If women are to succeed as leaders in male-dominated fields it’s not a lack of confidence that will hold them back, one expert says.
Tasmania University Associate Professor in sociology Meredith Nash was part of an expedition to Antarctica with 76 women scientists to transform them “into the sort of leaders they want to be”.
But even when there were only women in the room, the broader challenges remained, as the documentary The Leadership, which recorded the group’s progress, showed.
The soul-searching trip in 2016 saw some women pushed to breaking point as they shared the sexism and workplace harassment they had experienced in the STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) fields.
Other women, even in other industries, may see their own experiences, insecurities and reflected in the stories of the women on board.
To mark International Women’s Day, news.com.au is highlighting the personal experiences of women in the workplace and the barriers to equality, safety and opportunity that exist.
Disturbing statistics are also laid bare in the documentary.
The documentary notes a study that found 71 per cent of female scientists reported being sexually harassed during field work, while 26 per cent said they’d been sexually assaulted.
Another US study found 43 per cent of women left full time STEM employment after becoming a parent, choosing to either work part time, switch to non-STEM career or leave the workforce altogether.
The lack of women in science has real-world implications.
In one scene Prof Nash explains that female crash test dummies are basically smaller versions of male versions so don’t account for differences in physiology. This has resulted in more serious rates of injury in women, for example because they tend to have less muscular necks and so are twice as likely to suffer whiplash injuries.
Women are also 20 to 40 per cent more likely to be seriously injured or killed in a car accident.
“It’s just another example of men’s bodies serving as the template for all human bodies,” Prof Nash says.
Many of the women share their experiences of feeling forced to become “one of the boys” in order to fit in, or being intimated for being the only woman among many men stuck in remote areas.
The topics wrangled in the documentary, which is now available to stream on DocPlay, iTunes, GooglePlay, Foxtel Rental Store and other players, seem more relevant than ever as Australia reels from disturbing allegations of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, who alleges she was raped at Parliament House.
Part of the focus in the wake of her revelation has been on how females ministers who Ms Higgins worked for, including Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, handled her complaint.
Prof Nash said that she wasn’t surprised senior female ministers who dealt with Ms Higgins’ initial complaints appeared to have taken a more “masculine” approach to the situation.
“When you’re the only woman in a male-dominated environment, you are taught to act like men to succeed, not to be emotional,” she said.
“It’s hard to be authentic when you are a woman in a male dominated field.”
She said the problem was the structure itself that put women under pressure to act feminine, to be soft and caring, but also to act like men.
“Maybe the ministers in the situation didn’t do the right thing but you have to acknowledge the structure that has put these people in very difficult situations.”
Prof Nash said society’s current model of work had been developed over many years to suit older white men and this needed to change.
“If the mantra is that diversity drives innovation in business, you have to have policies and structures that back that up,” she said.
“STEMM can’t just keep sticking more women in positions if they don’t have the environment to keep them there.
“It’s not the people who have to change, it’s the organisations that need to change.”
For example, she said policies on support or parental leave as well as flexible working conditions all needed to be considered.
“Our working model was developed, in particular, by older white men,” she said.
“This has guided how people work in organisations, based on a very narrow template for a typical worker.”
She said changing these conditions would make it possible for others to succeed while also supporting their lives.
While women are often advised to be more assertive in the workplace Prof Nash doesn’t believe that a lack of confidence is the problem for women and it’s the structure that won’t support what they want to do.
She recommended women have a supportive network and find good mentors.
“I think we make assumptions that to be a leader you have to be in a specific role and position,” she said.
“One of the things that has emerged for me in my career is that you don’t have to follow the track that everyone else makes.
“I’ve thrived much more when I’ve found ways to create opportunities for myself rather than fitting into the existing leadership positions.
“I think there is a lot more freedom than women are socialised to believe they have in the workplace.”
In the case of sexual assault, Prof Nash said there needed to be better structures to make it easier for people to report incidents, but what was really needed was a change of culture.
At the moment the responsibility is still on the person to make a complaint, which puts the onus on the individual.
“That’s not fair,” Prof Nash said. “It’s the male dominated culture that’s toxic to women that needs to change.
“We should make it safer for a range of people to be included in that environment.”
This requires long term focus on the kind of workplace young people are being brought into.
“It’s not up to young women to ensure their own safety at work,” Prof Nash said.
“Step one is a mind change shift.”
Prof Nash said leadership programs like Homeward Bound were important because they gave women the time and space to reflect on themselves, away from the office and to be with other women with shared concerns. However, it could not be the only strategy.
“It can’t just be up to the women to fix the problems,” she said.
Prof Nash said the women coming forward now were forcing society to take a much deeper look at the kinds of things women are experiencing in the workplace.
“And fundamentally we should just believe women,” she said.
“It makes me worried for the world and where we go in the future if we can’t fulfil the basic premise that we believe when someone comes forward to say ‘me too’.”