Leadership & Communication

Gender Agenda: What’s in a name? Ask Michael

By Jenny Strachan*

MICHAEL is a nice name.

Perhaps that’s why there are more men called Michael in Australia’s top jobs than there are women. Or perhaps not.

Guardian Australia recently reported that companies listed in the ASX 100 had 14 Michaels, 12 Peters and 11 Davids as either CEO or chairman – and just 10 women of any name in the same jobs.

The Guardian’s report was based on the work of Conrad Liveris, an Australian diversity and productivity researcher, who also found that in the ASX 20 there was just one woman, Catherine Livingstone, in a chief executive position compared to four men called Michael.

Why is it so?

Liveris puts it down to ingrained bias against women – and he believes the companies are shooting themselves in the foot.

“I don’t think organisations can actually sit there and say they are using the best talent pool when they have that situation – where more than 50% of the population is out-represented by men named Michael or Peter,” he says.

Liveris believes workplaces will struggle to become more diverse without intervention, like a quota, because “people like seeing their likeness. So, white men tend to hire white men.”

In case you’re wondering, it’s just as bad in America. Only the name has changed.  A similar analysis published in the New York Times found there were fewer women leading America’s top companies than there were men named John.

However, there is good news from Germany. On March 6 the Bundestag passed a law that requires some of Europe’s biggest companies to give 30 per cent of board seats to women from next year onwards.

Less than 20 percent of the seats on corporate boards in Germany are held by women, Europe’s industrial powerhouse and the home of some of the biggest companies in the world, including the car giants Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz as well as Deutsche Bank and Siemens, and the chemical empires of BASF, Bayer and Merck.

The German Justice Minister Heiko Maas who was one of the prime movers in the change described it as “historic”.

Maas who, with Social Democrat colleague, Family Minister Manuela Schwesig, spent months pushing the law through, described it as the greatest contribution to gender equality since women got the vote in Germany in 1918.

In our last blog Make it Happen we suggested that on International Women’s Day, March 8, women would celebrate their achievements while continuing to press for greater equality under the hashtag #MakeItHappen. Well, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel certainly made it happen.

No one in Australia on either side of politics is suggesting a similar law, so the ball is in our court (if you’ll pardon a rather male-style sporting metaphor).

So what can we do to improve the position of women in business?

  • Understand “unconscious bias” or “invisible barriers” and the effect on female leadership
  •  See the world through the ‘‘bias” lens in decision making, reinforcing stereotypes, and misconceptions about women’s ability
  • Ask whether male leaders (unconsciously) recruit and promote people like themselves – the “affinity bias”?
  • Question why men in leadership roles prefer working with others whose style is similar to their own and so “unconsciously” don’t select women for the job?
  • No-one likes to give up power – it is a human condition to hold onto what is traditionally “yours”. Is the status quo maintained by appointing male leaders?

Or we could vote in some more female politicians. When Annastacia Palaszczuk won the recent Queensland election, one of her first acts as Premier was to appoint a new 14-person cabinet and guess what – over half her cabinet are women 8 out of 14.

It’s happening. Right here.

ICL-signatures-Jenny-Strachan*Jenny is an award winning author and international conference presenter and trainer with over 25 years experience in the corporate sector. She has designed and delivered communication, influence, personal presence and leadership programs, and as an executive coach to facilitate change in organisations.

Find out about our gender, leadership, management and communication training courses throughout Australia.

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