Angela Priestly // 27 May 2013
Elizabeth Proust proudly doesn’t cook. Learning culinary skills was not at the top of the priority list when the now portfolio chairman and company director was in the early stages of her career.
Now, the Nestle Chairman uses this personal fact to demonstrate why she believes women should strive to “not do it all”.
Speaking at a CEDA Women in Leadership event in Melbourne Friday, Proust advised women to forget the “have it all” debate and aim to pick and choose the tasks really required of us, especially at home. Ask for help, she suggested. Pay for help. Get your partner to learn how to cook.
It’s advice she felt the need to share because attitudes still prevail in society that suggest a woman will look after the domestic duties, no matter how many hours she’s putting into her work. Following the event I had to laugh at how engrained such attitudes actually are when one attendee told me she and her husband have the domestic duties well under control in their household because he’s “well-trained”.
Proust made her point about entrenched attitudes on who does what domestic work while delivering a rather pessimistic view on the question, “Is change tangible?” for women in leadership. She believes these long-engrained attitudes are difficult to remove. Indeed, she wonders if we’re making much progress at all, especially when she hears stories of school boys going off to camp saying they won’t have to worry about the cooking because the girls already have it under control.
Earlier in the week I heard consultant Karen Gately describe the reaction she had going to her children’s school and meeting other mums for the first time, given her stay-at-home husband had been handling the childcare and school-related duties for a number of years. “They said, ‘We thought he was a widower, we thought you were dead’,” she told the Little Black Dress Group forum. “I said, ‘I’m not dead! I’m just working.”
Shifting these deeply engrained stereotypes about who does what when it comes to domestic and childcare work is vital if we’re to offer more choice to men, and aid women in their career progression — and ultimately see a more gender diverse range of leaders in business and society.
And as Proust and other speakers at Friday’s CEDA event reminded us, we still have a long way to go when it comes to women in leadership, and progress made and celebrated in the past is no indication that progress will continue into the future.
Company director Sam Mostyn offered a stark reality check of how little there is to celebrate when it comes to the pointy end of leadership — the CEO level. There are just seven female CEOs in the ASX 200 and time alone will not solve the problem — not unless we’re content to wait until the year 2300 when Dr Terrance Fitzsimmons recently found that at our current rate of change, we’ll reach gender parity when it comes to CEOs in our leading, listed organisations.
Meanwhile, IBM managing director Andrew Stevens demonstrated the capacity for men to better contribute to workplace gender diversity. He believes the two key barriers to participation for women are bias — conscious and unconscious — and family commitments. The key to overcoming the former is to better engage with men and address the key ‘game changers’ that could make a difference. On the latter, he suggested making it easier for all employers to work outside of the office when needed — to better use technology to offer flexible work arrangements.
So what can women personally do? Proust and Mostyn suggested we vote with our feet: if you’re in a position to leave an organisation where you can’t see women at the top and don’t see much willingness by the male leaders for change, then take your skills elsewhere. Women should also target sponsors over mentors, and seriously back their abilities and skills, especially when applying for new positions because their male competition are no doubt talking themselves up.
And, of course, we should all quit trying to “do it all” and find someone else to help instead.