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Work jungle impeding women: activist

By Chloe Saltau and Carolyn Batt, The Age,
Monday 17 July 2000

Women would not advance at work until the jungle culture that rewarded long hours at the expense of family was broken down, a Women's Electoral Lobby spokeswoman said yesterday.

Eva Cox, a social commentator and feminist, agreed with Australia's most senior female judge, High Court Justice Mary Gaudron, who last week accused power brokers of paying lip-service to women's equality while considering them inferior.

Ms Cox said the cause of women who wanted to combine work with children had been set back by economic factors such as casualisation of the workforce and a tendency to work longer hours. Workplaces were more dick-ridden and masculinist than ever, she said.

It's a bit like not mentioning the war. You don't mention the children, because they instantly think you're not taking your job seriously, Ms Cox said.

We've done the relatively easy bit, changing the legal framework to end discrimination, but it is much harder to change the culture.

She urged tax disincentives for people who worked 50-hour weeks and said shareholders should be aware that executives working these hours were likely to make dumb decisions.

But Kathy Townsend, a former head of the Office for the Status of Women and now owns Executive Solutions, a company that recruits senior executives, said attitudes were slowly changing for the better.

There are still some men who can't really get their head around the fact that women are equal ... but companies now know that they have to be committed to equality and being family-friendly, she said. They might not be very good at it, but at least those things are there, and more men are wanting that, too.

Company director Carolyn Kay, appointed to the Pacific Dunlop board in May, agreed with Justice Gaudron that a change in perceptions was needed.

For there to be any hope of change, the issue must be consistently at or near the top of an organisation's list of priorities, she said. This was not yet happening consistently, she said, adding that her experience was primarily with US companies.

The reality is there has to be a business reason for that to happen, Ms Kay said. And the business reason is that organisations are losing their trained, talented female staff that they wanted to keep, or worse still, they are not even tapping into the pool of female talent.

Ms Kay said appointments were still made for reasons other than merit.

It tends to happen more with men than women, as men have the critical networks with the decision makers. Although I've seen it happen with women as well, she said.

But she said appointments for reasons other than merit were becoming less common as stakeholders in companies and organisations became increasingly demanding, ensuring that decisions were made only in the organisation's best interests.

The managing director of an Australian mining company, who did not wish to be named, said there was a willingness in the industry to appoint women to senior positions, but companies had difficulty retaining their female talent. There's a heavy fallout rate, he said.

He rejected Justice Gaudron's suggestion that the question of merit was raised only when a woman was being considered, and that males were sometimes appointed for other reasons.

He said many women in his company said they felt they had to perform at 120 per cent to get 100 per cent consideration.