The pattern we can’t escape – how do we break the cycle of not recognising our female leadership talent?

A survivor - Julie Bishop has held her position throughout the tumultuous past 11 years in Australian politics, but was not seriously considered Prime Minister material by her colleagues.

A survivor - Julie Bishop has held her position throughout the tumultuous past 11 years in Australian politics, but was not seriously considered Prime Minister material by her colleagues.

Watching the leadership spill, particularly the impact and outcome for Julie Bishop, has been very painful for me over the past week. A recognisable and systemic pattern of exclusion of the best talent has emerged; one that I have sadly seen too often in organisations who are convinced that they appoint leaders on merit yet end up with a total lack of diversity across leadership and decision-making roles.

Playing out before our eyes was a textbook case of exclusion and unconscious bias that resulted in Julie Bishop, the best Liberal Party leader in waiting by far based on evidenced merit, being overlooked as a serious contender for Prime Minister. She garnered only 11 votes in the 85-strong party room, despite evidence of her merit in positive public comments from constituents, peers in her own party, and Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, alongside her talent, commitment and leadership as Deputy to four Prime Ministers. 

What was even more telling was when Julie Bishop herself, responding to the media’s question about whether she believed the Liberal Party would ever bring itself to elect a popular female leader, stated "When we find one, I'm sure we will." 

Julie’s explanation of what a successful female would 'look like' paralleled her career achievements of outstanding contribution and voter popularity – yet due to a combination of unconscious biases she was not seen as the best candidate for leadership by her in-group peers.

We have also heard in recent days of workplace bullying being called out by Liberal MP Julia Banks as the reason for her resignation. She alleged a bullying culture pervades the Liberal party, courageously speaking up about this unacceptable workplace behaviour.

Her voice has now been joined by colleagues; Liberal senator Lucy Gichuhi who was relegated to an unwinnable spot in the South Australian Liberal pre-selection process has now threatened to use parliamentary privilege to name those in the party who bullied and intimidated her. Federal minister for women Kelly O’Dwyer has also now acknowledged that there is a bullying problem within the party, resulting in several of her colleagues being intimidated during the recent leadership spill. 

However, as is also a pattern typically seen in women in leadership case studies, creating more pain for out-group members are comments by in-group member Helen Kroger, chair of the Liberal Party Womens’ committee, who publicly denied a culture of bullying. Her comments that those women who spoke out were not tough enough to ‘play the politics game,’ is a classic example of shifting the blame.

I suspect Kroger did not realise she was sending the message to current and future female candidates that ‘if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen,’ - a classic descriptor of an unhealthy workplace culture in which difference is denied. 

Yet on the same day, we also heard a message from Liberal Party President Michael Kroger that "People have written pages and pages about how we need more women. I'm sick of good intentions, I want some action.” It is liberating to hear an in-group member recognising an issue exists and demanding real change.

We know, the first step on a transformation journey is to recognise that you have a problem – and diversity is no different. Hopefully we are now at this stage with the Federal Liberal party finally admitting they have a women in leadership problem. This issue is caused by a toxic workplace culture where unconscious bias and bullying behaviour is condoned.

How many Australians would want their daughters or loved ones to be working in such an unhealthy workplace environment? How much are we limiting the talent pool in political leadership, and undermining the ability to tap into the diverse perspectives we need to make the best decisions for current and future Australians, if no serious action is taken?

The question remains - will we finally see an appetite and courage to challenge the status quo, pushing through the political correctness argument many in-group leaders revert to when faced with change? This angle enables them to block the identification and dismantling of the systematic cultural barriers that undermine women’s leadership success.

So, what can be done do to address this challenge that also faces many Australian organisations?

Start by assessing your organisation against the following 4 D & I cultural maturity stages – identified by Australian Professor Amanda Sinclair in her ‘Trials at the Top’ study and publication – to diagnose the current state of diversity and inclusion evolution in your executive culture:

  1. A culture of denial – supported by a shared in-group belief that a lack of women is not a business issue. They are sure they always appoint on merit the best person for the job, despite a lack of diverse people in their talent pipeline or leadership group.
  2. Recognition of a problem by the in-group, but cast as a problem with women – ”the trouble with women is…” which leads to women having to learn to adapt to an existing masculine culture that does not enable effective 21st century decision making.
  3. Management of the problem – coming up with organisation solutions that are reactive and female focussed, such as appointing a female Director and mentoring or coaching women to fit in.
  4. Leadership into a new culture – strong commitment to change, recognising that culture transformation is required and must be driven from the top by the in-group. This group are also listening open-mindedly to out-group lived experiences of the existing culture, learning to undertake self-examination in decision-making, and calling out bias and exclusion when they see it.

 In my experience real change happens when:

–      Everyone adopts an open mind.

–      In-group and out-group members feel their uniqueness is valued and feel safe to speak up - everyone is comfortable having respectful and inclusive conversations with people who are different to them to identify new solutions to solve the complex problems of today’s world.

–      Everyone is treated with respect and dignity.

–      Everyone participates in identifying and removing systemic barriers to create a workplace culture of fairness for all – not just the in-group.

If your organisation is experiencing frustration from leaders and staff about the lack of diversity in your leadership team contact me today.

Image via ABC

Fiona KrautilComment