Are We There Yet?

My colleague Jay was telling me about a young woman who came to him for counselling. She was caught in a workplace nightmare in which her boss was an overt sleaze. He had made extremely aggressive moves toward her on work trips and she was in no doubt that her tenure would be short lived if she did not submit one day. He owned the business and she had fought hard to make a start in the unusual (for women) profession she had chosen.

She did not want to go to a lawyer. She told Jay that, “it’s a small industry and I see how women who make claims are treated. I would never get another job, and anyway, what’s the point? He’d get away with it.”

It is 2021. Why is this behaviour still out there? We now talk freely, almost constantly, about sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace, but is it making a difference?

I want to be an optimist and believe that things are getting better for women in the workplace. It is possibly better than when I started, but is that any comfort? Is it even true?  

And I wonder about these guys who are the predators. Do their wives have any idea? Does this man have daughters, and do they go to work? Does he ever consider how he would feel if someone pressured his wife, his sisters, or his daughters to have sex and threaten their career consequences if they did not?

Some years ago, I was working in an ASX listed company and observed the hyper-sleazy CFO having a coffee with his daughter. I wondered if she had any notion that the company was routinely paying out cheques to settle claims against her father. He was a major league creep, who boasted about his sex life at work, and had no sense of boundaries whatsoever. Yet he was also a fifty-year-old father who stood up at Shareholder meetings to assuage investors that their investment was in good hands. The CEO was asked, discreetly, to ‘do something’ about him, but the CEO was just as bad (marginally more polite at work), and they were known to be old mates whose visits to brothels were not uncommon knowledge.  

What is the link here to equality of opportunity, if you have senior leaders who cannot treat women with respect at work?  Well, the company had a 34% gender pay gap at that time. There was, and remains, a staggering absence of women at the senior levels. The CEO is still there. The senior manager, a decent man, who asked the CEO to do something about his mate, was let go.

In the Age newspaper last September, Schneiders and Millar reported on the culture at JB Hi Fi in: “Women at JB HI Fi speak out against ‘boys club’ and sexual harassment”.

The female employees of JB Hi Fi talked about unacceptable levels of sexual harassment from customers and the boys club management that did little to support them. And bear with me while this point is laboured, the women also noted that the best paid jobs, the commission-based sales jobs, or managerial roles were dominated by men.

They are not making wild accusations. On the tables for the lowest proportions of females in management, JB Hi Fi is in the top ten offenders in Australia and has been for over a decade. Is there no desire within that company to change this?

Last year, one of the Australian mining industry’s most powerful female leaders, Fortescue’s Elizabeth Gaines, criticised the presence of scantily clad barmaids (called ‘Skimpies’) at the annual mining conference held in Kalgoorlie. Skimpies serve drinks to older men who are attired in business clothing and effectively run the mining industry.

Things have improved for women in the Mining industry and there have been some worthy programs instigated to employ more women and indigenous community members. But in 2020, can any educated, sentient person really attend a conference of their peers, and feel OK about being served by scantily clad young women handing out drinks? It should be noted that of the 56 speakers at the Diggers and Dealers Mining Forum, 3 speakers were women. According to the Bureau of Stats, 15% of the industry is female.

Should Elizabeth Gaines have to say that the industry should be above the objectification of one part of society (half of it) with the other half looking on. I cheered for Elizabeth for making a stand. But should she have to make that stand? 

But then came the inevitable stooge, one Natalie Baker, who runs the employment agency that finds the women willing to degrade themselves for a few dollars. Natalie defended this ‘tradition’ with the comment: We all have our own idea of fun.

And here is where I bang my head on the desk in despair. It is the most worn-out, pathetic excuse for the ongoing degradation of women in the workplace. It was only a laugh. Can’t you take a joke?

I wonder, did any of the men attending, make enquiries to Natalie Baker about a Skimpies job at next year’s conference for their daughters?

There is usually a point where those who are culturally blinded by all this, who cannot see the problem, will tell someone like Liz Gaines, that “if you’re not happy, then stay away from the bar!”   Stay away from the bars where the conversations continue, and business will begin to be transacted.  And at the ASX company with the lecherous CFO, or at JB Hi Fi, you would undoubtedly be told, if you don’t like it, leave.

Women who speak up about appalling treatment, of themselves or others, generally wish they’d never spoken at all.

I hope the young woman who spoke to Jay can deal with this. She shouldn’t have to deal with it at all. I really hope she makes it, but I know, it is stacked against her.  Turnover of women at senior levels continues to baffle and I do not know why. Companies employ Diversity and Inclusion managers when a cattle prod and a can of Mace might be more effective.

Are we getting better? I’m not sure. Can anyone tell me otherwise?

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