The uncomfortable truth about gender equality in leadership

I recently saw a LinkedIn post by kiwi entrepreneur Sir Ray Avery. He announced he will no longer be attending black tie events that celebrate the top 20% while there is so much still to work on for the rest of society. I get it.

Last night I had the privilege of attending the Women in Governance Awards, where New Zealand Trade and Enterprise was a finalist in the Gender Diverse Organisation Award.

I’m so proud of working at an organisation that is genuinely committed to gender equality. I love seeing the strides being made to ensure our country is being led by the top people, no matter their sex or gender.

Change at the top is important. It means young women can “be what they can see”. It means new perspectives, new insights, better ways of doing things.

But the uncomfortable truth (for people like me, at least) is that just adding (often) child-free, middle-class, straight, white women to the table doesn’t necessarily bring that much diversity.

That’s not an attack on us child-free, middle-class, straight, white women, by the way. Saying we need more diversity in our country’s leadership is not the same as saying we haven’t worked hard, or that we don’t deserve our place. But we all want to know we got to where we are fairly, right? And at the moment the field is still tilted in our favour.

I say the exact same to men who are upset about gender equality measures that ‘disadvantage’ them. Pushing for equality is not an attack on those who are used to expecting to come out on top, it is just opening up opportunities for those who aren’t. As someone smarter than me once said:

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

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There is no point having 50/50 in executive teams or on a board if those women are, to put it bluntly, female versions of the men at the table. That’s not adding diversity, bringing new perspectives or value.

There is no point tackling your gender pay gap without recognising that the ethnic gender pay gap is worse. We will only close the gap if we look at all the parts of the issue rather than unconsciously treating ‘white’ as our default.

There is no point offering two weeks’ unpaid leave to a new father when his family can’t afford for him to use it. Women will continue to bear the brunt of childcare and housework, and men will continue to miss out on building meaningful bonds with their babies.

There is no point recruiting 50/50 in younger hires without acknowledging the obstacles in the way for women, particularly those meeting barriers on multiple fronts, like ethnicity, class, or disability. For some women, the main barrier is “just” carrying the mental load and taking on an uneven share of childcare and housework.

There is no point having 50/50 in leadership if the women at the top don’t make it their mission to knock down these obstacles and barriers for the women yet to come.

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