How can universities contribute to gender equality?

By Linda Peach and Heidi Sundin

Universities are uniquely placed to embed gender equality in our social and employment systems, and yet this influence is poorly understood and used only in a scattershot fashion. We would like to see universities better use their place in the world to help ensure that gender equality becomes a norm in both our social and employment landscapes.

Mental models

Beyond skills-based training, universities develop and translate mental models about how the world works to students, who then take them out into the world of work and implement them.  For all the criticism we hear that university graduates are too ‘theoretical’ and not ‘technical’ enough, academic theories of behaviour and systems are essential to our understanding of the world.  Mental models are academic theories operating in real time.

Imagine our world today without Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind or Alexander Fleming’s theory about the Penicillium mould.  An employee who understands the theory of why something works the way it does can bring value that goes beyond just knowing how to make it work.

Gender equality is grounded in theories of how people think and behave

There are a number of theories that underpin our understanding of gender inequality and inform the ways we go about redressing it.  From early theories about sexism and stereotyping through feminist theories of systemic barriers to equality to modern theories of benevolent sexism and the male model of work, the concept of a gender equal world is firmly grounded in theory.  When we read articles in the press about sex discrimination, sexual harassment, gender pay gaps, or the difficulties of being a mother and having a career, these ideas have all originated with academic theories about why the world disadvantages women in comparison to men.

Universities can both teach and apply these theories

As organisations, universities are unique ecosystems.  Most universities employ large workforces of both academic and support workers.  The ways that universities apply equal opportunity across all levels of their workforces impacts the way their thousands of employees develop expectations of equal treatment and translate their experience to the outside world.  Universities also have a significant role to play as public adovocates for social change, and gender equality is an area where universities would do well to develop a higher profile in advocating for change.

Of course, the largest population in any university is students.  Over the course of a single year, a university is uniquely placed to have a profound impact on the way tens of thousands of students think about the world, including how they think about gender and about equality.  How the staff who interact with students experience equality in their workplaces will have a considerable impact on how they impart knowledge about equality to students.  The interaction between these domains is vitally important to the speed with which our societies move towards normative gender equality.

Universities could do more to make gender equality a core component of curricula.  Using case studies that showcase women in leadership roles, or working in non-traditional occupations, will help to change stereotyped ideals of women’s roles.  Developing programs that focus on increasing the numbers of women in postgraduate courses, and ensuring that across the life of a degree, students are taught to examine decision-making processes for unconscious biases will move more students further along the path to having an equality mindset than is otherwise possible.

Sexual harassment in our universities

Elizabeth Broderick’s 2017 report on the prevalence of sexual harassment on our university campuses should give everyone pause to think about how a gender unequal world gives tacit permission to men to behave in ways that are harassing and discriminatory towards women.  There is a clear and unequivocal link between gender inequality and sexual harassment and sexual assault.  There is also an established link between gender inequality and domestic violence which often travels via a history of sexual harassment/assault.  None of these things happens in isolation.

Diversity initiatives in universities

The good news is that most universities are now taking steps to address gender inequality in their workforces, among their students, and on their campuses.  Reporting to the WGEA has led universities to undertake an annual analysis of workforce data to investigate the representation of women at different levels, gender pay gaps, the adoption of flexible working practices and parental leave options, among a variety of other measures.  Pressure from trade unions during the enterprise bargaining cycle has seen universities adopt a number of policies that assist in the achievement of gender equality, particularly around flexible work and pay scaling.

Diversity and inclusion strategies and policies are now standard components of university governance, and most universities have at least one senior staff member devoted to embedding diversity and inclusion in the life of the institution. Universities are beginning to develop gender equality strategies, paying closer attention to the numbers of women in senior leadership roles, particularly in the academic workforce where the proportion of professors who are women is, on average, less than one third.

The Science Australia Gender Equality (SAGE) program

Introduced as a pilot in 2015, the SAGE program has been adopted by the vast majority of academic entities in Australia.  Developed out of the Athena SWAN program in the UK, the SAGE initiative rewards universities that make measurable progress towards increasing the numbers of women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) disciplines. Focused primarily on academic staff, the program also requires universities to address issues around intersectionality and the pipeline from higher degree research programs through to academic careers.

Over an initial period of 3 years in the SAGE program, universities set in train a number of investigative activities and then develop action plans to address gender inequality in their institutions.  At the end of the 3 years, universities submit an application detailing the work they have done and plan to do which is assessed by panels of experts, and if accepted, the university receives an institutional Bronze Award.  Once a university has received its institutional bronze, individual departments and the whole institution can go on to apply for silver and gold awards.  Each level of accreditation requires more complex activities which, over about 20 years, lead to systemic change in institutional norms that embed equality in the cultural fabric of each institution.

Universities as agents of social change

Our universities are uniquely placed to normalise gender equality in the minds of the hundreds of thousands of students they teach every year.  By visibly working to achieve gender equality in their workplaces, placing an emphasis on gender equality in teaching, and publicly advocating for gender equality, universities can have a major impact on the achievement of a gender equal society.

Original post published by The Agenda Agency:

How do I get my CEO on board with diversity and inclusion?

By Linda Peach and Heidi Sundin

A key enabler of any activities that address diversity and inclusion is the explicit support of senior leaders, and none is more important than that of the CEO.  When your organisation first starts to address barriers to diversity and inclusion, there is likely to be some resistance from people who are either comfortable with the way things are or don’t see any problem.  Sometimes a CEO can fall into one of these camps.

It is usually someone in the HR function who is tasked with developing and implementing diversity initiatives, and that person may also need to deal with resistance from senior leaders and others in the organisation.  In this blog post, we will look at how you can help your CEO and others to see first, the issue, and second, the benefit of addressing it.

4 practical ways to bring your CEO on the journey

It’s all in the data

First and foremost, gather, analyse and present data that will support your case.  Most senior leaders, CEOs included, respond well when they see clear evidence that an issue exists.  HR usually has responsibility for staff data, and the staff database is the first place to gather the data you need.  Reports from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Male Champions of Change and other government and non-government organisations can provide valuable background about the overall effect of diversity and inclusion (or the lack of it) on Australian businesses.  These reports also often describe initiatives that have helped to improve diversity, and these can be used to inform your own efforts.

It’s important to present data showing how other organisations in your industry or sector are dealing with diversity and inclusion.  Investing time to look through the reports available on the internet, and reading other organisations’ business publications (e.g. annual reports) and websites to understand how these issues are being addressed, is well worth the effort.

A commercial imperative

Businesses are increasingly becoming aware of the commercial benefits of having a diverse and inclusive workforce.  Research is telling us clearly that diverse and inclusive workplaces lead to improved productivity and profit.  Supply chains are also now being scrutinised for their compatibility with the diversity goals of large organisations.  For example, NAB actively works to include diverse suppliers such as businesses owned by women, Indigenous people, people with a disability and social enterprises in their supply chain.  Once this shift in procurement procedures becomes commonplace, businesses that have not effectively dealt with their own diversity and inclusion issues risk being left behind.

Diversity as a strategic initiative

Addressing diversity and inclusion issues requires more than good intentions and supportive rhetoric.  Without a visible strategic intent to be a diverse and inclusive organisation, the likelihood that initiatives will succeed is low.  Building diversity and inclusion into your strategic agenda signals to internal and external stakeholders that you are serious about fixing these problems.

Have you conducted a review of your public communications, templates, website and recruitment activities to ensure that inclusive imagery and language are included?  If not, it is recommended that addressing these key components of your public face should be an early step towards creating a more diverse and inclusive culture.

Let’s talk CEO to CEO

As most will agree, reinventing the wheel is costly and ineffective when others have already invented and refined it before you.  That’s why connecting your CEO with another who has taken action and made real progress in addressing diversity and inclusion can make a huge impact on your CEOs willingness to engage.  If the CEO you connect with happens to come from one of your clients, then the impact is likely to be even stronger.

A new CEO-led alliance – “CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion” – was recently launched in the US, with 175 companies pledging to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  Participant organisations include a number of Fortune 500 giants such as Cisco, Dow Chemical, HP, Morgan Stanley, and Merck.

In Australia, organisations such as the Male Champions of Change, Chief Executive Women and Diversity Council Australia have programs designed to promote and improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  These organisations can also help to put you in touch with other CEOs who have successfully addressed diversity and inclusion issues and can engage in conversation with your CEO.

The proof is in the pudding

Well known CEOs have this to say about diversity and inclusion:

“CEOs across the country understand this isn’t a competitive issue, but a societal issue, and together we can raise the bar for the entire business community. By sharing best known actions and programs, we are helping to create a more inclusive environment that will encourage all of us to bring our greatest talents, perspectives, and experiences to the workplace.” (Tim Ryan, US Chairman and Senior Partner of PwC)

“We fundamentally believe that we will make better business decisions if we have diversity in thinking … and that requires equal gender participation.” (Jonas Prising, Chairman and CEO of ManpowerGroup)

“You can have the most diverse workforce, but if you don’t have an inclusive environment, you’re not going to get the collaboration and innovations that come from an inclusive workforce” (Cindy Hook, CEO Deloitte Australia)

“In an inclusive culture employees know that, irrespective of gender, race, creed, sexual orientation and physical ability, you can fulfill your personal objectives by aligning them with the company’s, have a rich career, and be valued as an individual. You are valued for how you contribute to the business.” (David Thodey, former CEO of Telstra)

“Like many industries, creating an environment where everyone can thrive – not despite of who they are but because of who they are is important. The more we embrace diversity at work, the more people from different groups will be able to be their authentic selves. Companies need to realise that or they’ll lose out significantly. I also believe we need to fight against the stereotypes by challenging bias where we see it.” (Pip Marlow, CEO Strategic Innovation – ‎Suncorp Group, former CEO Microsoft)

“By understanding, appreciating, and leveraging the cultural diversity Australia has to offer, we will collectively advance local and global business opportunities for Australian businesses in the Asian century.” (Giam Swiegers, CEO of Aurecon, former CEO of Deloitte)


Explicit support from senior leaders, particularly the CEO, is critical to the success of any initiative to improve diversity and inclusion.  This post details four mechanisms that can be used to help with engaging a CEO – or any leader – in diversity and inclusion:

  • Presenting the evidence (data)
  • Explaining the commercial imperative
  • Positioning diversity as a strategic initiative
  • Connecting CEO to CEO

These mechanisms can help CEOs to understand the importance of diversity to their commercial success, and showcase other organisations that have successfully addressed diversity and inclusion.

Original post published by The Agenda Agency:

Signs of hope for a more gender equal future

This is a narrative about the journey from apathy to activism in working towards gender equality. From the early 1990s to around 2009, the conversation on gender equality had stalled. Young women (incorrectly) thought they had equality and that they could relax into a newly equal world. Thankfully, that apathy has now shifted and the conversation has been reinvigorated, giving us new hope for a gender equal future.

Dr Linda Peach

At the recent (October 2017) Growth Faculty summit in Sydney, Women World Changers, renewed hope about where the conversation on gender equality is taking us as a society was firmly on the agenda.  Professor Cordelia Fine’s work on neurosexism, emphatically debunking the myth that women and men come from different planets; Richard Denniss’ willingness to tackle the male dominance of economic privilege and his clear advice to young women – with things the way they are, don’t have children if you want to have an equal chance at financial security as the men in your sphere; Elizabeth Broderick’s work on sexual harassment and sex discrimination in Australia’s universities and her continued work to change attitudes to women in our society; even just the fact that there was a reasonable sprinkling of men in attendance speaks of new conversations and new sources of hope for a gender equal future.

Back in the late noughties when I was researching and writing my Ph.D thesis, the conversation about gender equality had stalled.  I was constantly dismayed about how many young women would say “We don’t need feminism” and “We already have equality” with the silent addendum, “Silly old duck”.  My consternation turned to concern and eventually to anger at the ways that women had been cheated out of their own deserved sense of injustice by a world that was determined to protect the interests and privileges of the patriarchy.  When I had the opportunity to do a Ph.D, this was my burning interest – what was driving young women towards mute acceptance of an unequal future?

A Ph.D, by its nature, means burying yourself in literature and other people’s research.  Over those five years, I read roughly a thousand academic papers and books (possibly not every word, but certainly enough to get a really good grasp of the plot).  From Susan Faludi’s ‘Backlash’ to Alice Eagly’s Social Roles Theory to Bandura’s Social Learning Theory to Glick & Fiske’s Ambivalent Sexism Theory… taking side roads into Catherine Hakim’s rebuttal of feminist thought and looking into religious tenets that influence gender equality.  I began to understand – really understand – the nature of inequalities, of patriarchy and power, of feminism and femininity, and of traditional and emerging masculinities.

In my research, I ran focus groups with women of all ages from 18 onwards and listened to their stories of limitations, denigrations and denials, of wishful thinking and frustrating ignorance.  I sighed at their fundamental acceptance of the fate of being female, born of their understanding that fighting it was too hard.  I did online surveys with hundreds of young women and young men and despaired at their responses.  I wondered if it was futile to even try to change such a deeply entrenched system of inequality.

I went to feminist seminars and listened to women who had fought the battles of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  I heard weariness, defensiveness and despair.  I saw women who had fought all their lives for justice and who just kept trying, even when they were being told to shut up by younger women.  I presented at conferences in Australia and in Europe that were about academic research into women’s careers, mostly focused on work-life balance, motherhood and health.  Even at these conferences, the spectre of the patriarchy was not often directly challenged. Young women at some of these conferences said to me, “That may be what your research participants say, but it’s not what any of my friends expect to happen!”

Sometime in those first couple of years of my research, Elizabeth Broderick came to speak at the University of Queensland.  She had just finished her first listening tour around Australia and I had avidly read everything I could find about it.  I listened to this powerful woman who so clearly wanted to make a real difference, and I felt a glimmer of hope.

I finished my Ph.D in 2012 and around that time, a number of things happened that began to shift the conversation about gender equality forever.  Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn were becoming serious knowledge exchange platforms with clout and people started using them to talk about issues that the mainstream media preferred to ignore.  On those platforms, women’s rights and gender equality began to have a voice again.

Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female Prime Minister (I heard about it first on Facebook).  Malala Youfsazi was shot in the head on her way to school for the crime of being a woman who wanted to be educated (Facebook again).  Tony Abbott began to offend women all over Australia and the world with his attitudes and behaviour towards women in general and Julia Gillard in particular (discussed at length on every social media platform known to humankind).  The Misogyny Speech happened (have you heard the Australian Voices’ song about it?  If not, listen here:

Issues that had been buried for decades began to resurface – suddenly the gender pay gap was news; commentary about the lack of women in leadership roles had some statistics to back it up and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency was born under new legislation developed by the Gillard government.  Elizabeth Broderick’s Male Champions of Change took off, White Ribbon started making a noise, International Women’s Day gained global momentum. The conversation began to get louder and better informed, and it began to develop a sense of purpose.  The aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election saw the global Women’s Marches that sent shockwaves around the world.

And still, the conversation is too easily sidetracked and undermined by the male-led and largely neoliberal framework of our business and political worlds.  That framework rests on the premise that if you can’t get there without us having to change the way we do things round here, there is something wrong with you personally, so stop blaming structures that restrict your access to opportunity, OK? We let you in the door; if the lift is programmed to operate faster and more efficiently for men, that’s just something you will have to overcome by being patient and taking the stairs.  And from there we end up on the “fixing women” road that ultimately leads us nowhere.

We understand the impact of the problem – lack of women in senior roles; gender pay gaps across every industry and in every organisation; women facing financial hardship and homelessness in retirement; the loss of a huge pool of talented women as pipelines leak successful women who also want to be mothers.

The problem underlying all this – the factor that persistently plagues all attempts to improve gender equality – is that women still do most of the caring and men still largely think they are required only to ‘help’.  The young women in my research overwhelmingly wanted to have children, and they also wanted to work and have careers…. and they already knew at 18 years of age that the men in their lives were very unlikely to take up 50% of parenting duties.  They already knew, at 18 years old, that at some point they would give up part or all of their paid work and careers to be parents.  They knew it with sadness in their hearts and eyes, they knew it with wisdom well beyond 18 years on the planet, and they knew it regardless of what their own parents had done.

Despite so much progress, this is the major barrier to gender equality that just refuses to budge in any meaningful way.

And when Cordelia Fine’s research repeatedly tells us that women’s brains are not in fact hardwired to do caring work; and Richard Denniss looks us all in the eye and tells us the hard, clear, economic reality that women who have children lose out financially; and when we hear from Elizabeth Broderick about the impact of sex discrimination and harassment, and people are nodding their heads at all of this…. Well, that’s hope.

The conversation is no longer stalled.  It is alive and kicking and – despite players on the world stage who do pose a serious and not-to-be-underestimated threat to progress – the apathy and denial that characterised the landscape 10 years ago is no longer in control. New voices are being raised and heard, offering different perspectives and new insights, and those voices are the hope on which a more gender equal future can be built. Our job now is to keep the conversation alive, and face the realities that, when changed, can create those better futures.

Words for Women and Words for Men

The words we use to describe successful people are different for women and men – and the words we use for success typically describe traditionally masculine traits. This is a problem because, in the now-famous words of Justin Trudeau, it’s 2015 (or 2016 if we want to be particular). Really, we should be past this by now. Instead, the Australian has today shown us – again – that when it comes to gendered descriptions of achievement, we have a very long way to go.

The Australian just published its annual list of the 30 most influential people in higher education. The list includes five women, four entities that are not, strictly speaking, ‘people’, and the remaining 21 influencers are men.

The list is unsurprising in its general makeup. 17% of the list is female, which is consistent with the proportion of women in positions of business influence more generally. That three of the list are members of the current government and two others are either politicians or closely aligned to politics is also to be expected.

I began reading the list and was immediately struck by the language used to describe these influential people. In particular – and unsurprisingly, given my particular interest – I noticed how the language used to describe the characteristics of influential men was different from that used to describe women.

Some of the terms used to describe the men were: ambitious; reformist; focused; consultative; a born salesman; has political sway; innovative; entrepreneurial; influential; a political animal; resilient; admirable; buzzes with excitement; very funny and droll; has gravitas; hugely relevant; in demand; assured; clear-eyed; highly credible; cranky; crafty and crinkled; imposing; a terrier; a stayer; sharp; witty; Machiavellian (as a positive trait); charming; never fazed; savvy; confident; independent; mover & shaker; scholarly; dauntless; a poster boy for persistence; and hard working.

And the women: a fantastic communicator; savvy lobbyist; on board the Turnbull innovation train; a world champion in finding consensus; pragmatic; supports a reform narrative; an engaging straight-talker; tough; cool; the single most powerful medical researcher in the land; an advocate; has the courage of her convictions; a distinguished researcher; poster girl for the Turnbull government’s innovation future; she’s the ‘real thing’ (I’m still confused about that one); an award-winning chair; knows it is lonely at the top for women in science; and unflinching.

Differences in describing the traits of women and men

The first thing I noticed that is different between these two lists is that it seems to take more words – whole phrases or sentences, in fact – to describe women’s capabilities and achievements. Men’s, on the other hand, can be described in powerful single words. Men are ambitious, assured, imposing, charming, savvy, confident… etc. Women support other people’s agendas, have achieved a particular distinction, are willing to stand firm even in the face of negativity.

The second thing I noticed was the dearth of positive overtones in the ways the women are described. The overall sense is that women get there in spite of it all and have to be tough and cool cucumbers to make it, while men are there because… well, just because they’re these great guys, you know (a nod to Zaphod Beeblebrox here, fantasy fiction’s best loved narcissist).

The third thing I noticed was that men get all the ‘leading’ words – ambitious, confident, independent, hard-working, assured, credible – while women get all the ‘caring’ words – supportive, communicative, consensus-seeking, engaging.

And the fourth thing I noticed is that the women are spoken of in relation to the achievements or agendas of powerful men. Nalini Joshi is supporting Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation agenda (in fact, according to the list, she is a primary reason Malcolm Turnbull got his innovation train underway in the first place); Michelle Simmons is the poster girl for Turnbull’s science and innovation agenda; Belinda Robinson apparently herds cats for a living and found support for Christopher Pyne’s unpopular reforms (but is now on the Turnbull innovation train); Vicki Thompson, meanwhile, managed to rally a lack of support for the same reforms but is now – thank the stars! – on board the Turnbull innovation train. Only Anne Kelso seems to avoid being portrayed as a woman supporting a male agenda or travelling on a very crowded train, and that might be because – in the words of the article itself – she already has her work cut out for her.

And the problem is?

The problem is that the way the people on this list are described shows a consistent difference in language based on each individual’s gender.

Because our society has a legacy of men being the most powerful in political, social, economic and educational roles, with women the largely invisible supporters of male success, the words we associate most easily with power and success are the words that describe masculine qualities. Change should be a relatively simple matter of applying those words to women as well as men, but the human psyche – at least that of a journalistic nature, it seems – finds this very difficult to do.

What would it look like if it was different?

Let’s try it. Here are a few sentences that could be used to describe these women differently, and a few that could also be used to describe some of the men a little differently too, just for fun.

With single-minded assurance and a knowledgeable eye on the future, Vicki Thompson has driven a well-constructed and ambitious reform agenda through the Go8, heralding ground-breaking change to the way research is funded in Australian universities.

Universities Australia Chief Executive, Belinda Robinson, has brought her confidence and clear-eyed understanding of the sector to achieve remarkable results in a short time.

Michelle Simmons received a phenomenal $46m to develop the world’s first quantum computer. An award-winning scientist with an impressive international reputation, her work has placed Australia at the forefront of innovation in the sphere of quantum computing.

Nalini Joshi is the University of Sydney’s award-winning Chair of Mathematics. Aside from the world renown she has as a leading researcher in her field, Nalini has a clear and consistent approach to gender equality. She firmly believes that unless unconscious bias is addressed in tandem with practical steps to address inequality, change will be slow in coming, if it ever does.

And for the men:

Simon Birmingham’s consultative approach and desire to advocate for consensus across the University sector has made him a popular choice of Education Minister. His excellent interpersonal communication style will be sure to help him garner support for the Turnbull reforms he is supporting.

As the new chair of Universities Australia, Barney Glover has much to offer the institution, bringing his capacity to develop narratives around collaboration and cooperative endeavour. Many Google executives have complimented Barney on his gentle approach to the delivery of reform ideas on behalf of the government.

Brian Schmidt, the much-valued new VC of ANU, has been applauded widely for his research achievements, including the conferral of a Nobel Laureate. As a politically aware communicator, Brian has a list of influential people he can call on for support when needed. This should stand him in good stead as he settles into his new role.

Hopefully by now you’ve got the general idea. Language matters. And making conscious efforts to use language that is non-gendered when describing people’s achievements is extremely important as we move towards a more gender equitable world.


Published in Women’s Agenda, January 2016.  See the original article here:


We need women on boards for many reasons: ethics isn’t one

We need women on boards for many reasons: ethics isn’t one

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Boards are no longer a female-free zone, but do you know why?
Toronto Public Library

Linda Peach, Macquarie Graduate School of Management

There are many good reasons for increasing gender diversity on boards: better decisions, better performance, and better representation of the consumer base.

But the idea, put forward in a variety of research over the past twenty years or so, that women on boards improve the moral and ethical decision-making of those boards has a number of problems for both women and men, in the boardroom and out of it.

First, having gender equality on the board is increasingly part of corporate social responsibility initiatives. Rather than ethical standards improving when women are on boards, it may be that organisations with a corporate social responsibility focus create a climate of gender equality. This may mean their boards include more women simply because corporate social responsibility and equality are related concepts.

Second, the idea that women will set improved standards of moral and ethical behaviour for boards is based on the (faulty) assumption that when boards are made up of only men they will be morally and ethically lax. Surely that is a sexist view of men, based on notions of men as irresponsible risk-takers?

Third, it places the burden of responsibility on women to make sure that boys on boards don’t behave badly. Surely that is a sexist view of women, based on the idea that a mother will be the moral and ethical compass for a family unit?

Women on Australian boards

Australia – like most other countries in the world – has a distinct lack of women on its corporate boards: just 17.6% of ASX 200 directors and only 5% of ASX 200 chairs are women, according to the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Australia’s Gender Equality Scorecard shows that in Australian organisations with 100 or more employees, 23.7% of directorships and 12% of chairs are held by women. More worryingly, only 8.8% have set targets to increase gender diversity on the board, yet 48.5% of employees in these organisations are women.

Researchers (and others) have consistently noted that this poor representation of women at board level is a problem and have sought to convince male-dominated boards to make room for women. In looking for evidence to support their arguments, some research linked women on boards with “…a strong moral overtone…”, with increased corporate social responsibility and with less unethical behaviour. Other research found the more women directors it had, the more likely a company was to appear on lists such as “The world’s most ethical companies”. And so over time women have come to be seen as the ethical “saviours” of boards.

Considered in the light of ambivalent sexism theory, this suggests that women might be allowed to join the – predominantly male – boardroom club provided they do so as nurturing, caring, peacemaking, ethical gatekeepers. In other words, boards might be convinced to accept women so long as those women conform to traditional ideas of feminine behaviour. I wonder what would happen if women turned out to be ineffective as ethical watchdogs in the boardroom?

Diversity benefits boards

Putting aside the faintly fishy idea of women on boards as ethical gatekeepers and men on boards as lacking in ethical and moral principles, what are some of the valid and non-sexist reasons for taking steps to increase the gender diversity on boards of directors? Here are a few:

  • Diverse groups of people bring a greater variety of experience and different views to the decision-making process and then make better decisions
  • Gender diversity on boards helps to ensure that the entire consumer base is represented. This is particularly important because women now control the bulk of household spending globally, according to the World Economic Forum
  • Financial performance is better in companies that have gender diversity on the board. When women are included on executive committees, average return on equity improves by 47% and average earnings before interest and tax improve by 55%
  • Diversity in the membership of groups making investment decisions may lead to more social responsibility in decision-making around fossil fuel divestment.

Personally, I constantly wonder why we need to justify to the world that 50% of the adult population should have equal access to the same opportunities as the other 50%. It seems the argument that women should hold 50% of board positions because they comprise 50% of the population is not good enough.

The ConversationThere are many good arguments for ensuring there are more women on boards. That women have the moral and ethical high ground over men and will therefore be ethical gatekeepers on boards is possibly not a very valid justification and one that should not be given too much airspace.

Linda Peach, Adjunct Research Fellow, Macquarie Graduate School of Management

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


One day my prince will bomb: why teenage girls love a killer

One day my prince will bomb: why teenage girls love a killer

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The 19-year-old ‘Boston bomber’ has become the focal point for a number of fan clubs on social media.

Linda Peach, The University of Queensland

Prince Charming and the boy accused of the Boston bombings may not seem to have much in common. But thousands of teenage American girls appear to be falling in love with 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and the explanation may lie in a very awkward place indeed – somewhere between the shining armour and the poisoned apple.

Tsarnaev has become the focal point for a number of fan clubs on social media, largely comprising teenage girls protesting his innocence and professing undying love. Two Facebook groups have 8,400 and 13,500 members respectively.

Teenage girls are reported to be leaving messages of love for Tsarnaev. One young fan announced on Twitter she wanted to have his words tattooed on her arm.


Some commentators have said that the girls are acting out fantasies of being famous by aligning themselves with a notorious criminal. Others suggest that they are simply rebelling against authority.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

There is also much existing research about Stockholm Syndrome and its variations, including women who are attracted to infamous criminals, terrorists, murderers, rapists etc. All of these are no doubt a part of what is driving pro-Tsarnaev sentiments among young girls.

And yet I find myself wondering if it might be symptomatic of a wider social issue. While – clearly – not all young women are falling for Tsarnaev, there are enough to suggest something may be going on that is bigger than a few misguided teenage girls wanting to raise a middle finger at authority in a very public way.

Even Google has suggestions too.

Social roles theories

What does it say about our society that a potential terrorist can have such widespread appeal to young women? One perspective comes out of social role theory and ambivalent sexism theory. These theories suggest that we are a product of the social roles we inhabit, and I think this might add another piece to the puzzle of teenage girls’ infatuation with Tsarnaev.

© O de Andrade

The plot of social roles theories is more convoluted than a Mozart opera, but here are the sharps and flats of it: the foundation of social psychology professor Alice Eagly’s theory is that we’ve come to associate men with being physically strong, dominant, competitive, aggressive and assertive.

Women, on the other hand, are identified more readily with being caring, nurturing, unaggressive, dependant and communal.

Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, both professors of psychology, take this a step further with ambivalent sexism theory.

They suggest that modern benevolent sexism portrays men as providers and protectors for women. Women who value masculine power and who place themselves under the protection of a male are rewarded with approbation and approval. Women who do not are censured with disapproval and dislike.

The result is a gendered power imbalance in heterosexual relationships where men are physically, socially, and financially dominant, while also depending on women for intimacy, reproduction and caregiving.

This is an uncomfortable dependency for any dominant person or group. After all, if you’re going to dominate another sector of society, you don’t really want to have to rely on them for any goodwill, right?


So there needs to be a sweetener for the pill. Another psychology professor, Laurie Rudman, identified it by linking the provider-protector role with the romantic idealisation of potential partners.

Enter Prince Charming

Fairy tale notions of Prince Charming and knights in shining armour help to maintain stereotyped ideas of men as strong, dominant, competitive and powerful – and therefore desirable as protectors.

The same fairy tale notions place women in dependant roles where charming (and not-so-charming) princes can protect them. You don’t need to go very far to find a myriad of examples of fairy tales being spoon-fed to children (and adults) in everyday life.

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Think Twilight, Die Hard, Skyfall … even Star Wars was ultimately a story of heroes rescuing a damsel in distress, albeit a rather feisty one with a disturbed hairdresser.

Young women and young men have come to idealise the heroes who will go to any lengths of violence or sacrifice to save the damsel and/or the world. In doing so, it may be that Prince Charming – for some – has morphed into an altogether more sinister proposition.

If you’re not minded to examine your chosen Prince Charming too closely, Tsarnaev appears to be socially dominant and powerful, and therefore a prime candidate for protector.

He has natural appeal for adolescent girls because he is of their age group, has been described as “too beautiful to be a terrorist”, and is attributed with statements such as:


Big tick for stereotyped Prince Charming superhero.

So, young women’s reactions to Tsarnaev, at an individual level, are no doubt associated with fame and rebellion. But teenage girls’ infatuation with Tsarnaev may also be an extreme example of the roles that women and men are expected to play in our world.

The ConversationRomantic fantasies of heroes can leave women vulnerable to “dangerous men”, whether of the celebrity boyfriend type or the closer-to-home domestic abuser. Viewed like this, it’s not so surprising that Tsarnaev fan clubs have popped up, and that adolescent girls are romanticising him to such an extent.

Linda Peach, , The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.