My Indirect Road to Feminism

 In Gender equality

My Indirect Road to Feminism

In recent times there has been much made of the reluctance of some female leaders to want to lay claim to the tile of Feminist. Social media and talkback fire up with people proclaiming their right not label themselves as feminists and those who felt the act of rejecting the term was a slap in the face of the suffragette movement. The tone of the debate troubles me somewhat and has led me to reflect on my own rather indirect path towards claiming the label of Feminist.

Growing Up – ‘the battle had been won, feminism – it’s a bit daggy’

Perhaps it was seeing my mother go to work or the knowledge that both of my grandmothers worked, I just always expected that I would have a career. It’s not that I wasn’t a feminist, it’s just that I thought the battle had been won. I was aware that there weren’t many female CEOs or politicians in the news, but I was comforted by the knowledge that with our good education and the removal of outdated barriers by the time I got into the workforce we’d be treated as equals.

I was grateful to reap the the rewards of the work of our mothers and grandmothers. Feminism was an outdated concept, not detestable, but just no longer relevant. To be honest it felt a bit daggy. In the modern world, if I was good enough and worked hard enough, the level playing field was mine for the taking.

Early Career – ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’

My early career did little to burst that bubble. I was fortunate enough to launch into the comparatively conservative world of finance. There were no girlie calendars on display and it felt like a pretty level playing field. While it was a male dominated environment,  when I worked hard it was recognised, gender didn’t seem to come into it. The culture didn’t breed the type of misogyny I had heard of in other industries. I was aware that there were fewer women in the management structure but I put that down to history. By the time I got to management it would be different.

The world of finance, while conservative felt pressured and cut throat at times. You had to learn to be tough and I was warned ‘never let them see you cry’. This was a tough world where you needed to be strong, fight hard and work tirelessly. It would never have occurred to me to bring up gender as an issue, there was an implicit understanding  that to ‘play the gender card’ was only used by drama queens and people who weren’t good enough. The culture expected you to tough it out, then you will be respected, ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’.

I knew there were workplaces that were not as enlightened as mine. I was aware that those in the army or the police force, mining or construction were having a very different experience. But for me Finance, as male dominated as it was, was different. It was modern. Some sectors still needed to achieve equality, but the word feminism was not what it was about, that was so ‘last century’.

Move into management – ‘Part-time management – proof positive of the modern Utopia’

When I got the promotion to management level I was 8 months pregnant with my first child. Once again I felt privileged to be part of the vanguard of women reaping the rewards of our forbears’ fight for equality. The initial recruitment was for a full-time immediate start however they felt I was the right candidate. They were willing to wait for my 12 months maternity leave and for me to work on a permanent part-time basis 3 days per week. I was painfully aware that this was not the general experience of new mothers and that working part-time would not be without its challenges but I was determined to make a go of it and proud to be part of an organisation that was forward thinking and modern.

Over the years that followed I worked with a variety of executive managers. All of the managers were all highly professional and respectful, they valued my input and did what they could to ensure that I could continue to contribute meaningfully to the organisation and be an important part of the decision making process while working part-time. The broader culture of the organisation was respectful and accepting of women, including women with children. Women were approaching equal representation at the management and executive level. We also began to see a few men apply for and be granted flexible work patterns to look after young families, pursue personal ambitions or transition to retirement.

On the face of it this was a truly modern Utopia, and how it should work, but the reality of it felt a bit different.

A growing awareness – ‘systems and norms – how good people can contribute to bad outcomes’

The feeling crept up gradually, and it’s a difficult one to pin down, but I became aware of it while studying a leadership course during my MBA. One week focussed on the experiences and obstacles facing women in leadership. Like a flash of lighting I could recognise the complex structural barriers to equality in my own workplace.

The Harvard Business Review published a shattering article by Alice Eagly and Linda Carli in 2007, called Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership. They observe that there is no ‘glass ceiling’ instead that there are obstacles and discrimination against women throughout their entire career. It explains that cultural norms create a double bind for female leaders when choosing a leadership style, judged as pushy if they act assertively or weak if they behave more consultatively, there was no way for a woman to be successful that was well regarded. By comparison men could choose to be assertive or consultative basking in the warm glow of being seen as decisive or inclusive. Either style was seen as positive for men, and no positive style available to women. They also take the time to observe the structural barriers that lock women out of full participation and recognition for the work they do and the results they achieve. The article recognised that despite Sheryl Sandberg’s suggestion that women just needed to ‘lean-in’ to become successful, women alone could not be expected to dismantle the obstacles they face. That the weight of responsibility lies with the corporation, its structures and its cultural norms.

I started thinking about my own experiences and that sometimes it is not the person, their colleagues or the management team that is sexist, sometimes it is the system, the norms and the underlying assumptions.

My leadership course prompted me to reflect on my own experience. I was working with another manager, we considered each other good friends and respected each other as professionals immensely. I had worked with him on and off over the past 7 or so years and had never had any reason to question his respect for women. He would be mortified by the idea that he degraded women or treated them with anything less than the equality they deserve. This particular afternoon our executive manager came into work at 10am, I don’t know whether he had a business or a personal appointment, it hardly mattered. My colleague called out to him in a jovial manner ‘What time do you call this part-timer?’ I laughed along with them both, and I did not think anything more of it, though it must have hit me somewhere, because I was able to vividly recount it 18 months later. And I suddenly realised why.

This valued and trusted colleague of mine, whom I respected and who respected me, chose to use the phrase ‘part-timer’ as a derogatory term. He was questioning the commitment of my manager to the organisation and using the analogy of being part-timer to do it. He didn’t recognise the underlying assumptions in that exchange, nor did I. But 18 months on, wipe away the veneer and it was revealed. We as an organisation, and the community as a whole see part-time work as being less valuable and part-time workers less committed.

I have no doubt my colleague would go into bat for my contribution and commitment to the company. So why does an enlightened, reasonable, respectful person make a sexist comment like that? For me it comes from underlying norms and a system which doesn’t properly address equality of opportunity and access. Even in the most enlightened of companies, systems and processes are an additional and hidden hurdle we face in the struggle for equality.

Questioning myself – ‘would I stand up and call out structural sexism?’

I never got the opportunity to discuss this reflection with my colleague, and my insights into structural barriers to equality and opportunity came too late to test what I would have done and said differently in the old environment with my new outlook on the world. While I have never tolerated overt sexism, objectification of women or inappropriate comments, this more subtle sexism –  a sexism expressed through structures, values and assumptions – was a little different. Now I could see it, what would I do with those insights?

I would like to think I would have been a champion and a shining light. In reality though wonder how brave I would have been. The corporate world is a funny one, the politics of management are interesting and intricate. Stakeholders to be placated, issues to be fought, positions to protect and bridges to be built. Political capital and reputation are key to getting things achieved. I wonder how often I would have been able to raise these issues before eyes would start to be rolled and earplugs go into ears. The politics of the personal don’t tend to go down well, the fear is that you start to be treated as a whinger, and you worry that your general reputation gets tarnished by speaking out the same issues on a regular basis. I honestly wonder whether I would have been brave enough or idealistic enough to pick a fight on these issues rather than preserve relationships and get the right result on the issues at hand. I don’t think I am alone, and while its uncomfortable I don’t think it’s unreasonable, the research reflects that minorities who highlight their differences and who claim that they are being treated unfairly often find themselves reduced in voice and power rather than increased.

It’s not a nice thought, but it does make me more sympathetic to those who don’t choose to publicly claim the label feminist. I won’t presume to contradict their reported reasons for rejecting the label, but I can see that for some sitting around the board table or the cabinet table, may feel that their political effectiveness is protected if they aren’t seen as the sole voice on women’s issues or equality. The marginalisation of women in decision making groups has been studied quite extensively, and is one reason I am come full-circle on the idea of quotas. When you introduce one or two women to an 8-10 person board, their voice tends to get drowned out, their ideas dismissed and they tend to be seen solely through the prism of their gender. It takes at least 4 out of 10 of the members to be female before the women are able to get equality in treatment and to be seen in their own right as individuals rather than just one of the women. Where women operate in environments where they make up only a small proportion, the obvious tactic is to reduce difference between themselves and men, downplaying their gender as a factor. I don’t think it’s an accident that it tends to be women on the Left side of politics who have felt more comfortable to claim the feminist label and women on the Right to tend to downplay it. Is it the chicken or the egg? Those who have more equal representation in their own parties are more comfortable talking about declaring a personal position.

The interface between home and work- ‘why do only men get wives?’

We are starting to create a language to describe the obstacles at home get in the way of women’s opportunity to participate and be valued at work. Women carry a disproportionate weight of caring for children, the elderly and the domestic sphere. How do we challenge the assumption that part-time work is solely the remit of women and reflects a less committed, less ambitious, less productive and engaged workforce? Anabelle Crabb’s book The Wife Drought, turns conventional thinking on its head. Conventionally we look at the weight of caring responsibilities and the tendency to part-time work as being a women’s issue – women are missing out on the financial and professional rewards of full participation in the workforce. Instead she suggests that men are just as harmed by the cultural and organisational assumptions. Men don’t tend to enjoy the engagement and full participation in family life that part-time and flexible work brings and that men’s lack of time out of the workforce denies them the opportunity many women experience, to reassess their life paths and what is important to them. We don’t see the penalties in financial terms , instead we see them in poorer mental and physical health. Anabelle quite eloquently articulates the potential benefits to workplaces as well as society as a whole if we could take a more flexible and inclusive approach to work patterns for all employees, parents or not.

Picking up my Feminist Badge

Having left the corporate world, completed my MBA and started a business focusing specifically on women, I have had time and space to reflect on the meaning of feminism and what there is still left to achieve. Perhaps it’s to do with the general conversations that are happening in the community, perhaps it’s my age, my life events or the books I am reading. Whatever it is I’m now ready to collect my Feminist badge.

I used to look at Feminists and respect their struggles and determination but I couldn’t share their anger, what did I have to feel angry about? Well things have changed. We are no longer fighting open warfare against sexist ideas and oppressive laws. This is a more subtle guerrilla warfare against structures, processes and the cultural norms. The most reasonable and enlightened men and women can create, perpetuate and entrench a sexist system that holds us all back, men and women.

It’s not good enough in this day and age that:

  • 1 in 3 women have experience physical violence in the last five years
  • The average full-time weekly wage for a woman is 18.2% less than a man’s.
  • Women make up only 18.6% of the board members on ASX 200 listed companies
  • 1 in 2 mothers report workplace discrimination due pregnancy, parental leave or upon returning to work
  • 1 in 5 mothers were made redundant, restructured, dismissed or their contract not renewed.
  • The average super balance for women is only 57% the size of men’s
  • Domestic and family violence is the leading preventable cause of death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44 years
  • Australian women account for 92% of primary carers for children with disabilities and 70% of primary carers for parents


I know I’m a little late to the party, I didn’t feel angry before, but I’m starting to feel the frustration and I’m more than a little tetchy.

Claiming our own labels, allowing others to claim theirs’ (or not)

This brings me full-circle to the current state of play where certain segments are deriding young women who don’t feel an identification with feminism or attack those in positions of power who don’t want to use the label Feminist to describe themselves.

I’m proud to call myself a feminist and I now feel free to express that honestly and openly. I also think that society, debate and progress is furthered when more men and women voice both the issues and their identification with the label Feminist.

However I suggest we respectfully let those who don’t want to wear the badge contribute in their own way. We can take their contributions, without needing them to take an oath. With few exceptions they ascribe to the fundamental beliefs of equality, we would be much better asking them to deliver on fundamental change rather than back them into a corner. I am grateful to the feminists who came before me that didn’t feel the need to make me shout it out, they let me join in the debate in my own time and on my own terms.

Meanwhile I will proudly and loudly use the label Feminist, encouraging other Men and Women to feel comfortable doing the same. I will not be quiet now I realise what we still have to achieve.


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