If I Knew Then What I Know Now… Overcoming the Hidden Barriers
by Tess Julian, CEO of Catalyst Exchange
Imagine… up until 1969 employers were allowed to pay women 25% less than male employees doing the same or similar work. Married women couldn’t hold permanent full-time jobs in the Commonwealth Public Service until 1966, and only permanent full-time workers were promoted. The underpinning assumptions were that married women weren’t breadwinners, they were child-rearers, and if you were single you only needed to support yourself, so you didn’t need that extra 25%.
But change came… throughout the 70s and 80s new legislation was enacted to boost the workplace opportunities for women, and to remove the legislative inequities. The notion of equal pay for equal work regardless of your circumstances gained public acceptance.
That’s why in the early stages of my career I believed that equal opportunity was not only possible but imminent, that the barriers were falling away and performance would be rewarded regardless of gender… and that legislation was all that was needed.
Last year, researching and writing Stepping Up―Women, Innovation, Leadership (a learning program for women with ambition) and then reflecting on participant insights and feedback, was an awakening: it made me wonder how my choices would have been different if I had known then what I know now. I realise that I was naïve to assume that legislation was all that is needed, that formal diversity systems and processes are enough, that equal pay for equal work was simple.
I now see that the barriers are deeply entrenched, and in order to achieve their ambitions, women have to be informed, empowered and inspired at the stage of their career when inequity begins to emerge, at the very first promotion. C-Suite and board training is too late for the many who leave, or give up or who don’t work in those careers that offer such training.
Stepping Up is designed for women early in their career when they make choices that build their confidence, increase visibility and develop their skills so that they can take on meaningful and well-paid roles to support themselves and their family, and take time out if they need to.
The program helps women navigate cultural, systemic and personal barriers so that they make better decisions to equip themselves for leadership or whatever their career ambition is.
I have delivered four Stepping Up workshops with follow-up coaching sessions during the latter part of 2017. The 55 participants of the program completed a pre-course survey, which explored their perceptions and concerns about opportunities at work. After the course, they completed a feedback sheet, which captured what they had learnt.
Prior to the program the participants were mostly positive—they reported that systems are in place to support diversity and that flexible working conditions help them balance family commitments. The majority expressed a desire to progress to executive leadership and most felt that they were judged by the same standards as their male counterparts.
Nevertheless, they reported that there are still unequal numbers of men and women in leadership positions, a stubborn inequality which is confirmed by a substantial body of research. Which raises the question, why?
The post-course feedback indicates that, like me, they were largely unaware of the invisible forces that impede them. Their belief in the language of equal opportunity and the artefacts of diversity at work had masked many of the pitfalls and hurdles.
"This course should be mandatory for all women and also should be adapted for a male audience so that they understand the biases and disadvantages that exist."
"This two-day activity is a must for any woman who wishes to learn how to back herself, display integrity and empower others."
As one participant commented:
“Stepping Up is not a ‘woe is me’ program. It does not condemn men or management. It simply explains why it is more difficult for women to be visible and confident, the essential requirements for promotion.”
It provides practical tools and approaches that women can apply every day at work. It helps them reframe their thinking to build the assurance and capability to pursue the career that they want.
Over my career as a business owner and single mother I have experienced hurdles and have more or less overcome them. My working life has allowed me to balance child rearing with work that interests and inspires me. Importantly I have been able to support myself and my son, so that he is now gainfully employed and well on his way.
However, if I’d known then what I know now, if I’d attended Stepping Up when I was a young manager at TAFE NSW, would I have made different choices, and would my career path have been easier? Read the full report: Breaking Through Hidden Barriers.