Backlash and buy-in; addressing the perceived inequality of gender equality

Tired of hearing about gender inequality? It’s certainly been talked about for a long time and not just in business.

Australia was quite progressive in the first part of the 20th century. Granting non-Indigenous women* the right to vote and sit in parliament in 1903. Since then the role of women in society and business has escalated but gender equality remains elusive.

Men hold 79 percent of executive leadership roles in the ASX 200. Ninety five percent of ASX 200 CEOs are men and 21 percent of ASX 200 companies have only men in their executive leadership team1.

Some people believe efforts to achieve gender equality have simply ‘gone too far’. There is a word for these responses: backlash.

A recent report by the Male Champions of Change and Chief Executive Women, Backlash and Buy-in responds to the accusations.

“Backlash is a negative reaction to social or political change. In recent times, there has been a particular backlash driven by the perception that focus on gender equality initiatives and the promotion of women to leadership roles is unfair and not meritocratic.

These mindsets and behaviours can exist at all levels of an organisation – from graduate to senior executive level, and with both men and women. Negative responses often surface when individuals fear personal impact or the status quo has changed.”

When I became CEO of KPMG in 2013, 16 percent of our partners were women. We are now at 25 percent but nowhere near our target of 30 percent by 2020. It’s been difficult to get there and I often use the term ‘trench warfare’ when I talk about it with my leadership teams.

Responses to gender equality vary across our organisation – no different from any business. Our people surveys show both support for and challenge to our activities towards gender equality. Some see it as disadvantaging men, others that it is critical to the firm’s success.

One program is having considerable success. Not only pulling more women into senior leadership but also equipping senior male partners with better understanding of best practice on gender. Developing their capabilities as sponsors to high potential women.

In the program, called Bird Walton after the women aviatrix, 25 senior male partners sponsor 25 up and coming females, who are just outside the partnership group. The theory is if you run it for four years, you’ve got 100 of your partners out of 500, go back into the business as proponents of what we’re doing. And 100 women who have increased potential as leaders.

As the program’s progressed, we’ve started to hear a bit of noise as to why all the sponsors are men and why is this program only available for women? Is this positive discrimination?

To respond to this backlash, I steer away from calling this a ‘gender equality’ program, rather saying it is about fairness, benefiting everyone, not just women.

And there are additional benefits. Participating as a sponsor has a secondary effect; an opportunity for male leaders to understand the barriers to gender equality, often changing their own attitudes. In the end it equips senior male leaders to use their own power and reputation to effectively advocate for women. To be the ones who address the backlash rather than the instigators.

Positive outcomes for everyone.

*It was not until 1962 that Indigenous women were granted the right to vote.
1. Chief Executive Women, 2017 ‘Senior Executive Census’

2 thoughts on “Backlash and buy-in; addressing the perceived inequality of gender equality

  1. Great initiative!
    Does anyone know the statistics for male/female CEOs/board members in the Government sector which is dominated by the health/education/welfare service sectors?
    Are we making better progress in these sectors compared to the private sector?

  2. Indigenous women in South Australia who had the vote at 1900 remained enfranchised under s 41 of the Constitution, which provided that the Commonwealth franchise could not be narrower than franchise for the most populous house of a state parliament.

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