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IWD Special 7 Mar 2022 - 5 min read

Ballbreakers versus victims: Why powerful women must solve a crisis of confidence, help others – and refuse to work for those that don't get it

By Amber Collins - CMO, Australia Post
Amber Collins

"When I resigned from Coles, there was a dust cloud as three male colleagues bolted to apply for my job. But the most qualified person – a woman – was waiting to be tapped on the shoulder," says Australia Post CMO Amber Collins. Likewise Susan Coghill at Tourism Australia. Collins has been criticised for suggesting women lack men's confidence. But she's doing something about it, and won't work for, or hire, anyone who doesn't pull in the same direction. While men might be unsure of holding open doors for women, female leaders should be the last people metaphorically closing the door for others.

For me it’s clear that in the corporate world there is significant work for us all to do to encourage everyone to be aware of their biases, ensure women’s voices are heard and for senior women to look carefully at the power they have as a force for change.

Amber Collins, CMO, Australia Post

The male millennia 

You could accuse me of gender bias – my entire leadership team is female. I didn’t plan it that way nor do I want it to be the case. A man in my position with a male line might be under a level of scrutiny in many organisations. Of course, in aggregate, I still work in logistics, which although changing is a male-dominated environment.

A boss of mine at a previous company once complained that his son had no chance – "women are taking over, boys won’t get jobs no matter how good they are". I said that maybe it was time that women had a bit of a leg up, "because, hey, you’ve been in charge for millennia which is why it’s called the history of mankind". That didn’t land well, but the observations above are indicative of contemporary workplace gender conversations. Add to that some men are frightened to speak, act or even mentor women for fear of retribution and many women still sit without equal pay in male-dominated environments.

For me it’s clear that in the corporate world there is significant work for us all to do to encourage everyone to be aware of their biases, ensure women’s voices are heard and for senior women to look carefully at the power they have as a force for change.

I’ve been called "intimidating" and "too weak" as well as "too strong" and "a victim" – all within the same, six-month period.

Amber Collins, CMO, Australia Post

Decisiveness should be applauded

In the early 2000s, I recall a CEO saying he wanted more minorities in the business, "like indigenous people and women". My mouth fell open, I didn’t realise I was a minority. But of course, all I had to do was look around and see who was in charge.

A 2021 MIT study of a large US retail chain found women were 14 per cent less likely to be promoted at the company each year, with a major factor being they are consistently judged as having lower leadership potential than men. It’s often cited that woman don’t put their hands up and ask for pay rises which drives this lack of equality in representation. But research published in the Harvard Business Review found women are just as likely to apply for pay rises but are less likely to get them. I’ve seen women struggle when it comes to promoting themselves into more senior roles.

A recent example was when I resigned from Coles. There was a dust cloud as three male colleagues bolted to apply for my job. But the most qualified person – a woman – was waiting to be tapped on the shoulder. Susan Coghill, the highly regarded CMO of Tourism Australia also never saw herself as a candidate when her manager departed. It wasn’t until the CEO asked her if she was throwing her hat in the ring that she thought about it, built up the courage, and (successfully) applied.

I’m often criticised for suggesting women lack the confidence of men. Of course, there are some incredibly confident women who powerfully advocate for themselves and others – I just haven’t met that many of them over the last 25 years. But this is hardly surprising, the “assertiveness double-bind phenomenon” has been with us for decades. This involves women who do adopt behaviours expected of strong leaders, including assertiveness, forcefulness or ambition, often being penalised for it, while men are respected for the same. Writing in Forbes magazine, Dr Pragya Agarwal, author of Sway: Unravelling unconscious bias, tells us when a woman is decisive, she can be seen as “brusque, unfeminine and aggressive”, "while a man is commended" for this quality.

I will not win friends for saying this, but senior women, particularly, chart the course for others, and there are a few who, once there, seem to have forgotten how hard it was to get there.

Amber Collins, CMO, Australia Post

Women are speaking – time to listen

The IWD theme #breakthebias is about so much more than equal pay and representation, it is about the nuances of the biases we carry that can change lives. Our words matter. Regardless of your gender, before you give feedback to a woman ask yourself if you would give the same feedback to a man. I’ve been called "intimidating" and "too weak" as well as "too strong" and "a victim" – all within the same, six-month period. I believe this is indicative of this intangible, inherited societal balance that women need to strike to be accepted. I’ve not heard many men called "ball breakers", yet a number of my extraordinarily talented female bosses have been labelled this. But they aren’t bullies or overly demanding, they are simply… effective.

Another recognised phenomenon that needs to be called out – and stamped out – is that of women's voices, apparently, being inaudible in mixed-gender settings.

Many high-profile women at the most senior levels have remarked upon the fact that when women speak in meetings, their point is often not heard until a man makes the same point. I’ve felt this and women who work for me have reported it, but no male team member has ever come to me complaining of this. If women’s voices are overrun, what chance have we got of feeling valued?

Many women also continue to seek approval, tippy toe around senior people to validate their position, feel the risk of speaking out is too great, and sit in fear of contradiction. And because I see it daily, I will not stop trying to improve the confidence of women with bespoke programs, coaching, mentoring or whatever it takes until there is equality of confidence.

There’s no wonder Madeline Albright is still often quoted: "There is a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women”. 

Amber Collins, CMO, Australia Post

Gender doesn't make a co-worker a nightmare

Every one of us has a role in the gender discussion. I will not win friends for saying this, but senior women, particularly, chart the course for others, and there are a few who, once there, seem to have forgotten how hard it was to get there. They metaphorically close the door for others.

I once heard a senior director of a company express that she didn’t want too many other female directors because it "becomes a nightmare". I suggested that this might have been due to the people and not their sex. I’ve never heard males complain of too many men on boards. So why don’t they genuinely want other women to succeed? What do they fear? Their loss of power in being the only female in a male cohort? Can’t these women see the damage they are doing? Is it possible for them to change?

There’s no wonder Madeline Albright is still often quoted: "There is a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women”. 

As I said in my 'Tit Cricket’ piece on IWD last year, systems, policies and governance exist to drive change – but culture is far stronger than anything we can manufacture. The workplace has to change, and we all have a role in the gender discussion, whether we like it or not. Alongside coaching people to understand the impact of their words and actions, I have worked out that the best thing we can do is make choices – and I’ve made mine. I won’t work for people who even subtly gesture against equality. I won’t hire people who don’t respect everyone equally. And I won’t be the one who doesn’t let the ladder down for those women who come after me.

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