Even as Male Champions of Change ANZ chief executive Mike Smith and chairman David Gonski announce measures they hope will address gender inequality, particularly in superannuation, the plight of regional women remain largely unexamined.
Across regional Australia, whether they are accountants, health care workers, working in local government or in other professional services, women face practices in their workplaces that stymie their opportunities, and render them invisible.
While these roles and their incumbents may be less glamorous, they are critical to the robustness of our regional economies.
A third of our population lives and works outside major cities. While public attention is captured by stories of corporate, metropolitan high flyers, more than 70% of Australians work in small and medium enterprises (SMEs). In regional communities, SMEs dominate the employment market.
SMEs in regional towns are largely owner-manager operated, where the sorts of policies and procedures in large corporate firms are missing. From recent research we did on regional accounting SMEs, we found the intersection of regional location and gender led to some challenging tensions for women’s career progression.
For small firms the women we interviewed described considerable flexibility in their workplaces as there are few policies or rules and colleagues can look out for each other. This was seen as beneficial. As one woman noted:
I know how to pace my efforts and balance my family and career in a smaller firm in the principal role. It is just the organisation culture and I think… that the employees in a smaller firm have more job satisfaction and enhanced flexibility.
But as a firm grows in size, there appears to be less flexibility, and more constraints on women’s career progression. From the stories our interviewees told us, rather than more opportunities in the bigger regional firms, women’s career advancement appears to diminish with firm size. Gender stereotypes start to shape the relative opportunities afforded women and men.
From our interviews with senior males in mid-sized accounting firms in regional NSW, we heard comments that could have come straight out of the 1960s; they wouldn’t have been out of place in an episode of Mad Men. For instance: “Women are too emotional and their communication is rather soft when dealing with clients”.
However, certain types of clients in the business need to be tackled with more power, control and tactics… that are not possessed or simply cannot be demonstrated by women.
Another inferred women couldn’t be partners because “women lack the talent of multitasking as they are confronted with family and/or career conflicts and pressures”.
These sorts of observations are not dissimilar to the early framing of women’s absence from corporate board positions, but which you would be hard pressed to hear any of the ASX 200 male board members saying out loud now.
Regional Australian women could certainly benefit from the approach taken by the Australian Securities Exchange, which in 2010 made changes to its Corporate Governance Council’s gender diversity recommendations asking listed companies to report the number of women on their board, in senior management roles and across the company.
It is not mandatory for companies to follow this recommendation, but according to the Australian Institute of Company Director’s (AICD) real-time tracking data, the number of women on ASX boards grew from a mere 5% of ASX board members in 2009, to 20%.
The role of key institutions in making visible women’s absence from corporate boards was instrumental in the turnaround in women’s representation. Through its real-time tracking of women’s appointments to ASX boards, the AICD has raised the visibility of women’s progress.
This, combined with the Male Champions of Change, have kept the spotlight on the issue and reinforced a new set of values – women should be on boards.
Similar actions by professional associations could help to address the barriers women face in regional firms and reinforce a new set of values – women should be in senior roles in regional firms.
For instance, accounting professional associations could track member firms’ representation of female partners in regional locations. Through making these visible, they could draw attention to the importance of supporting women’s careers and provide a space for local initiatives to be celebrated and diffused.
The value of mimicry should not be underestimated in addressing female under-representation in powerful, well-paid positions in professional occupations. Our regional firms would benefit from heeding the lessons learned through the hard fought battles to increase women’s representation on corporate boards.