Pervasive workplace sexism is biggest threat to success

American Marissa Mayer, 37, held several senior roles at Google before becoming CEO at Yahoo last week in an appointment that made her the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company. AAP

Exposure to sexism is the greatest threat to the work performance of women, who flourish when they have opportunities to develop new skills and flexible workplace arrangements, according to a report published today by the Melbourne Business School Centre for Ethical Leadership.

The report, based on an analysis of 88 studies of working environments in Australia and other countries, identifies 17 major factors that support and impede the “fit, functioning and growth” of women at work.

Sexism - ranging from sexual harassment to crude behaviour and stereotyping - and conflict between work and family commitments are among the biggest risks to their performance. Opportunities for professional development, control over work arrangements and the presence of other women in the workplace are all indicators of success.

Flexibility was a major factor in the appointment by Yahoo of a pregnant CEO, 37-year-old Marissa Mayer, last week, said report author Victor Sojo, a doctoral student in Psychology at the University of Melbourne.

“The next board meeting is going to be moved to accommodate her,” he said. “Women are able to fill any role when there are flexible work arrangements. We should provide every human being with equal opportunities to be able to fulfil all the roles that they can. With flexible work arrangements, we are giving control to the workers. It’s not an issue of giving it to women, it’s an issue of giving it to everybody.”

He added: “This is a person with a lot of resources to support her to do that role. So of course it will be unfair to compare her to all the workers around the planet who don’t have the resources to manage being a full-time CEO and also a mother.”

Meanwhile, the decision by Australian and Japanese Olympic committees to send some female athletes to London in economy plane seats while putting their less successful male counterparts in business class demonstrated that women are still not accorded the same negotiating power as men, Mr Sojo said.

“We’re not giving women the same privilege as men. Psychologically, we’re sending a message: regardless of how good you are, regardless of how excellent your performance is, we still value men more. It’s a clear case of stereotyping.

"It’s not new - it’s been happening for years, but no one said anything until now.”

The report recommends that organisations wishing to improve gender diversity target “low level sexism”: “One of the most pervasive and pronounced indicators of women’s fit in organisations was sexism in the workplace. If women feel they do not fit in or are not accepted as equals they are less likely to stay in their role or in the organisation.”

Mr Sojo said that “basic things like telling a woman who’s coming to work for the first time, ‘Are you sure you’re up to the challenge of being the only woman around?’ means you’re questioning the capacity of the person. It might not sound like a big issue, but depending on the way you talk, you might be challenging people’s competence and capacity to do the job.”

Diann Rodgers-Healey, an Adjunct Professor at The Cairns Insitute at James Cook University, and the Executive Directorof the Australian Centre for Leadership for Women, said the report provided a useful framework for corporations that wanted to look at factors contributing to their own gender imbalance.

“In terms of whether those factors are new, I’d say no, they’re not,” Professor Rodgers-Healey said. “All of those issues raised have been done to death.

”[The report] talks about women being positive and what really inhibits their positivity, but it doesn’t look at the core problem, which is the masculine culture against that.

“However the size and the scope [of the research] are fairly large, so it certainly contributes to looking at the issues at an organisational level, and I think it moves forward in synthesising the results, so it does add to the body of knowledge that’s out there.

"But it’s the age old problem of where do we go from here?”

The studies that Mr Sojo included in his research revealed the situation for women in Australia was similar to that in the United States, Europe and Asia, he said. Women were underrepresented in the army, police forces, basic sciences such as mathematics, physics and engineering, and also in IT.

“We also found something quite similar to other countries, which is that in specific occupations like the financial services area or the professional services area, at the bottom of the organisation you usually have the same amount of men and women,” Mr Sojo said. “But at the higher levels, women seem to disappear. You see less and less.”

Between 2002 and 2010, the percentage of female board directors in the ASX 200 increased by just 0.2 percentage points, from 8.2% to 8.4%, according to the EOWA Census Report. That statistic places Australia behind China (8.5%), Britain (9%), and South Africa (16.6%), among other countries.

“Overall in the organisation there are pretty much the same amount of women and men,” Mr Sojo said. “But when you look at who is going to become the CEO or who will be managers, there are less women than men. This is not an Australia-only issue.”

The report is part of the Gender Equality Project by the Centre for Ethical Leadership, in conjunction with industry partners. The project is designed to improve the gender balance in leadership roles.

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