It is a big meeting at work. At my count, only four out of the twenty-or-so people in the room are women. Even fewer are women of colour. I know this is not unusual, but I still let out an internal “ugh”. I can already see how this meeting will unfold.
It is a day long meeting. In this meeting, my manager, who is one of the four other women, in the room, is talked over and dismissed more than once. Whenever I speak up, the man in charge of the meeting has the audacity to say, “What Yen-Rong meant was…” before repeating, almost verbatim, what I had just said. I scan the room to see if anyone else is as annoyed at this as I am, but all I see are impassive faces. When I mention it later to some of my colleagues, they are outraged on my behalf, but don’t offer any more than belated commiserations. My manager seems to accept it as part of the price of a workplace and an industry that is dominated by men.
I know this is also not unusual, but I’m starting to get a little fed up with it all.
I’ve worked in many jobs in many industries, including in call centres, hospitality, retail, and administration. I’ve worked under men and women, been in charge of men and women, been involved in communities and industries that are dominated by men, and others that are dominated by women. But one constant in my working life has been the inordinate number of men who hold power over others, compared to women in those same positions. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Gender Indicators series for 2018 shows that 82.7 per cent of CEOs of non-public sector employers, 66 per cent of state and territory parliamentarians, and 57 per cent of Commonwealth government boards and bodies are men. In 2017, it was shown that there are more men named John than there are women who are CEOs and chairs of ASX companies.
Men have a significant amount of power – power over a workforce comprised mainly of women
I’ve seen men try to undermine their superiors more often and more aggressively when they are women, try to set their own agendas for how they think things should be done. I’m not saying that women don’t do this either, but this sort of behaviour definitely seems to be more prevalent among men. Women in the Workplace 2018, a study conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, surveyed 64,000 employees and found that 65 per cent of men, compared to 55 per cent of women, feel that ideas are judged by their quality, not by who raised them; and 16 per cent of men, compared to 31 per cent of women, feel like they need to provide more evidence of their competence than others. Men are also less likely to be addressed in a less-than-professional way, and to be mistaken for someone at a much lower level, which is perhaps why men still hold most of the positions of power available in society.
The arts industry is seen to be an industry dominated by women – and indeed, a large percentage of employees in the arts are women. However, as Jo Caust writes, “Of the 28 organisations presently funded under the Australia Council framework of the major performing arts, only three, Black Swan Theatre Company, Orchestra Victoria, and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, have female artistic leaders.” Here, again, men have a significant amount of power – power over a workforce comprised mainly of women.
I can already hear the people in the back shouting about awarding positions based on merit, instead of focusing on gender or race. But the concept of meritocracy presumes everyone starts on a level playing field – and because of institutional power structures that seem to be almost immovable, I’m sorry to say that this is simply not the case. I’ve been passed over for promotions or more prominent positions in favour of men who I truly believe were less qualified for those positions. Workplace sexism is real, whether it be overt or the result of unconscious bias.
Workplace sexism is real, whether it be overt or the result of unconscious bias
I complain to my friends when I think I’ve been treated unfairly, and we often commiserate over our shared experiences, but I’ve never taken it any further. Maybe I should have, but maybe I would have just been known as that woman who made a fuss over nothing. I never know where the line is, and it stands to reason that I wouldn’t know if I’d crossed it either – so the safest route to take is the one where I don’t go anywhere near the line at all.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s all in my head, if I am just playing the “victim card”, and things aren’t really as bad as they seem. I wonder if I’m too jaded, if I go into every scenario or meeting or situation expecting something bad to happen because of my race or my gender. I know that in most instances, it is the first thing I keep track of when I enter a room or new space – possibly because it is a good indicator of how much power I will hold in that particular environment. It informs me as to how loud I should speak, how often I should speak, and how often I will be heard and understood properly.
I hope that one day I won’t need to do this anymore, that I can be as comfortable as the next man in a big meeting room. But for the time being, my defences are ready. Because it’s not all in my head. It’s all very, very real.
Australia Uncovered launches with Strong Female Lead at 8:30pm Sunday 12 September on SBS. Episodes air weekly and will be available after broadcast on SBS On Demand. All documentaries will be repeated at 10pm Wednesdays on SBS VICELAND from 15 September.