Does including women mean excluding men?

This is a question I put to Jo Metcalfe, the ACT’s Property Professional of the Year, recently.The Operating Centre Manager for professional services firm GHD in the ACT and Southern NSW, Jo has championed the diversity agenda for many years.She is currently chair of the Property Council’s Diversity Committee in the ACT, and has inspired, motivated and challenged the industry to embrace diversity to improve business performance and attract talented employees.

Jo says she’s noticed people questioning whether including women excludes men when she talks about addressing gender equality in the workplace.

“It is a natural question to ask, but a difficult one, particularly when in a male-dominated workplace,” she says. And she talks from experience, with women currently accounting for just 13 per cent of the property and construction workforce.

“I do get asked this question largely by men. Interestingly I don’t get asked the question ‘in the room’ but outside, separately or via email or a later phone call.“I wonder about the subterranean conversations, the underworld chatter developing around this issue and wonder – and also worry – about why they aren’t being surfaced and therefore largely going unanswered.”

Jo says we need to tackle this question head on.“Inclusion is about fighting against exclusion,” she says. And exclusion is any lack of access through discrimination or bias – conscious and unconscious.

A few years back, the Committee for Economic Development in Australia (CEDA) published the Women in Leadership: Looking below the surface report. The publication examines why women continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions and paid less than their male colleagues in the Australian workforce, and looks at the full spectrum of issues – and one of the biggest is unconscious bias.

The idea of “meritocracy” is frequently given as the explanation why workplace gender diversity strategies or targets are not needed. However, as CEDA’s report points out “human beings form unconscious knowledge when they are exposed to existing associations and relationships, leading to ‘auto-pilot’ thinking that can lead to unconscious bias.”Unconscious bias manifests itself in many ways. Male personality traits tend to be more readily associated with leadership qualities, for example, with the corollary that men are better fit for leadership roles. Workplace stereotypes tend to benefit male rather than female leadership styles. Men are ‘bold’ while women are ‘pushy’; men are ‘ambitious’ while women are ‘selfish’.

Another example of unconscious bias is far more concrete. Former Victorian Police Commissioner, Christine Nixon, has previously spoken of the “seven-foot wall” that hopefuls were required to scale as part of the application process.

This task systematically excluded women from joining the force as most were unable to climb over the wall – even though climbing the wall was not something essential for future job performance.

These are just two examples of unconscious bias in the workplace. Addressing our natural prejudices can make workplaces true meritocracies – and many countries have imposed legally mandated quotas as motivation for companies to do so.

Jo says if we’re serious about increasing female leadership, then we need to make some tough recruitment decisions.“When presented with two equal CVs, one from a man and one a woman, then the woman should get the job,” she says.Former chief of Army, David Morrison, is fond of pointing out that women are promoted on proven performance, and men are promoted on potential.Jo says “even if the woman appears to be slightly less appointable than the man, then the woman should still get the job.

If men have been promoted at the expense of women for hundreds of years, then isn’t it time to rebalance the equation?”What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia

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