Despite the incredible strides made towards gender equality in the last decade, women in senior level positions continue to be significantly underrepresented. Unlike men in leadership roles, women add public and media scrutiny of their gender to a long list of obstacles that lay in their path.
The appointment of Gladys Berejiklian as Premier has raised a lot of familiar (sexist) questions. With female Premiers still relatively uncommon (only 16% of all Premiers have been female) it makes sense that the media and general public don’t know what to make of her.
As a helpful guide, there are six questions to not ask a woman in leadership.
1. What do the men in your life think about your choices?
Women aren’t defined by the men in their life. Whether it’s a father, brother, husband, partner or boyfriend – their opinions have no bearing on the choices and actions of a woman in power. If you want to understand a woman in leadership’s choices, ask her directly.
2. Who’s going to look after your children?
Looking after children isn’t inherently women’s work. No male politician would ever have to answer this question, because the underlying assumption is that they have a partner, probably female, who takes care of the children. For many women, motherhood is a deeply fulfilling and meaningful pursuit, but that doesn’t mean that a woman in leadership is solely responsible for her children, or that she has to do it alone. Regardless of how she makes it work, we need to be comfortable not knowing how a woman in leadership manages her personal responsibilities.
3. When will you have children?
Somehow, even not having children doesn’t save female leaders from having to answer questions about hypothetical children. For women in leadership without children, Berejiklian included, the speculation is still persistent. Women are more than their biological function to produce children and their decision has no relationship to their professional decisions.
4. What are you wearing?
Or “why did you get that haircut” or “where are your heels” or any other unsolicited question about a woman’s appearance. A good rule of thumb is to think about whether this question would make sense if you asked a male leader. Is there any world in which Malcolm Turnbull would be asked to discuss his preference for slim jackets instead of his position on our foreign policy?
5. Are your successes and failures reflective of other female leaders?
Any individual woman is not a spokesperson for her gender. The legacy of any woman in power has no bearing on the actions and choices of any other woman in power solely by virtue of their gender. Women often carry the weight of being the first and the perception of their success or failure can both create and close opportunities for women in the future. Anna Bligh commented poignantly after her term as Queensland Premier, “I felt the expectations of my gender on my shoulders, if I failed at this or I got something spectacularly wrong, it would not only be seen as ‘Anna Bligh’s hopeless’ but ‘ah, we knew women couldn’t do it’, my ups and downs would be used as a judgment on an entire gender”.
6. Can women really have it all?
This is a question most women, regardless of where they are in their career are likely familiar with. It asks, can you really achieve a balance between your professional career and the obligations of family, friends and personal happiness? And it reasserts the notion that women are fundamentally caretakers in the home and choosing a career doesn’t excuse them from that responsibility. Men aren’t held to this same standard and aren’t forced to answer for their family because it is understood that it takes a complex support network to balance work and family. It needs to be the same for women.
Kristina Keneally put it best. “Really, it all boils down to this: judge all politicians – male or female – on performance. Are they ethical? Do they keep their commitments? Are they delivering consistent and well-considered policy? Are they responsive to the community? Do they have a vision for the future? Are they courageous and willing to fight for the people they represent?”.
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