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Issue #1619      November 20, 2013

Editorial

Glass ceilings and concrete floors

The CEOs of Australia’s largest corporations, members of the Business Council of Australia (BCA) have set themselves “radical gender targets”. CEO’s and board members of these corporations are going to be tested for “unconscious biases” against women. The BCA has plans for women to be fast tracked into top jobs. Of course decision makers will not be lowering the bar. The women will have to be up to it. Some are talking in terms of a target of 50 percent women in senior positions within 10 years.

The media have been running hot with feature articles and news stories on breaking the glass ceiling and recognising the talent of women. The Westpac/Financial Review’s “100 Women of Influence” awards are part of this “gender balance” drive. The women featured this year are mostly business managers, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, leading figures in church charities, etc. (Financial Review, “Meet our grand achievers”, 18-10-2013) They don’t spend their time standing on concrete floors.

Gail Kelly, the first woman to head an Australian bank (St George in 2005, Westpac since 2008) is constantly paraded as an example of a businesswoman who is as capable a capitalist boss as many of her male counterparts. There seems to be growing recognition that the stereotyping of women as “emotional”, unable to make “the tough decisions”, or unsuitable because they have babies, etc, has blinded business to the realities. As Margaret Thatcher and Bronwyn Bishop have shown, class rather than sex determines the outlook and conduct of women in positions of power.

Kelly is no weak female inhibited by a caring or emotional outlook. She hit the headlines in 2012 when Westpac made existing employees train workers on 457 Visas from India to do their work so they could take their jobs when they returned to India.

At the time, Financial Services Union acting secretary Veronica Black attacked Westpac for asking staff to “effectively facilitate the destruction of their own jobs. I am surprised Westpac might think that it is acceptable to treat its loyal employees in this way as it goes about deciding whether to destroy their jobs in the bank’s rush to reduce costs.” Kelly has no shortage of capacity to ruthlessly exploit workers and maximise profits. She does not need a different set of genitals or even the old school tie.

Forty-six percent of the workforce is female but 16.4 percent of board seats and 3.5 percent of CEOs in the companies listed on the stockmarket are female. Apart from missing out on so much “talent”, it is not a good look for business in the 21st century.

The “gender balance” drive, however, is limited to breaking glass ceilings. It does not include the millions of women at the bottom of the pile struggling to get a secure grip on the concrete floor in a shop or factory or a desk in a bank. These champions of “gender balance” at the top of the ladder have not suddenly had an epiphany and now want to bring about equality for the female workforces they so ruthlessly exploit.

Working class women are struggling to find secure, well paid jobs and are still subjected to the harassment of bosses. Casualisation has left women even more vulnerable to harassment and below award wages and conditions if they want the hours of work they need. Wage equality is still not a reality and the gap looks set to widen if the Abbott government is successful with its plans to destroy trade unions and impose non-union agreements and individual contracts on workers. Job and income insecurity, childcare affordability and lower wages are just some of the problems facing women.

For some reason, the BCA’s “gender equality” does not extend to the concrete floor – after all that would reduce the rate of exploitation and eat into profits. No, the struggle for real gender equality is one to be fought by the labour movement, by both women and men, largely through their trade unions and in the political sphere.

Next article – Govt axes Aboriginal business unit, jobs

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