Wendy Weeks

on Wednesday, 23 May 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews, Interviews about the Glass Ceiling

Wendy Weeks
Associate Professor

I was born in the 1940s and had the great benefit of loving parents, and in particular a mother who was committed to girls’ education. At MLC (Methodist Ladies College), where I was a scholarship girl, leadership was fostered in an all-female environment. As a young woman I became active in church youth groups, and learned formal meeting procedures in the statewide Methodist Youth Fellowship. At University, where I studied Arts and Social Work in a predominantly female profession, there were opportunities to be editor of the student association newsletter and be active in student affairs. I married at 21 and in the following decade bore two sons. 

Moving to Canada to live in 1970 led to my involvement with the Canadian Women’s Movement. I started to see leadership as more collective, and began to be active in feminist organisations, where leadership was shared and passed around. When my youngest son was two I returned to part time work, and took six years to complete a higher degree amid family life and activism. In 1982 I returned to Australia and spent the next decade in social work tertiary educational administration. After three years as a head of department I stepped ‘out and down’ to do more research, writing and connect more with feminist community-based organisations. As one poked one’s head through the ‘glass ceiling’ it seemed to me to be both tough and a bit lonely! 

During the 1990s I have convened a women’s studies research unit at the University of Melbourne, which has fostered a lot of women’s higher degrees and research. It has been great to see women claim their intellectual capacities and make contributions with their work: a very socially conscious form of community leadership. I also learned how to write and edit books, which I have enjoyed immensely: Women Working Together: lessons from feminist women’s services (Longman Cheshire, 1994);  co-editor of three editions of Issues Facing Australian Families: human services respond (1991, 1995 and 2000, Pearsons Education) and co author with Tony Dalton, Mary Draper and John Wiseman of Making Social Policy in Australia (Allen and Unwin, 1996). 

I am  currently an Associate Professor in the University of Melbourne. My local activities include having been a member of the Victorian Community Council Against Violence and other community committees. I am presently a new member of the Committee of Management of WHIN (Women’s Health in the North). In 2001 I completed a study for the National Association of Services Against Sexual Violence (NASASV), and also was pleased to be invited to present some research papers in Norway. I am currently very interested in and concerned about the situation of refugees and asylum seekers, and the development of international human rights.

Interview with Associate Professor Wendy Weeks

 Why do you think the ‘glass ceiling’ exists for women in Australia? 

The Australian state was historically developed and constructed with a very strong division of labour that located women as wives and mothers in families. Men were  head of the family and household, as well as the expected and ‘normal’ participants in public life. In the 1880s it was inappropriate for women even to call a public meeting, and many arguments were mounted to try to keep them out of adult suffrage. The Harvester judgement of 1908 was a landmark industrial decision because it raised the possibility of wages being set according to need. But it also entrenched the idea that wages should cover the needs of a man, his wife and three children. The ‘concept of the Family Wage’ became a plank in the growing Australian welfare state.  

Such structural and cultural arrangements have proven very hard to change. Technically women and men have had equal pay since the early 1970s, but we know that women’s wages and earnings are substantially less than men’s – even now.

Technically now women have ‘equal opportunity’, but as Clare Burton’s work on ‘merit’ showed, even ‘merit’ is heavily imbued with cultural assumptions and expectations. This particularly applies in recruitment and selection for leadership positions. 

Emily’s List has been remarkably successful in the Australian Labor Party in demonstrating that women are interested and willing to stand for political preselection, and can be preselected in the 1990s. But from all political parties there are stories of women being asked to support male candidates, and the struggle to have ‘merit’ recognised has proven considerable. 

The ‘suitability’ of men for leadership in political and public organisational life continues to be widely supported, and women in those positions continue to be scrutinised as ‘tokens’, with every error they make being heavily counted against them, as illustrations of women’s ‘lesser suitability’. Now – in 2002 after a decade of backlash against women - I think there are contradictory public views. At the level of rhetoric few people would deny that women have made and can make a major contribution to public life. However, co-existent with the general ‘formal’ acceptance of equal rights, there are strong currents of opinion which continue to expect women to put husbands and children, and male organisational leaders,  first and foremost, rather than directly contribute as leaders. 

Do you think that the barrier is confined to any particular groups of women? 

The cultural barriers affect all women, but high socio-economic status, and high social class connections can be a great benefit for women who aspire to positions of public leadership.  

Cumberland’s 1999 study of women local councillors showed that women who seek to become local councillors are typically in their 40s, occupied either with home duties or in part-time work, and are overwhelmingly of anglosaxon origin. This is of particular concern because, for many years, local government had  the highest representation of women – steadily 20%. Young women, Aboriginal women and immigrant women were markedly absent. 

Organisational scholars, such as Deborah Sheppard from Canada, found that pregnant women were seen as inappropriate in workplaces. This means that the federal review of pregnancy discrimination has touched on an internationally important area of discrimination. Other authors have identified discrimination against lesbian women. 

Indigenous women have been active in their own Indigenous organisations. Carol Martin’s election in 2000 to the West Australian parliament marked the first time an Aboriginal woman was elected to a State parliament. Women from minority ethnic communities are rare in elected politics, in spite of 40% of Australians being born overseas, or having parents who were born overseas. 

How prevalent do you think this barrier is in Australia?

I think the culture of the glass ceiling (which is still associated with the belief that women’s primary place is in the home) is deeply ingrained in the structure and culture of Australian society and is visible in parliament, government and non-government organisations and the trade union movement.

Are there any strategies that can be used to overcome this barrier?

The Affirmative Action legislation of 1986 was a very important piece of legislation. Unfortunately the committee decided to avoid looking at part-time work, and emphasised women in full-time employment, in spite of part-time work being a major way in which Australian women participate in the paid labour force - especially when they have children.

The Equal opportunity legislation in each State and Territory has also been an important step.  

For these strategies to be successful they have to be implemented. This is where cultural change is important: changing attitudes and practices are necessary. That is, people have to widely believe something for it to be supported, accepted and implemented systematically. 

Are there any networks that women can turn to for assistance in how to handle the problems associated with this phenomena?

Yes, there are national, statewide women’s associations and many organisational women’s groups which have initiated change, and constantly monitor and further develop the conditions for equality. 

 There are many national women’s lobby associations which are active campaigners for equality for women. For example, WEL (Women’s Electoral Lobby); the National Council of Women; the Business and Professional Women’s Associations; CSMC – Council for Single Mothers and their Children. There are women’s organisations which speak for Indigenous women and Immigrant women. WWDA – Women with Disabilities, Australia – speak out for the human and civil rights of women with disabilities. 

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) under the current leadership of Sharon Burrows, and previously Jennie George have advocated for better and more family friendly workplace conditions for women , originally adopted by the ACTU in 1987 as the Working Women’s Charter. 

Many workplaces and local communities have women’s groups to support women and to campaign for change. 

Have you experienced the Glass ceiling? If yes, what effect did it have on you? If no, why do you feel that you never encountered it?

Yes: in different ways at different stages of my life. When I married, in 1965, I was a new permanent Commonwealth public servant. As the Marriage Bar was in place until 1966, I was retired from the permanent to the temporary workforce at marriage. This reminds me that the ‘Glass Ceiling’ applies to all women in the labour force – not only senior women. So preparation for ‘not belonging’ in the ‘serious’ workforce begins early for women. 

Later (in Canada) when I worked part-time with young children, I was ineligible to participate in the superannuation scheme, only available for full-time workers. Over my life time this is an economic cost. The assumption was that husbands would provide for women economically.  

Later still, when in fact I was a Head of Department and Acting- head of one of nine Schools in a large tertiary institution, I recall often sitting at Academic Board mainly among men. The only other women present were the minute secretary and sometimes a woman student representative. I was welcomed and listened to, but in Kanter’s terms was clearly a ‘token’, that is I was ‘different’ and certainly felt the difference.

As Canadian research has found, many women have stepped down from senior positions near to the Glass Ceiling, just as  women have also left non-traditional occupations. I also chose to ‘step down’ to a lower rank in another institution. This cost me thousands of dollars a year for some years. 

Was this choice? Yes and no. In short, the climate of male dominated organisations develops a male-oriented culture which isolates women, and casts them in the role of ‘other’ and ‘different’. It is not the structure of the workplace which is really defined as ‘the problem’. Many women do not find the culture of public leadership, and the way organisations and parliament are organised, meets their needs to also have time for family and friends. Furthermore, ‘femininity’ is seen as contradictory to competence: competent women are not seen to be ‘feminine’, and so they may become personally less attractive to men. Perhaps they are a threat. Perhaps men feel stronger when they are in a socially stronger position. Many women have wished they, too, had a ‘wife’ to care for them when they were working hard! 

Personally, as well as lost income, lost power and status, the major effect of the glass ceiling and its associated culture has been related to me losing interest in the ‘ladder’ of traditional success. I became more respectful of the other ways women have lead, in families and communities, while making time for personal life and the human beings around them. I became less impressed with or interested in ‘the rat race’ or the ‘ladder to success’. I joined many other women in setting social goals and trying to live them out. 

 What other barriers do you consider to be significant for women in the workplace?

As I have suggested above, the glass ceiling is just one part of the culture of gender power relations which keeps the majority of positions of power being filled by men. Women are better educated than men as a gender (as measured by formal educational outcomes), so formal education is not a barrier.

In the mid-nineteenth century medical science thought women had smaller brains and therefore less ability. Fortunately women’s achievements have made this view untenable! Yet the structural barriers to women making their full social contribution continue. Until workplaces are designed to be more family friendly I expect that many women, especially during the years they have children at home, will be too busy to bother about senior positions. Until care arrangements are much more accessible and low-cost, I expect it will be predominantly women who care for sick and elderly relatives, rather than developing their own careers. 

What are your perceptions of the Glass Ceiling internationally and the methods used to dismantle it?

Social class appears to be one factor in women’s leadership opportunities and this appears to be influential in women in developing countries achieving public leadership. Some women have broken through the gender power barriers to significant heights: Mrs Ghandi was Prime Minister of India, and Margaret Thatcher and Mary Robinson have led their country’s governments.  

The international strategies are similar to those adopted in Australia: legislation and policy development, associated with cultural change strategies. Many western countries have introduced Anti-Discrimination as well as Affirmative action legislation.  The United Nations adoption of conventions( such as CEDAW, the convention against discrimination) and platforms for women have been important international benchmarks for national women’s movements to use in their lobbying within nation states. Perhaps the struggles over women’s sexual and reproductive rights are among the most uneven: abortion is not widely legislated, nor is access to contraception always available. Sex selection testing, and subsequent abortion, is used to favour male children in some countries. Trafficking of girl children and women into the sex industry is an international social problem, as is violence against women. Such issues diminish the importance of ‘the glass ceiling’ experienced by Western women, being much harsher practices of unequal gender power relations.  

In your OSW speech, Women’s Leadership in Public Life, you said a major challenge is to diversify and democratise women’s leadership so that women’s leadership is not only for “able-bodied white women” but also for ‘Indigenous women, women from minority ethnic communities, women with disabilities and single parent women’. Do you think that the perception that women who break through the Glass ceiling are leaders is warranted?

Statistically my claim is supported by the predominantly ‘able-bodied white’ characteristics of senior women in business, parliament and other forms of public leadership. 

How would you like to see those women who have overcome the Glass Ceiling Barrier assist others gain leadership positions?

Some women who cross the glass ceiling and associated barriers for women seem to forget the centuries of women’s campaigning which paved the way for their opportunities. This is a pity. I would like such women to remember the history of women’s struggles, and honour this tradition and history.  Ideally I would like to see an accurate and gendered history taught in our schools which told the truth about women’s lives, experiences and abilities. Many historical accounts still read as though men made history, and women continue to have their achievements unrecorded and under-celebrated. It would help us all if this distortion were corrected, as it would generate a culture of respect for women as well as men. 

I would like to see senior women and men really acknowledge those who do the work, and acknowledge women’s social contribution- not only as leaders.  

I would like to see senior women continue to demand that adequate and affordable child care services are available (even after their own children are grown); and to demand family friendly working hours and arrangements, rather than feel they have to conform to existing practices in order to be to be taken seriously.  

I would like to see women supporting women leaders, rather than cutting them down as ‘tall poppies’. Women leaders would then feel and be stronger.  

Mentoring happens a lot, but often women in senior positions are so busy with their work demands and juggling act of family and caring work that they have little energy left for mentoring more junior women. Rather than ask more of them, we all need to be supporting them, and campaigning for the conditions which make gender friendly workplaces and organisations more of a reality for all of us.