30/01/2008 - 22:00

Barriers still an issue at work

30/01/2008 - 22:00

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An early achiever in breaking through the glass ceiling, Professor Leonie Still has largely retired from an academic life rich in management studies.

Barriers still an issue at work

An early achiever in breaking through the glass ceiling, Professor Leonie Still has largely retired from an academic life rich in management studies.

Professor Still’s most recent published work, Corporate Elders: ‘Organisation Men’ Look Back, documented the experiences of Western Australian executives and professionals aged between 50 and 59.

Now an honorary senior research fellow at the UWA Business School, she is seeking to publish another focus on executive achievers, this time 113 female executives and professionals aged between 30 and 59.

In her work, Professor Still said, she documents what she believes are extensive differences between each of the age ranges and raises concerns about how much the youngest of these groups, the 30-somethings, may be taking the achievements of past women for granted.

Last May, she delivered a speech on the contents of her unpublished book to a women’s leadership symposium – suggesting in many cases the conflicts for women in management were so great that they became disillusioned.

“This incongruity in behaviour also influenced more junior women, some of whom decided to opt out of the managerial rat race and cap their careers because they didn’t want to become a queen bee or behave like a man in management,” Professor Still said in her speech

Among the study’s other findings, as would be expected, family made a big impact on careers, but more so for the older women in the study. They were more likely to have broken their career to raise a family and, as a result, had not attained the status achieved by younger women.

Professor Still’s conclusions found support from one of Perth’s most senior female executives, Joanne Farrell, who has a global role with Rio Tinto Iron Ore and 20 years’ experience across human resources.

“If you look at the 30-somethings we are starting to see some good results there in terms of getting women in career path roles,” Ms Farrell said.

She believes the mix of circumstances has broadened, with executive women sometimes having kids early or finding a childcare model that worked for them, rather than going childless, the only real option in the past.

Ms Farrell also anecdotally confirmed Professor Still’s finding that the use of role models had changed through the decades.

According to the study, the women aged between 30 and 49 used role models, whereas the older women had done without. The 30-39 year-olds preferred female role models.

“I think there has been one big change,” Ms Farrell said.

“Senior women in business are more inclined to mentor the junior women than when I was a junior. I think women in those days couldn’t mentor anyone because there were fighting so hard.”

The study also provided evidence that the expectation of women in management to act in ways established by men often worked against them and left them isolated in the organisation. They were then passed over for promotion anyway.

“Incongruities arose between her managerial role and her gender role, with men judging her on the former and women on the latter,” Professor Still said.

Partly this was driven by the expectations of the men they had to manage alongside, and women they had to manage, with both groups anticipating something different.

Professor Still found that, despite significant social and economic changes in the past few decades, women’s expectations were still not being met in the workforce.

She thinks women are being lulled into a false sense of security by the belief that organisations are changing and whatever difficulties they are facing now will disappear.

“Based on the research in this book, my contention is that women are generally misreading the extent of organisational and social change, especially changes to the entrenched male managerial culture,” Professor Still said.

“They also seem to believe that most career barriers have been removed through legislation that outlaws discrimination and sexual harassment.

“Women’s general lack of clarity on, and understanding of, these issues – in fact, their great unwillingness to even acknowledge that they may be misreading the situation – also foreshadows difficulties for the future.”

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