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Don't let the spotlight burn

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

This International Women’s Day I anticipate the usual round of queries asking: “When is International Men’s Day?” In a world where women receive 85 per cent of salary of men on average, when at least one woman a week dies at the hands of their current or former intimate partner and where you have a greater chance of being a chief executive of an ASX200 company if you are named Andrew than if you are a woman, “every other day” is the usual reply.

What I love about International Women’s Day is that it is a chance to celebrate the achievements of women. While there is inevitably some hand wringing about the work still to be done to achieve gender equality, mostly it is an opportunity to hear from a range of talented, interesting women at events across the country.

Last year I heard an amazing speaker - Molly Taylor - she opened her speech explaining that the two most frequent questions she was asked were: what is it like being a woman in a male-dominated sport? And what is it like being the first national female rally car champion? She said “I can’t answer those questions but I can tell you what it’s like to be a rally car driver” and proceeded to deliver one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard.

One senior executive at a large corporation told me that there was nothing that annoyed her more than her appointment being heralded as evidence of the chief executive and organisation’s leading practices in gender equality. This woman is one of the cleverest people in her field who worked hard for her success. Having that reported as the success of her male boss’s commitment to gender equality was undermining of her talents, hard work and achievement. And he didn’t want that either.

When another woman in a male-dominated industry became chief executive of her company, the company announcement highlighted the fact she was the industry’s first female chief executive. Her experience and skill set were barely mentioned in the excitement about the progressiveness of the board to take such a brave step. This alienated her from her mostly male workforce, including from the two male senior managers who were unsuccessful applicants for the job. The backlash continued for her time in the role.

It is ironic that well intentioned spotlighting promoting women can add to the barriers women face. The spotlight puts their performance under the microscope encouraging tall-poppy criticism of their success and even greater scrutiny of their failure.

Sadly women still face backlash on promotion - rumours that she only got the job because she is a woman, or because she slept with a senior male. Senior women have told me that the best rebuff to this speculation was when male peers supported and endorsed their skills, and also when their achievements were transparent to all.

I can see change is happening. I applaud the recent announcement of the appointment of Professor Tanya Monro as the new Chief Defence Scientist. Minister Pyne and Minister Ciobo welcomed Professor Monro noting she has “an extensive background in science, innovation and strategy and has been influential in shaping national initiatives”. Similarly, the Department of Defence announced her appointment by describing Professor Monro’s qualifications, research, professional roles and awards. No need to spotlight that the professor is the first woman to hold this role.

Shining the spotlight can be done differently and we can all help. You don’t need to highlight that a person is the first woman, you can highlight her great achievements, you can support your female colleagues and oppose backlash. And you can ask them to speak at more than just “women’s events”.

And for those of you who are interested, International Men’s Day is November 19 and I look forward to celebrating the important role men play in our community. I know a few good ones you could spotlight.

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald
Kate Jenkins

Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner

Discrimination Sex Discrimination