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Catherine Fox

05 June 2012

History – people love it but do they learn anything from it, especially when it comes to a woman’s place at work and in society? Like bees, are we forever destined to play out the same roles and perpetuate the same systems – warts, inequities, myths and all? 

Australian Financial Review journalist, Boss Magazine deputy editor and author Catherine Fox answers – in order – are, ‘No and Yes’. She believes we are all much more wedded to old ways of thinking and traditional models of hierarchy in the workplace than any of us would wish to admit and these limit our ability to change.

Not that she would let this somewhat pessimistic outlook affect her priorities. 

Exposing the flaws in society and work around the place and importance of women, diversity and equality, remain top of Catherine’s agenda – and she’s out and proud about it.

Down on the water at Pyrmont Bay, the Fairfax print media empire squats: a hive of ‘communicative’ industry run predominantly by a clique of men. Swarming in and out through revolving foyer doors and the glass security gates guarding the entrance to the inner news sanctum are the people who form the organisation’s human component: journalists, editors, designers, advertising reps, and publishing execs. 

Waiting on the entrance bench couches are their expectant visitors. 

Catherine and I meet there, and decide coffee in the attached café is as good as anything. (The Pyrmont business area – not yet known for its worker-friendly infrastructure but coming off the very low base of just about nothing when Fairfax first moved its business there in the mid 2000s – is getting better.)

Discussing the importance of good coffee to people who’ll pay a premium for it leads us – aprapos of nothing – to our shared fear of relying on the vagaries of recording devices for interviews. The panic following losing an interview, because the device has failed, has elicited the same advice for both of us: “Sit down immediately and write from memory.”


Yet, in the moment of loss – shocked, stressed and feeling anything but calm and clear ¬– we’ve probably both considered taking the device to an Oscar winning sound editor to see if they can retrieve the digital recording for $500 an hour (as well as losing valuable deadline time) as the best and only strategy available. 


It appears over-complicating things is something we’re all guilty of doing.

We know the statistics: more females than males are graduating at the top of their years; more are being employed in corporations as graduates, and yet, when we look at who’s in charge, in power and being promoted through the ranks, especially later in a career, it’s the men. And they weren’t even the best and brightest.

Intricate arguments and theories are constructed around why this is so, why nothing seems to have changed for women. It’s not enough education; it’s too much education and not enough experience; it’s the fact women ‘mistrust’ politics and don’t want to play politics; it’s unconscious bias; it’s having no role models. The list goes on. 

But the reason is very simple, believes Catherine: “It’s the system. It’s about the organisations and the human behaviour that goes on in them. We are all wedded to traditional ways and the traditions of hierarchy. I guess, rather naively and like many others, I believed the logic of changing those ways would be enough. I thought: ‘Come on? Are we really spending all this money talking about and educating women to then never give them the go?’ 

“The simple fact,” continues Catherine, “is we don’t appreciate how tenacious the old ways are. In our organisations the old power groups still hold the reins, tightly, and those in power tend to recognise only the people who look like themselves. We also still have this unnerving tendency when our girls get to tertiary education stage of not taking having a career and the ability to look after themselves seriously, assuming someone (a man, perhaps) will look after them. That has been disastrous for women, especially when it comes to the facts and figures around superannuation and women in poverty.”

Catherine also believes the fear associated with economic downturn and that also accompanies a workplace model in which a concentrated hierarchy closely scrutinises its workers have brokered a return of the very controlled, inflexible work practices of the past. Presenteeism is widespread, and in that sort of workplace environment, participation by women, who often have care duties other than work (family, home, children), gets limited. Not to mention the loss of creative thought and innovation that goes along with such practices.

Our collective inability to progress diversity and equality has been brought into even sharper focus for Catherine writing the AFR’s Corporate Woman column for the past 8 years: “In 2008 when the statistics covering many areas of female inclusion and equity in the workplace were released, they revealed Australia had gone backwards… and that was on the back of a sustained economic boom.”

There were no excuses for this, says Catherine. Female graduates, really good ones, were there. Difficult economic climates and the fear of change that usually accompanies them were not something we’d experienced for years.

“I think those poor statistics genuinely shocked people and the business community admitted, ‘this is not right… there are talent shortages, what is going on here?’ 

“Since then, I think there has been a shift to create balance and I think it’s welcome, but we’re working off a really low base. What we are doing now is playing catch-up. We actually moved into a downward cycle and we’re now coming off the bottom and trying to push back up. I am not hailing this as a revolution because it’s not, but there’s progress. We will have to wait and see what that delivers.”

Lately, the business research literature and business leaders have also begun to focus on politics in the workplace and whether women are choosing to opt out because they don’t want to ‘play those games’.

“What women are experiencing is the feeling of being left out and unwelcome,” believes Catherine.

“I am not saying men band together and conspire, but when the way things operate remains the same: the people considered to be the serious people in the organisation are predominantly male, the power and financial negotiations remain with them, and women are not made a part of those negotiations and to feel unwelcome, then women are reading the signals pretty accurately. 

“Women are half the human race. We’re as political as the next person but when you’re left out, that’s a difficult position. It’s why it’s so important to support the women who do make it and make sure they’re given the same opportunities and help along their way. It’s the old critical mass theory to change the complexion: one’s token, two’s a conspiracy and three make a difference.” 

It’s no wonder the whole process of playing the game, when there are such ill-defined but very real obstacles in place, leaves many women questioning whether they can be bothered: ‘Do I cope with the ingrained attitude and get passed it, or just leave it all behind by getting out?’ 

Catherine’s greatest wish is that women stay in the system not just for the annoyance value – “you can tell it really needles the guys” – but for the fact that as “we age the insecurities we may have felt when we were young dwindle and we find the liberty and a willingness to contribute and speak up. That’s immensely important for creating a climate for change.”

One of the least expected outcomes in Catherine’s own life has been finding that voice herself: “My mother worried about me when it came to my shyness. If you had told me at school, at university, even my first years in the workforce that I would willingly and happily stand up in front of an audience to speak, mediate public discussion panels, present, I would never have believed you let alone thought it possible.

“The feedback is what makes it so worthwhile. People have told me that I have triggered a thought that’s made them consider their position on something. I find that very fulfilling.” 


100 Women of Influence

Westpac and the Financial Review have the inaugural launch of 100 Women of Influence on June 15, 2012 at a lunch in Sydney. Hosted by Catherine Fox, there will be a panel discussion in which The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and other top Australian businesswomen and industry leaders will discuss diversity and equality issues. 100 Women of Influence is an annual event and will run an awards program aimed at supporting and promoting diversity in Australia at every level.


The written word

Catherine Fox has co-authored two books, Better than Sex: How a whole generation got hooked on work, with former AFR BOSS editor Helen Trinca; and The F-word: How we learned to swear by feminism, with social commentator Jane Caro.

Her first solo flight is 7 Myths about Women and Work. The book labels and describes the ways in which women are systematically demoted and found to be inadequate players in the workplace. The myths include: the workplace is meritocratic, the gender pay gap does not exist, pregnant women and mothers lose brain cells, quotas and targets are bad, women lack ambition and are their own worse enemies, the pipeline will deliver, and women need remedial work. In the latter myth, says Catherine, “women need to be made like men and once fashioned in the male model all the barriers will dissolve for them”.

In the case of the “pipeline will deliver”, Catherine remains completely convinced of its mythical status: “60% of our graduates are women and yet when you look at the top positions, partners in law firms for example, women in executives positions and on boards, that percentage is not reflected. I still hear the guys saying it will all be different soon and resolved because there are so many women around. There have been women ‘around’ for years and it hasn’t changed. What makes them think it will change now or in the future?”