The Working Girl, the Corner Office and the Fox

Once upon a time, in 1988, there was a movie called Working Girl.  In this fairy tale, Tess the underappreciated executive assistant (played by Melanie Griffith )successfully out-foxes Katherine (Sigourney Weaver), the evil female executive with the corner office.  With the help of her prince and fairy god sister Tess transforms herself into an employee worthy of an entry level executive role and is on the path to a bright successful career (what can I say it was the 1980’s..).

Unfortunately, in the real world Tess probably didn’t have her happily ever after.   Some 24 years after the release of Working Girl, the statistics show that Tess is more likely a. still slugging it out in middle management – or – after years of watching less qualified and talented male peers get promoted –  b. to have ditched the corporate world, c. started her own business or d. (heaven forbid) devoted herself entirely to family life.

Veteran journalist and Australian Financial Review Corporate Woman columnist Catherine Fox knows all about the myths of the Corporate Woman.  Some 30 + years ago when she entered the workforce life was tough on career women, “Back then discrimination was overt.  Pregnancy discrimination was especially so and it was not uncommon for  organisations to ask women completely inappropriate questions or to direct them on the type of  clothing they should wear.”  ($2,000 and it’s not even leather?…watch the movie…)

The introduction of gender based policies over the years has seen some progress since the Working Girl days, but not as much as you would think. “Today, 66% of law grads are women,” Catherine points out, “but only 18% are equity partners.  The World Economic Forum’s 2011 Gender Gap Index ranks Australia number one in the world in education but only number 18 on female economic participation.”

The question is why?  In her latest book, 7 Myths of Women and Work Catherine Fox debunks some widely held beliefs about why so few women inhabit the senior ranks of the corporate world. 

Speaking about the lack of ambition myth (i.e. women just don’t want the top jobs….), Catherine explains, “Sadly, there is still a great deal of discrimination and bias – and not just around the time women are having kids.  Discrimination can actually happen before that, especially in the area of training and development.

“Assumptions are made like: oh she’s probably not leadership material.  Those things compound and when the young guys get the breaks, women just fall further and further behind.”

What about the old Sigourney Weaver bitch myth?  Are women really their own worst enemy?  Women who make it into a major corporate can expect policies, people, and programs that support the career development of female executives (though this doesn’t always translate into success).  The rest of the working world relies on employees to be the advocates for change.   In this environment women have two choices live with workplace inequities or sacrifice their career.

This is why having female mentors in senior positions is so important, as Catherine explains “I hate unfairness and there were times when I asked myself:  why didn’t I say something….??? One of the few nice things of  being older is that you really do have a sense for time and there is less to lose. I’m not in the middle of my career – today I can speak out about things more than I would have early in my career.”

For career women Catherine’s column, Corporate Woman (published weekly in the Australian Financial Review) provides an important vent.  As one of my former work place colleagues pointed out, “She says what many working women would like to be shouting from the rooftops….but of course we can’t…”

So what of the women who make it to the corner office?  “The women I’ve met who have made it to the top do tend to be fairly extraordinary.  They have an enormous ability and they need to be so much better than their peers to get there.”

But if you don’t have a prince, a fairy god sister or extraordinary powers, Catherine’s advice to women is, hang in there….”If you are working in a toxic environment – by all means get out of there.  If on the other hand you enjoy what you do, hang around the workplace long enough and you will be rewarded.

“For me the last five years have been the best, I get to write books and sit on gender diversity boards….but you do have to make it through the tough years.  Apart from financial security, the more women staying in the system the more chance we have of effecting change.”


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