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IWD Special 7 Mar 2022 - 6 min read

IWD ‘lunches schmunches’: Lion CMO ‘perplexed’, calls time on a ‘day of back-patting’, women freezing out women and male merit absurdities

By Anubha Sahasrabuddhe - CMO, Lion

Lion’s CMO Anubha Sahasrabudde rarely pulls punches; IWD is no exception. The global marketing expat who returned home in 2021, says IWD needs less back-patting lunches and more tangible action; that men have backed her career when women haven’t but in the end the numbers don't lie - imbalance is everywhere.  

I've always been perplexed by IWD in Australia. I've been overseas. It's not as overblown as it seems to be here. I think we've got more political correctness and everyone wants to be “seen” to be doing the right things.

Let them eat optics

IWD for me is quite conflicting. I have to be honest, it drives me crazy because I feel like it’s reflective of this whole reductive world we live in; has it just been reduced to a lunch? How many lunches can you possibly have?

We pat ourselves on the back about having a lunch the same way we do for Mother's Day or Valentine's Day.

I want nothing more than the incredible female leaders who are coming up to know deeply they are there because they deserve to be and never for a moment think they are there to check a box – I have two daughters and it’s what drives me to ensure I am doing everything I can to support next generation leaders

But…I've always been perplexed by IWD in Australia. It's not as overblown overseas as it seems to be here. I think we've got more political correctness optics – everyone wants to be “seen” to be doing the right things. 

There’s also some confusion around the actual problem to solve for women versus how we show up in service of solving it. 

The US is logically and necessarily wrapped up in diversity from a much broader sense than gender because you've got the acute issue of black and minority representation. That seems to be conflated, and probably rightly so. What's worse? The fact we don't have enough women or when you add the lens of colour, the fact you don't have enough men either?

Thus overall, the representation of people of colour in the US is a bigger issue to solve than gender alone in tackling diversity and inclusion. 

I'm not sure whether the challenge of gender is harder here, but the irony is in Australia, where our values have always been about fairness and equity, that the gender numbers remain astounding. We don't have the same level of social injustice that other parts of the world do; we're not fighting against religious barriers; we're not fighting against the issue of colour to the extent the US does.

We should be leading the way on the fundamental values of fairness and equity but Australia is no better than the US. In terms of the percentage of women in CEO positions, for instance, 8 per cent of Fortune 500 companies have women as CEOs. It's just 6 per cent for the top 300 listed companies in Australia. 

Rather than lean into it, we feel good about ourselves by throwing great parties and lunches.

Blokes, board chairs, answers and actions

I don't have all the answers to what we should do with IWD but we need more than lip service.

If we are in agreement that there's systemic issues preventing adequate representation of women, why does IWD become about just talking? Why doesn't it become more proactive? Why don't we take that day, that week to actually do the work?

If we have and are identifying the barriers that get in the way of women's advancement, whether that's skills, advocacy, relevant experiences or just the opportunity as part of the slating process – why isn't IWD used to fix those issues rather than just a celebration of what we don't have and a call to action? IWD doesn't have enough action that is practical or tangible.

Marking IWD is not in itself wrong. But the way we spend that day, how we use that day I think does little in service of the problem. 

So, for example, ‘they’ talk about women lacking core skills; you'll hear women are not confident enough or they don't interview well enough, or they don't know how to put themselves forward because they're too humble. Why aren't we solving that in very practical ways and means?

I had an anteresting conversation recently with a very important chairman of a well-known board in Australia that said, “Women don't need mentors, they actually need advocates”.  It means when CEO and board positions are being posted, you have men in those positions that are advocating.

We don't have that. Not enough men are prepared to put themselves on the line to say, actually, “she's going to be a great CEO or board member” and take that risk the same way they do with men. It's what we need to break and why we need advocacy, not ‘mentorship’ from men and women who have the power to influence those outcomes. 

Women pulling up the ladder

One thing that does not help the cause of women is when you don't have enough women pulling up other women when they do get into positions of influence and authority. This sadly is still lacking. 

I note the piece in last year’s Mi3 IWD edition by Adore Beauty’s Michaela Michaut, who talked about ‘women who rise and close the door behind them’.

It’s fascinating – and like Michaela, that's my personal experience.

I can't pretend to get in the heads of every male boss I've had since I was an assistant brand manager, but for my personal journey, I have had nothing but support from men. Not because 20 years ago it was fashionable to be supporting women in leadership, but actually because I think they saw me as a person who could add value. I always felt like I was assessed on my merits – unless there was some secret agenda by some men to say ‘this millennium, let's make sure that we pull up one or two women through this’.

Hence for me personally, as a female leader, the idea that I could possibly be a blocker or a barrier to young emerging talent is just bizarre. But I absolutely agree that I have seen women in all of the organisations I've been in, who really don't do any favours, shall we call it, to help other women move up in their careers.

My hypothesis is that we are in a vicious circle. Because of the scarcity of those roles, because we haven't solved how we make this about people and merit, not about gender, this scarcity drives a Lord of the Flies-like mentality, which says that it's a zero sum game… If I help you, you'll displace me and I can't do that because I've worked so hard to get here. It’s just a hypothesis but not unreasonable.

I’m going to lunch

In saying all that, I’m going to the lunch in Sydney with everybody else: I'm a senior leader in my organisation and I need to. And guess what? I'm bringing emerging talent with me so that they can sit there and know they're important and have a chance to show everybody else what amazing talent we have. And that to fully reach their potential, they need action, not just another lunch. Let's do more.

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