and ain't i a woman?: Jobs for the girls

Wednesday, July 24, 1996

and ain't i a woman?

and ain't i a woman: Jobs for the girls

Living Generously: Women Mentoring Women, edited by Jocelynne Scutt, is a new book in which "mentoring" is said to have replaced "networking" as a means of getting ahead. Mentoring is where women who have been successful in management, business or politics help those women coming up the ladder behind them.

Twenty five women who have "made it" contributed a chapter each. They describe the role models and support they had and what they have done to help other women.

Scutt acknowledges that what she describes as the "Queen Bee Syndrome" — woman who has climbed to the top but refuses to help others advance their career paths — is not the only barrier to women climbing the rungs. Sexism and lack of positive role models also play a part, she notes.

However, these factors play more than just a part, as another contributor to the book, Karen Manning, a senior lecturer in management, points out: "Most people agree mentoring and networking as principles are a good thing, but organisations need to change. It is not about women changing, it is about organisations changing."

The facts speak for themselves: by last October, according to the Affirmative Action Agency, women were 8% of executives, 15% of senior managers, 24% of middle managers and 35% of junior management. Clearly, the barriers remain insurmountable for the vast majority of women. Despite the historically high proportion of women in the work force, their wages remain significantly less than men's, and are falling.

But the problem is even bigger than Manning indicates. The fact that women are concentrated in a small number of low-paid industries reflects societal expectations — still — that women's main role is in the home. This sexism makes it easier for employers to get away with paying women lower wages and award men the higher paying, managerial positions.

This status quo will worsen — the Coalition's new industrial relations legislation is designed to weaken workers' organisations and their rights.

Under these circumstances "mentoring" cannot be described as an affirmative action strategy. Rather, it smacks of patronage, an impression reinforced by the chapter by former Victorian premier and ALP femocrat recruiter extraordinaire, Joan Kirner, who notes that when she became a cabinet minister: "I had a network of women across the breadth of Victoria, regardless of their political party, who I had supported". At best, mentoring will only help a small number of relatively elite women to "make it".

Without an affirmative action strategy which recognises that to combat institutionalised sexism women must be given extra help and encouragement (not to mention equal pay for equal work), the problems facing the bulk of women in the work force will remain unanswered.

Jenny Long