Backlash and buy-in: responding to the challenges in achieving gender equality

Leadership in women Sex differences Sex discrimination Gender equity Australia

Chief Executive Women (CEW) and Male Champions of Change (MCC) share a common goal to achieve gender equality and advance more women into senior leadership positions.

This is a fundamental economic, business and social issue. Women and men in positions of power must work together to deliver sustainable change.

Many organisations have taken innovative approaches to shift the systems that result in inequality. For example, in 2016 CEW and MCC published In the Eye of the Beholder: Avoiding the merit trap, a report highlighting how the misapplication of merit can allow biases to flourish. We suggested that unless leaders examine our biases and take account of both performance and potential, we will not: tap into the full talent pool; identify the best candidate for a role; and take full advantage of diverse thinking, perspectives and experiences. If we continue to define merit as people ‘like us’ who have done what we have done, the status quo will continue, and gender equality will elude us.

We have also encountered a level of resistance to our approaches – as is often the case with major change initiatives.

Such responses manifest as internal and public debate on issues such as: gender fatigue; the demise of meritocracy; reverse discrimination; experiences of gender-based harassment and discrimination; and the rise of identity politics. There is a view that efforts to achieve gender equality have simply ‘gone too far’. Some call this backlash.

The reality is there is still a long way to go. As the 2017 CEW Senior Executive Census shows, despite some advances, few organisations have achieved gender equality at senior levels and most organisations are very far off this. In fact, men hold 79% of executive leadership roles in the ASX 200 and 95% of ASX 200 CEO positions.

In this report, we explore the range of responses we have encountered, and provide our insights to continue progress toward gender equality in the workplace.

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