Come on, women – just be more confident

It has been 43 years since women ‘won’ the right to equal pay for equal work. Yet there is still a pay gap. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) describes it as ‘a disappointingly enduring feature of the Australian labour market.’ The consequences of the pay gap are by no means invisible; the gap asserts itself at every stage of a woman’s life. Economic disadvantage undermines our ability to fully participate in society, it hems us into the margins.

Whose fault is it? The blame has been foisted upon women. The jobs are there they say but we just need to be willing to work harder to get them.

Lean in. Put your hand up. Rest your elbows on your armrests, you don’t want to act small do you? In fact, widen your stance. Maintain a power-pose at all times. Return a handshake firmly. Lower your voice – you don’t want to sound immature or hysterical. Never apologise. But always be polite. Maintain eye contact. Smile. But not too much, you don’t want to get that reputation. Come on, just try and be more confident will you?

An entire industry has blossomed teaching women how to fix themselves. Books, podcasts, lectures, and workshops have been designed to empower women. To help women get over the ‘fact’ that men are from mars and women are from venus.

I have been a willing customer. There are so many things that women need to ‘fix’. It is ‘fact’ that women speak in riddles. Our sentences are soggy with sentiment. We are unable to make quick-fire decisions. And we just talk too much. I have studied the way I speak and how I dress. I’ve made choices based on widespread advice. When I started working after university I actively policed my language. I tried to sound more clinical than emotional. It was hard work and I was still being called a girl. After a while I stopped, too exhausted to keep it up. Yet the doubts still lingered, maybe I do just need to try harder. The cycle of trying and ‘failing’ has continued for years.

Except that this is simply a myth. There is no scientific evidence to back up the assertion that men and women communicate differently. Deborah Cameron, who studies language in written historical sources, is working to debunk these gender stereotypes. Studies show men and women share a 99.75% overlap in the way we communicate. We tend to speak the same amount of words per day (16,000). While there is plenty of evidence demonstrating that women are interrupted more frequently in workplaces, Cameron argues that this is the result of power dynamics and social relations and is not a result of genetics.

Journalist Catherine Fox has written the column ‘Corporate Woman’ for The Australian Financial Review for years. She has grown weary of how gender equality is being discussed. In response to this she wrote the book ‘Stop Fixing Women: why building fairer workplaces is everybody’s business.’ Fox’s book debunks the prevailing argument that women just need to learn to be more confident and communicate better in order to succeed. Fox says ’it is undermining and it is imbedding the stereotypes that have been the problem in the first place.’

Fox clearly builds an argument that the pay gap exists because the system of work is broken and not women. On a panel for the 2017 All About Women conference, Fox said ’I think we are wasting a lot of time, money and energy at looking at the wrong side of the equation.’

How have we ended up with such a broken system? Essentially the system was built for men by men. For a long time there simply weren’t roles for women in many industries. Fox says that ‘expectations have changed…however the way we approach this in the workplace hasn’t changed much.’

Most industries pride themselves for operating on the basis of rewarding people for doing a good job. The term ‘merit’ first become popular in 1958. It has since become a widely accepted belief system — everyone should be rewarded based on their performance. The playing field is level and only the best people for the job will succeed. It sounds completely reasonable. More than that, it sounds incredibly enticing and tremendously motivating.

That is until you start to unpick how merit is implemented into workplaces. The definition of merit suddenly becomes more slippery than clear-cut. The inference is — when women finally learn how to become ‘the best’ for the job or just get the confidence to put their hand up, they will get the jobs. Fair is fair after all.

Well, not quite. Merit could comfortably stand for ‘Men Elevated Regardless of Intellect or Talent.’ This is not a facetious barb or conceited witticism — meritocracy does not hold up well to close scrutiny.

Researchers, Emilio Castilla and Stephen Benard of MIT, have coined the phrase ‘the paradox of meritocracy’, as companies that explicitly align themselves with a meritocratic system tend to consistently favour white male employees over equally qualified female employees. Castilla and Benard suggest that a merit-based reward system ‘unleashes cognitive biases’ in managers. This is likely because when managers feel like they are acting fairly, they are less likely to self-scrutinise their decisions.

However, to be clear, we cannot willfully unstitch ourselves from bias; it is part of being human. We require bias to filter information. Google’s unconscious bias training quantifies this: ‘we receive 11 million bits of information every moment. We can only consciously process 40 bits.’ It is up to the individual to self assess. Ironically, people who label themselves as ‘objective’ are more likely to demonstrate biased behaviour. They are simply not in the habit of questioning their biases.

Google is just one of many companies who are now providing staff with unconscious bias training. It has become an $8 billion-a-year industry. Not all companies make it mandatory. Even if it were mandatory, researchers have found that people with a ‘high bias blind spot’ are the least likely to learn from de-bias training as they tend to ignore advice. However even for the most motivated participant, these programs are criticised for lacking practical applications. Director of people analytics at Google, Brain Welle, admitted in an interview with Forbes magazine that while their program explains what unconscious bias is, overall it is ‘not very practical’. What is worrying is that there is evidence that the training can make people more likely to actively stereotype. People can become demotivated to change their ‘natural inclinations’ as they perceive it as an inevitable part of their behaviour. It appears that this attempt to ‘fix’ the system is simply further cementing the problems that already exist.

One reason why this new industry of unconscious bias training has grown so rapidly is because of the ‘bottom-line benefit’ of diversity. There is mounting evidence that having women in leadership positions significantly contributes to business profits. This makes diversity an easy sell. More women, more money. What’s not to like? In her article ‘The Business Case for Women’, Cordelina Fine argues that ‘doing the right thing is always more appealing when it is also financially advantageous. But this is where you end up if companies ask not what they can do to further equality but only what diversity can do for their bottom line.’

Without the focus on fairness, can business create a fair environment? It is placing extraordinary standards on women to prove their worth. Fine points out that ‘it is only women who have to economically justify their existence at the top; apparently it can be safely assumed that the men deserve to belong there. They were, after all, there first.’

This sense of entitlement is perhaps the crux of the issue, something that even the most robust economic reasoning is not capable of shifting. On a panel for the 2017 All about Women conference Catherine Fox said — ‘We should never assume that this (gender equality) is well understood or indeed that people even want to understand it. Because there is enormous defensiveness around it.’

Fox paraphrased the metaphor coined by American feminist Kathy Matsui, women don’t have to just break through a glass ceiling, they have to break through the thick layer of men. Fox says during the panel that while there are some men trying to change the system, notably the Male Champions for Change, these tend to be men ’who are coming towards the end of their careers. They are not in the middle there, trying to carve out (or) climb over each other to get ahead.’

Fox advises women entering the workforce that knowledge is crucial ‘as you cannot change behaviours of others’. Most importantly you do not need to ‘fix’ yourself, 51% of the population is not broken by default, the system is broken and it needs to be fixed.

Image: rawpixel

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Fiona Murphy is a writer, editor and broadcaster. She’s one of the creators of the podcast Literary Canon Ball, a book club celebrating under-represented writers. You can also catch Fiona reading the weekend news on Vision Australia Radio. This year she’s stepping outside her comfort zone and is developing a comedy routine with the support of Comedy Lab — an initiative set up by Women with Disabilities Victoria, the University of Melbourne and the Victorian College of the Arts. Fiona is currently working on a historical novel about animals big and small.

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