Catherine Fox is no stranger to the fight against gender inequality in the workplace. As former deputy editor of Boss magazine, former Corporate Woman columnist for the Financial Review and one of Australia’s leading commentators on women and work, she has long been challenging the status quo.
The problem, Ms Fox argues, isn’t with women and their career aspirations, but with the system – more specifically, a system built and dominated by men. This system is the subject of Ms Fox’s latest book, Stop Fixing Women: Why Building Fairer Workplaces is Everybody’s Business, and one of the many issues addressed during her fireside conversation with NEEOPA president, Rowan Arndt, as part of this year’s AGM wrap up.
“There is no glass ceiling, just a thick layer of men,” Ms Fox observed during the discussion. Reality backs up her claim: there are only nine female CEOs and 10 women chairing boards in the ASX 200 this year, while women in professions such as law, the police force, surgery and federal government are under-represented at senior levels. “Women in particular who exhibit diversity-enhancing behaviour [for example, when they behave assertively or actively recruit other women] are penalised,” said Ms Fox. “What we are currently doing is just not working. It is time to involve men, and powerful men. We all need fixing but it is not about just women – it is about all of us.”
During the discussion, Ms Fox urged companies to audit the measures they currently have in place to address workplace inequality – to investigate whether they are making a difference, or if it is “time for a change.” One area to examine, she said, is workplace language. “How we talk and what we say is so important,” said Ms Fox. “Language is fundamental to who is included and who is not included. Use the saying, "What do you mean by that?" to stop passive-aggressive language in the workplace.” Another area that needs addressing is how work is valued across both genders. Ms Fox challenged the idea that everyone gets ahead career-wise on ‘merit’: a term she has denounced in previous articles as a highly subjective concept that focuses on traditionally masculine characteristics. “Let's stop using the word ‘merit’. Let's talk about qualifications, experience and suitability for the job,” she said, “let’s build checklists into the selection process.”
Ms Fox also said the workplace environment is crucial when addressing gender inequality. Although female development programs are a positive thing, she argued, they need to be placed in the right context. Rather than simply talking about the pipeline funneling women to the top, or women “beating themselves up for what they are or are not doing,” organisations need to “look at [their] environment, because it is the system and not the women [that’s wrong].” She also urges leaders – particularly men in positions of power – to disrupt discriminatory attitudes and structural bias in their workplaces. “Men talking to other men [about gender in equality] can really make a difference,” said Ms Fox. “Sometimes you have to intervene to circumvent a system that is unfair. You need to change the process and look at things in a different way.”