Just because we can see the destination… doesn’t mean we’re there yet.
In October last year, M2woman hosted the latest in their continuing series of forums about gender diversity and pay equity in the workplace. As the enthusiastic attendance and participation showed, this is a conversation that is seen as necessary and valuable in the New Zealand work environment.
This time the panel led us to a wider discussion of perhaps broadening the definition of what diversity means in the workplace.
With such a wealth of experience and diverse skill sets, our panelists laid out some simple truths they have learnt along the way, and some fascinating insights they were happy to share.
Many of the attendees had read some of the statistics that had come out of the study commissioned by M2woman in 2018. Statistics that highlighted how far we still have to go in this journey. The continued support for this Journey to Excellence forum probably says, more than anything else does, that these people and their companies recognise that it is just that – a journey.
When 83% of New Zealanders believe we have a diverse population, yet only 68% of them believe we have a diverse workforce, change is needed. When 39% of the workforce have personally experienced discrimination, change is needed. And when 63% of New Zealanders think that a diverse workforce is important for business success, we know that change can happen.
It quickly became clear throughout the presentation however, that it is time to broaden our ideas around what diversity looks like in the workplace. So often we think that it must simply mean more women. Or at least an equal number of women in key roles. But really, diversity is not just a gender or an ethnicity. We all have a gender, an ethnicity, a sexuality, an ability, or possibly a disability. Diversity is about difference, not assuming everyone is only what they appear.
We lag behind other countries and tend to follow rather than lead in taking active measures to improve women’s representation. In fact New Zealand seems to be setting a rather low bar, and has no definitive targets in place to date.
What also became apparent, and was perhaps more unexpected, is that there is a generational divide in experience. The younger women on the panel had definitely had slightly different experiences than those who had been in business longer. Additionally, as the audience chatted together after the panel discussion, there were those young women that found the points made interesting, but were quite convinced that it didn’t apply to them. There was no real recognition that the more senior panellists seem to have had to fight more battles to achieve their success.
As Katherine Wilson pointed out for example, she went into an industry that was female led. And at a time when that was already an established practice, the fashion industry was often female led. She fought other battles of course, from her age to the production shifts that were going on at the time, but she received “so much support from both females and males within my industry”.
She was also lucky enough to grow up in a family with a strong female role model; a mum who encouraged all of her daughters on to further education, and finding their passion. Those women growing up and being educated in the 80s and 90s were always encouraged to believe they could achieve anything. The ‘girl power’ movement, although flimsy and whimsical at the time, still had its influence.
Katherine is a wonderful example of what a young woman can achieve once she has pushed through those barriers to having female business women in leadership roles. Despite, as she points out, finding herself as an “accidental business woman” as the price of her own success.
Equally, Keri Barfoot points out that it is easy in her industry to be completely unaware of the lack of women in very senior roles, due to the abundance of them on the way up. “Really, you go up through the ranks, property, management, sales, and you don’t really notice men or women in different roles. It wasn’t until I got to be a branch manager that I’m sort of looking around the room going – oh, where are the women?”
“It isn’t acceptable that in a lot of our companies still we just don’t seem to have women at the top table, particularly in public sector boards, but if you run that out to ethnically or visually diverse women, well man that problem just gets so much worse.”
Obviously New Zealand is not unique in struggling to address this issue. But we are certainly not leading the way either. We lag behind other countries and tend to follow rather than lead in taking active measures to improve women’s representation. In fact New Zealand seems to be setting a rather low bar, and has no definitive targets in place to date.
Nonetheless what remains true is that the higher up in a company you look, the less diversity is apparent. The women in those senior board level roles have probably had to work twice as hard, and achieve twice as much to get there.
Mai points this out as something that hit her a little later in her career, when she first went into partnership with “tall, white, former Prime Ministers”. There was the realisation that “his life was easier than mine”. He didn’t face the same struggles as Mai has encountered. This was not a complaint, just something that she realised it was important to be aware of. The fact that it’s “going to be a bit harder, you need to be more strategic”.
It seems equally apparent however, that the recent drive for workplace diversity is achieving success, it is just that it manifests from the bottom up. As you might expect. Therefore those young women who are relatively new to the workplace, simply may not see the problem.
It is possible that this lack of awareness correlates with a different type of education and drive that is being seen more and more in the new generation of workers. As Mai pointed out “When I was at school, because you could see your way all the way to becoming a lawyer, you could see it all the way. These kids today can’t see it all the way; they can only see like a couple of years.” She also points out the way that change happens from the bottom up in the corporate world.
This attitude and lack of awareness from the younger workforce presents a great danger for the future and ongoing drive for equality and diversity. The recent statistics reinforce this issue.
The research, along with the anecdotal evidence of women such as those on our panel, shows that we are still a very long way from where we should be in these areas. And indeed there is a strong argument that the current pace of change is simply not acceptable. The people and workplaces driving change must drive harder. We all need to play our part, at every level of the workplace, and in every industry too.
Meritocracy is the aim for all feminists, as it should be for all people. But don’t for a moment allow anyone to think it is not their battle. It is all of our battle.
As Mai pointed out “it isn’t acceptable that in a lot of our companies still we just don’t seem to have women at the top table, particularly in public sector boards, but if you run that out to ethnically or visually diverse women, well man that problem just gets so much worse”.
Recent estimates from the World Economic Forum state that it is now expected to take 170 years for the gap to close. This is up from the estimate of 118 years in 2016. This is the first time that the years estimated have increased instead of decreased, since records began in 2006.
And there lies the danger. Those millennials in the early stages of their career? We must not allow them to become complacent, or worse complicit. It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that the young women in the workplace recognise and respect the battle that has been fought for them.
It is too easy to believe that you have achieved your position in the workplace sheerly through your own hard work, your abilities, your education. And to a certain extent you have. However the very fact that you are able to use that education, hard work and ability in such a workplace was hard-won. You didn’t get there alone. You got there by standing on the shoulders of giants. So tread carefully.
Meritocracy is the aim for all feminists, as it should be for all people. But don’t for a moment allow anyone to think it is not their battle. It is all of our battle. Never say, it’s not my problem, there is plenty of diversity at my company. Or suggest that no-one you know is treated differently for their skin colour, religion, accent etc. You do not know what their experience has really been. You can only know your own.
It is incumbent on all of us to, in the moving words of Mai, “put on our big girl pants and put ourselves up for roles. I’ve just put myself forward for a couple of things that I don’t actually really want to do, but there aren’t any Asians doing these things, so I thought, well, we need to put ourselves forward.”
Sometimes it really is hard to see the wood for the trees. And from your relatively new position in the working world, it is not easy to see the road ahead. Just try and remember; one day it may be you who wants to work flexible hours because you have a family, but can’t. Who should be sitting on that board but isn’t. Time to check your white, young privilege, and recognise the hard won advantages you have been given. Hard won by others, gifted to you simply by virtue of showing up for work in the new millennium.
Our panel – and our wonderful moderator and successful journalist Carly Flynn – all recognise there is still a long way to go, despite their personal successes. Let’s keep this journey going, don’t let it fade away just because you think it doesn’t apply to you personally. Because until every woman can say the same, we’re simply not at the end of our journey.