Signs Your Workplace Has A Gender Problem

If your boss calls you “babe” or you’re mistaken for the secretary it may not scream HR but it does indicate a greater issue. Your guide to handling workplace sexism is here.

By Ashley Robbins


If your boss calls you “babe” or you’re mistaken for the secretary it may not scream HR but it does indicate a greater issue. Your guide to handling workplace sexism is here.

By Ashley Robbins

Your boss has been accused of sexual harassment and your senior management team doesn’t include a single woman. Are these signs your workplace has a gender problem? Yes, but these are the extreme cases. While the extreme are easy to pinpoint, there are many subtle signals simmering below the surface which are tougher to define and call out. These, however, are the daily experiences of most female workers that bear witness to a systematic, endemic and – quite frankly – shameful reality. From being left off the after-work brainstorm, to being casually called “babe” or told to “develop a thicker skin”, gender discrimination is rife in most companies. And this is before we even get to sexual harassment, which can be so normalised the perpetrators think nothing of leaving victims in their wake, careers in tatters.

These environments at best prevent women from advancing and, at worst, result in great talent walking out of the door angry and exasperated. In the very worst examples, women are broken emotionally and financially. Calling out not only the most serious cases, but also the everyday, the previously overlooked, subtle nuances is the only way to fight entrenched company culture. The good news is this: as women start to fight back, human resources departments are listening more keenly than ever before. So, what are the signs a workplace has a gender issue and how can it be tackled?

“Babe” Behaviour

A healthy workplace comes down to culture and good old-fashioned respect is at the heart of productive communication and a successful team environment. So yes, if your boss calls you “darl” or “doll” or “babe” or “love”, it’s not only disrespectful, it’s a classic power play – belittling female staff. Other, more subtle forms of sexism may include gentle flirting which, though seemingly innocuous, establishes a subtle hierarchy that erodes credibility and self-esteem and establishes a code of inappropriate behaviour which can escalate.

Calling out such behaviour with management and human resources executives is not always easy, but it’s extremely important, especially in the case of serial offenders. Antony Catalano, the flamboyant chief executive of the highly successful Domain real estate company, suddenly resigned in January 2018 in the wake of numerous complaints about his sexist behaviour and the formation of a workplace culture that was disrespectful and belittling to women. While Catalano strenuously denied any wrongdoing and his resultant departure saw a drop in the Domain share price, Fairfax, a 60 per cent shareholder, took the complaints seriously and, according to revelations in The Australian Financial Review, “Many inside the company were relieved… because they believed his departure could lead to a more contemporary corporate culture taking root.”

Illustrations: Patti Andrews

Old-School Sexism

Being mistaken for the secretary, told to make the tea or being called a “good girl” is the type of old-fashioned sexism that incredibly still happens in too many workplaces. Other insults such as, “It must be your time of the month”, “You have baby brain” or are “menopausal” also still occur. When former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s chief-of-staff Peta Credlin walked into high-powered meetings overseas, men often wouldn’t shake her hand, assuming her lack of importance. “After the meeting, they’re happy to shake my hand. But when I walk in the door, they ­assume I am not part of the official party,” Credlin said in an interview. “People have asked me to move because the seat is for Mr Peter Credlin. That has happened twice.” If you feel like you’re in an episode of Mad Men, it’s safe to say you won’t be the one drinking the martinis – only pouring them. Yes, it all sounds very 1950s but this is the sort of everyday sexism that men barely notice. Or worse, think it’s cute or funny. Reacting firmly and calmly early on is the best course of action

Stuck Stereotypes

Women and men are both victim to workplace stereotypes. Aggressiveness in a female boss is seen as incompetence, in a male boss it’s considered a strength. Conversely, a quietly spoken male is seen as ineffectual and weak. Men are given licence to ask for what they want, especially in the realm of pay, while women who do the same are deemed troublemakers. Women are sensitive and easily troubled by conflict, while men thrive and are more able to take control. None of these stereotypes are necessarily true. We all know everyone is different with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, so if decisions are made in the workplace based on such stereotypes, it’s fair to say there’s a problem. Wendy McCarthy, Ambassador of 1 Million Women and patron of the Sydney Women’s Fund – which empowers women and girls to thrive – says challenging your own prejudice, especially if you’re in a managerial role, is the easy solution. “Learn to question why you respond in a particular way and acknowledge it is a bias not a crime to admit or consider.” If you’re on the receiving end of the stereotype, seek counsel from the experts, such as HR professionals, if you’re unsure how to respond. 

When The Numbers Don’t Stack Up

The composition of a workplace speaks volumes. What is the ratio of men to women and where are they in the company hierarchy? Start at the top: the CEO, board members and heads of department. How many are women? “A workplace has a gender equality problem if women are missing from senior roles, employees find it difficult to access part-time or flexible work, leaders are not held accountable for implementing gender equality strategies and initiatives, and the board or governing body is dominated by men,” says Workplace Gender Equality Agency director Libby Lyons. “Some quick ways to assess if an organisation is committed to gender equality include checking whether there is a gender equality strategy in place, whether a pay gap analysis has been conducted and action taken to address pay gaps, and whether there is gender balance in the senior leadership team and on the board. It is important to remember that gender bias does not only affect women. Men’s access to parental leave and flexible work is also critical if we are to normalise balancing work and caring for everyone.”

Battling The Boys’ Club

The boys’ club culture is at the centre of gender disparity. It can be obvious, such as excluding women from key meetings and decision-making processes or a more insidious process: regular after-hours social occasions for team building, from late night drinking to golf weekends and tickets to the footy. Parental responsibilities are rarely taken into account and a pressure to “join in the fun” is part of a culture that deliberately leaves women – and some men – on the outside. If you buy into the “If you can’t beat them, join them” attitude, the culture will never be exposed or broken. “Changing workplace culture needs to be driven from the top of an organisation,” says Lyons. “Building a gender equal workplace requires executive teams and boards to continually seek a range of gender equality metrics, including women’s and men’s access to promotions, take-up of parental leave, pay gaps across the organisation and numbers of sexual harassment claims.” This allows companies to develop strategies and act where they identify problems. “Women are still significantly underrepresented in senior leadership teams and at the board tables of Australian organisations. This needs to change if we are to stamp out boys’ club cultures,” says Lyons. “It is, however, incumbent on us all to challenge unacceptable behaviours in the workplace, particularly those that exclude and discriminate against women and others that may be in the minority.”

Flexible Fails

Combining work with parenting and family life has traditionally been the biggest barrier to gender equity at work, but it needn’t be. The more flexible a company is to different work options, from part-time positions, to working from home and job sharing, the better the health and productivity of the company and for women who want satisfying jobs. In the latest 2018 figures released by the WGEA, 32.9 per cent of women work part-time as opposed to 10.7 per cent of men, and here is the kicker – only 6.3 per cent of managers are employed part time. Lyons says it’s key that flexible work options are available to all, so that women are not isolated and seen as special cases. “Normalise flexible working at all levels of the organisation. Women perform significantly more unpaid care work than men and work part-time at three times the rate of men,” explains Lyons. “Lack of flexible and part-time opportunities in senior roles is a major barrier to women’s progression. Organisations must look at role design and technology to successfully embed flexible working.”

When Initiatives Lack

Schemes, programs and training support are all signs a company is actively promoting equity. Parental leave and support is also vital. Virgin’s Richard Branson feels that “businesses can and must do much more to promote equality, respect and fairness. This can be done through a variety of company policies, from accommodating the parental demands on both genders to leadership and mentoring programmes for women.” Globally, there are lessons to be learned, whether it’s from the impressive maternity and paternity allowances in Scandinavia, childcare options in Japan or mentoring programs in developing countries. “I was particularly impressed to read an announcement in February 2017 from the Japanese cosmetics giant, Shiseido, which has maintained childcare facilities in their factories for more than a decade,” says Branson. Maternity, paternity, carer and domestic violence leave options are all signposts that a company is supporting its employees with practical grown-up solutions.

When You Can’t See What You Want To Be

In the words of American children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, “You can’t be what you can’t see”. So, if you see a plethora of female role models in your company the chances are there is path to the top. If not, well… there Is a solution. If these women don’t exist in your immediate surrounds, look outside your circle. Seek these women out, talk to them, learn from them. Most women want to support other women. Also look to other companies embracing women at the top and gender equity across their workplaces. These companies have lifted the invisibility cloak to be more accountable. The WGEA’s Employer of Choice for Gender Equality (EOCGE) citation lists 120 companies recognised for employer commitment and best practice in promoting gender equality in their workplace. It’s a great marketplace for potential employees. “These employers are setting the benchmark and the pace for other Australian workplaces to follow,” says Libby Lyons. “Leadership and accountability are essential if real progress is to be made in shifting entrenched gender divisions.”