks and stones

Last week, I did a post sharing media I have been doing aimed at encouraging schools to be more proactive in dealing with sexual harassment. I received a comment from one of my blog readers that at first shocked me . . . and then got me thinking about another issue that affects all women and girls: the tendency in our culture to demean women for their looks rather than to engage with what they have to say. The comment was short, and cutting:

We’ve seen your talks at schools. If you’re so keen to set a good example then don’t turn up to school looking like mutton dressed as lamb. — Kim

I wondered exactly what it was about me that came across that way to her. When I do my self-esteem and skills-building workshops with girls, I wear an Enlighten Education uniform of sorts. We are often up and jumping around with the girls, so skirts and high heels are definitely out. It’s jeans or tights in winter, or mid-length shorts in summer, and then a black T-shirt embroidered with our butterfly logo. 
danni
Then I realised that the comment had drawn my attention away from the real issue: too often, when women raise their voices, they are criticised not for what they say but how they look.

Even now, in 2010, is that the currency of a woman or a girl  her looks? Is a female’s Achilles heel still her appearance? If you strike her there, do you take away her only power?

It isn’t the first time I’ve spoken out about sexual harassment or a women’s issue and been criticised not for my arguments but for the way I look. I have been helpfully informed that I seemed to have put on weight. I was sent an e-mail telling me that I couldn’t be a feminist because I have blonde hair. During the 2009 scandal involving Matthew Johns and teammates having sex with a 19-year-old girl, I wrote an article in defence of the young woman, who was being blamed and insulted in the media and on the internet. A reader commented that I was just jealous because I was wasn’t desirable enough to get a football player of my own.

I’m in good company. The woman whose writing had the most profound effect on me when I was young, Naomi Wolf, received a torrent of criticism for being too pretty to be a real feminist. On the other side of the coin, Germaine Greer has long been attacked for all sorts of supposed flaws in her appearance and femininity. Earlier this year, Louis Nowra described her in The Monthly as “a befuddled and exhausted old woman” who reminded him of his “demented grandmother”. It should be noted that Greer herself is no stranger to flinging looks-based insults, famously describing a fellow writer as having “hair bird’s-nested all over the place, ****-me shoes and three fat inches of cleavage”.

Comments that target a woman for how she looks, rather than her ideas, are designed to do one thing and one thing only: to shut her up.

Yet it only spurs me on. The same can be said for other Australian writers and commentators I spoke to who also regularly receive such criticism. When I discussed this phenomenon with Emily Maguire, author of Princesses & Porn Stars and a regular writer on gender and culture, she told me:

There’s no way you can present yourself that won’t attract criticism from the kind of people who think that criticism of a woman’s looks will hurt more than criticism of her ideas . . . It only makes me more sure that this stuff is worth speaking out about. — Emily Maguire

Melinda Tankard Reist is an author and commentator who often appears in the media to speak out against the sexualisation of girls and women. She publicly commented on the decision of former Hi-5 performer Kellie Crawford to pose for a lingerie shoot in Ralph in order to “find the woman in me” after so many years as a children’s entertainer. Melinda asked people to question why the Wiggles didn’t need to “prove their manhood by stripping down to their jocks”. Much of the criticism she received afterwards didn’t address that question but told her that she was “a bitter ugly woman”, “sad, old and dog-ugly” and that she had “saggy breasts and a droopy arse”.

Old, saggy, mutton dressed as lamb — age is a common theme to this type of criticism. Rather than seeming to gain wisdom, experience and authority — as is virtually expected of men — women are often deemed of decreasing value with each year they move beyond their 30s. We see it throughout our culture. How many good roles are there for actresses over 40? How many women newsreaders have career longevity without resorting to Botox? It is as if once women have passed a certain age, it is time for them to step off the stage. It’s no wonder that many women are angsting and trying to achieve the body of a 20-year-old — an impossible and time-wasting task. Zoe Krupka put it perfectly in a post on the website New Matilda:

How are we meant to do our work in the world and develop wisdom if we are still focused on the size of our butts? — Zoe Krupka

One would hope that the situation was improving, but in fact, it seems to be getting worse. And it is often women who use the strategy of attacking a woman’s looks. Dr Karen Brooks, social commentator and author of Consuming Innocence: Popular Culture and Our Children, told me:

I have had my appearance criticised ALL the time . . . This has been happening to me for 13 years and it’s getting worse . . . I should add that most of the negative comments are from women. — Karen Brooks

Perhaps there is an element of fear of change that drives women to this type of criticism. Perhaps this technique just comes all too naturally to women who have spent their whole lives learning how to play the “compare and despair” game. Perhaps the ultimate sin for women is to show confidence and to love themselves, so critics feel that outspoken women need to brought down a peg or two.

Whatever it is that drives looks-based criticism, the thing that hurt me the most about the comment I received on my blog was that this woman claimed she had seen me present to girls. At every school Enlighten Education has worked in, the girls line up afterwards to ask for a hug, a kiss and to tell us they love us. They tell us that it changed their lives. So it made me sad to think that in the presence of all the joy and positivity and love that bursts out of these girls, for at least one woman the lasting impression was my looks, something that the girls never notice or comment on.

Imagine the change we all women and men could make in the world if we took personal attacks out of public debate. Imagine if we all engaged in the debate, made respectful counterarguments, added our own ideas into the mix. Imagine if we all pledged to stop trying to silence one another. I have the greatest respect for the women thinkers and activists I have mentioned here. Do I agree with them on every single issue? Of course not. But I pledge to always argue my case while according them the respect they deserve. It will always be their ideas that I engage with, because ideas — not physical appearances — live on forever.

A comment I received from another woman sums it all up:

Common sense, dignity, rights, respect, responsibility — these basic human values should be blind to looks, age, gender. — Paola Yevenes

Danni with students

Subscribe By Email

Get every new post delivered right to your inbox.

Please prove that you are not a robot.

Skip to toolbar