Freedom to speak differently about gender inequality

Women in leadership in the workplace is a big issue – the gender pay gap, and women in leadership on Boards, in the Church and as CEOs are often news items. And the news is not good.

It is a minefield of dispute, on which the Church is rather quiet (probably because they still find the idea of women leaders a challenge).

There is a line in the Bible that says, “Trust in God. Don’t lean on your own understanding.”

Apparently ancient rulers used to appear in public leaning on trusted friends and ministers, not as sign of weakness, but to show that they were able to rely on trusted advice, acknowledging the wisdom of others.

It’s a great image of good leadership – relying on your team, taking advice, confident of your position yet avoiding hubris.

And it’s a surprisingly gender neutral picture too: even though I think we would envisaging an ancient ruler as a man, the concepts of teamwork and relying on the strength of others could apply equally to males or females.

‘Lean’ has also been given a modern twist when a few years ago Sheryl Sandberg used the phrase Lean In as the title of her book, in which she described how women needed to have ambition – to lean in and strive – if they wanted to succeed. And she should know, she is the COO of Facebook.

When women lead, should we do it differently? Or should we as Sandberg asserts, learn to lead more like men – to succeed on their terms (I am guilty here of over simplifying her argument but she does give lots of advice on how to overcome the disadvantages women face as a result of being female).

What could be a different understanding on these issues?

First of all, the pay gap. It’s pretty well established that men get paid more than women for doing exactly the same job. This is unjust. Full stop. High profile cases in the media and the film industry attest to inequality.

The World Economic Forum announced in November that it could take 218 years to bridge the gender pay gap.

1200 companies in the UK must now produce statistics on equal pay – and the first reports are not good. 74% of the firms pay men more than women and more men are in higher paid jobs eg CEOs or pilots or finance advisors vs administrators, cabin staff or bank tellers.

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This can be a crude measure – it looks at average wages for men and women in an organisation rather than like-for-like comparisons. This is an important distinction because there are many reasons for lower pay and we need to dig a bit deeper to make sure we tackle real gender unfairness in all its forms – rather than noting that cabin crew (mainly female) earn less than the pilot (mainly male) we need to see how we can change job expectations and opportunities. Easyjet has a great program to double its number of women pilots (from an appallingly low 6% to 12%).

Another limitation of the response to pay is that Western feminists tend to be urban and middle class, so the talk about pay disparity is about professionals. In my discussions with women in non-western contexts, talk about pay and access to household income is much more basic. I would love to see us standing in solidarity for women in factories in Bangladesh or women in villages in Zimbabwe who want enough money from their husbands to get a bus to the health clinic.

And in Australia when I played a small part in a campaign to get fair pay for women piece workers (paid for each piece of clothing they produced at home), it was interesting that unions were not really interested – the women were migrants with only a basic grasp of English and the union leaders were old school males. It is women like this who need pay justice as a matter of urgency.

Secondly, let’s look at women in leadership. We should encourage talented and capable women to lead. We should have special programs that overcome women’s lack of confidence. And we need to accept biology.

Some women want to work part-time or take time out as mothers or carers, putting career aspirations on hold.

We need to make it for easier for women to take up their careers again in their 40s or beyond, or to see ‘careers’ very differently. More men should be encouraged to make similar decisions without the stigma of being seen as lacking ambition.

 

It is NOT right to discriminate against women who have babies – and it is not right to look down on any woman or man who wants to work part-time so they have time for parenting as well. Part-time workers (who may want time for study, parenting, mental health, caring for aged parents…. the list goes on) are still seen as lacking dedication or commitment so talking about flexible working is vitally important.

Lastly, we need to look at the type of leadership we want. It’s not just numbers – we need to make sure that we encourage and appreciate women’s leadership styles.

This may be dangerous territory for me to enter because anyone who makes a comment about women being different to men can be accused of being sexist. But is it sexist to celebrate that women are more collaborative? Have stronger emotional intelligence and can articulate their feelings? Some of these behaviours may be nature and some nurture but we do need to appreciate the differences between men and women and recognise that when men and women share leadership, it creates healthy balance.

Such a recognition also frees men from the tyranny of having to be Alpha males. ‘Leaning’ is just as important for men as it is women – leaning on God’s understanding of issues, being a leader who is confident enough to ask questions of others and listen to their wisdom.

What would you like to see? Leave a comment or a story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Archibald musings

Last time I was in Sydney, the Archibald Portrait Prize exhibition was on. It’s a hugely popular show because of the celebrity subjects as much as the art itself. The critics choose a prize but so do the workers in the packing room and the general public also choose their favourite.

Two paintings of women won prizes this year: the packers chose a portrait of a well known female TV journalist as their favourite, and the critics also chose a painting of a woman.

What is about a portrait that continues to draw us even when selfies and Instagram snaps seem to replace the need for paint. The answer of course is that art is exploring more than outward show – it is looking inside and captures a person’s heart, maybe in a way that does not flatter! And probably in a way that surprises the sitter. One young painter described it in her notes as,  ‘Painting enables me to [explore] the external, diffused intimately through my internal self, into paint.’

I was struck this year by the number of women artists (just shy of 50%) as well as subjects. Some of their works were small, easy to miss, intimate self portraits trying to capture the internal self in the outward appearance.

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There was a painting of a woman 102 years old that struck me. Andrew Lloyd Greensmith’s portrait of Eileen Kramer was beautiful. The artist says of his subject, ‘Eileen embodies beauty as that intangible thing which cannot be fixed on the surface nor defeated by the wear and tear of age.’

I was glad to be reminded in all these portraits that beauty is not confined to youthful stereotypes and the unobtrusive work sings just as much as the bold.

 

 

Away from the buzz of the Archibald in the peace of the main galleries was a Grace Cossington-Smith self-portrait. She looks unassuming – spinsterish is probably how she might have been described in the 30s when she was painting. She was indeed single and stayed living at the family home all her life, free to paint because her father believed in her talent.

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Cossington-Smith was in fact fiercely ambitious as well as talented and had the good fortune to be painting between the wars when women were given space to shine. She captured suburban scenes outside her bedroom window and grand spaces like the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. She is recognised now as a leading Australian artist who pioneered modernism but during her lifetime was largely unrecognised.

 

 

 

Other women saw their talent subsumed by their lovers or were allowed to be muses – inspiring talent in men – rather than showing off their own gifts. Alongside the Cossington-Smith self-portrait is one by Stella Bowen, partner of Ford Maddox Ford. Her work bought inconsistent success, overshadowed perhaps by the crowd of famous people in her circle.

Only eight women have won the Archibald Prize in its 96-year history.

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A collective of women artists in the US, called Guerilla Girls, caustically comment on this inequality in their work, The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist. The ‘advantages’ include working without the pressure of success and having an escape from the art world in your 4 free-lance jobs. Ouch!

Are things changing? I am hopeful that as in all fields of endeavour, women are no longer just the muse, or the assistant to genius, but the creators, the recognised experts and the prize winners.

 

 

And of course, that is as it should be – God’s creativity knows no bounds of gender.