Catherine Fox on Not Fixing Women

In the report by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), How Millennial Men Can Help Break the Glass Ceiling, 96 per cent of companies in which men were actively involved in pushing forward gender diversity reported progress being made. By comparison, at companies where men were not involved with such endeavours, just 30 per cent showed progress.

What’s particularly interesting is that millennial men’s wants are much more aligned with women’s views than their older counterparts who were more focused on promoting leadership transparency and commitment. Source – CIPD

While this is promising for the future, what can we do now to change the perception of many that gender equality is a strictly female issue?

Renee Clarke spoke to Catherine Fox to find out more.


Catherine, what led you to write your latest book ‘Stop Fixing Women: Why Building Fairer Workplaces is Everybody’s Business’?

I was annoyed. Women have been told they need extra fixing just because they are women. I’ve been writing about this for 30 years as a journalist and author. And I realised the message I was hearing throughout workplaces from the most progressive to the bystanders was still concentrated on women and their problems with understanding and navigating the barriers. It’s called blaming the victim.

The deficit model – as it was dubbed some years ago – has had a renaissance of recent times because fixing women is a much easier road to take than upending the rules and practices at work. But I also think it’s part of the backlash to more action being taken on gender. While there’s much more to be done, Australia in particular has seen activity on the increase, targets and measurement have been introduced in many places and interventions that prioritise diversity in meetings and on panels, pay audits.

This action which is well overdue is also deeply troubling to some and of course promoting the idea women are both the problem and have to come up with the solution – is a much easier way of looking like you are doing something than disrupting the rules and telling all employees, that would mean men as well, they need to change, check their bias and get with the program. Telling women they are born with deficiencies explains some of the most overt discrimination away and puts the onus back onto them to change – and if women don’t succeed with this then they only have themselves to blame.

Do you think women are inadvertently supporting the notion that they need to be fixed in the workplace?

My analysis suggests we actually need to stop throwing good money after bad on things like confidence building workshops for women and examine norms that equate certain chest thumping and dominating stereotypes with confidence; to stop confusing women’s reaction to difficult environments as lacking leadership rather than understanding these are coping mechanisms in difficult environments. And the reaction to the book suggest a lot of women are completely fed up with being told to do all the work on this while men’s behaviour is rarely examined. Young women tell me they are furious about being fobbed off with a copy of ‘Lean In’ when they’ve been leaning in for years and have just been overlooked for a promotion or assignment due to bias. This remedial stuff isn’t doing much to change discrimination in rules and norms and many women are aware of that. But clearly some have been told for years that it’s their gender failings that have held them back and they believe it. That’s understandable but a real pity.

With women making up 51% of the population and the gender pay gap sitting at 17.9%, many men believe gender equality will have a negative impact on them. How do you get buy in from males for gender equality?

Everyone says you have to build the business case or men will not get involved but the evidence for change has been compelling for years and hasn’t made much difference. I reckon the men who are progressive see it as a fairness and effectiveness issue. They see the waste from the gender gap and they are keen to shake things up for better outcomes. And they will talk to their peers and face up to backlash to make changes.
There’s quite good evidence showing men and women benefit from better gender equity at home and at work. But it’s how you get that message across – and men need to lead other men.

What advice would you give to HR leaders who want to introduce effective diversity measures?

Examine the cost/benefit ratio of what you are doing in this area. I’m still surprised how many senior executives with this responsibility will point to a policy but have no idea what effect it has had. There is no single solution but accountability for outcomes should be part of every program. And stop spending money on consultants providing bandaid workshops for women. It will not deliver and can embed the very stereotypes you are needing to dismantle.

Can you give examples of how organisations are reinforcing the problem versus companies that are tackling it well? 

There are many in the book. They are all about identifying the problem area and then intervening to change the rules.

Is gender equality a business issue or a cultural issue and how can you separate the two?

You can’t. Clearly this is a societal problem deeply embedded in many cultural institutions and power structures. But business plays a big role in changing norms and can be a source of innovation that supports or even leads social change (eg the SSM result)

Do you think gender inequality has impacted your own career?

Of course, it has had an impact on the careers of all the women I know. Sometimes this is less overt but the double standards women face are pretty universal. We are still doing 66% of unpaid caring and housework and facing a gender pay gap because our work isn’t valued like men’s. All of this is also exhausting. But I am an optimist because I reckon men are also changing and want different lives. We just have to work out how to enlist more support to challenge traditional us v them attitudes when it comes to the gender gap. And stop telling women to smarten up – it’s not us, it’s the workplace.


About Catherine Fox:

Journalist and author Catherine Fox is one of Australia’s leading commentators on women and the workforce. During a long career with the Australian Financial Review she edited several sections of the newspaper, wrote the weekly Corporate Woman column, helped establish Boss magazine and was founding co-chair of the Westpac/AFR Women of Influence awards. Since leaving the AFR in 2012 she has set up her own advisory business.

Catherine has written several books including “Seven Myths about Women and Work” (New South 2012). Her latest “Stop Fixing Women: why building fairer workplaces is everybody’s business” was published this year and, along with her journalism, was awarded the 2017 Walkley Award for Women’s Leadership in Media.

She is a member of the Defence Force Gender Equality Advisory Board, Australian Women Donors Network board and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Ethical Leadership.