Catherine Fox on Women Kind, workplace innovation, quotas, and why men make the best amplifiers

Catherine Fox is a leading commentator on women and their relationship with the workplace, and leadership. Her book Stop Fixing Women revolutionised how we think about women’s interactions with the workplace. Her most recent book Women Kind (which she co-authored with Dr Kirstin Ferguson) explores the power of amplification.

Catherine is the Director of Diversity at WLA and we were delighted to find the time to chat to her about why diversity in the workplace is important, why amplification is such an effective tool and what we can do to make workplaces better.

Catherine, your specialty is diversity, particularly gender diversity, in the workplace. Why is diversity in the work place so important?

We know from multiple studies, including from the International Monetary Fund, OECD data and high-end strategy consulting firms like McKinsey & Company, that organisations who both pay attention to and address the need for diversity, and indeed have a more diverse workforce do better. There are a whole range of areas where they do better, including the financial bottom line. There is also a correlation between diversity in the workplace and a company’s share price being higher.

“There are a number of financial applications that show us that there is a direct impact. This is not because diversity is some sort of magic wand that you can wave, either. It is because organisations that do diversity well have understood that they can tap into the entire array of talent available to them. They are able to access the best people from all across the spectrum - not just 50% of the population.

In regards to companies achieving better gender equity, what do you think works? Should we be mandating quotas, or are there other ways to go about this?

I think there's a whole array of options that are available to organisations. We're not lacking in innovations in this area. I hear a lot of people tell me; ‘oh, we need innovation’. I disagree. We have some wonderful tools available to us and extraordinary amounts of data, especially in Australia. I think that organisations are just starting to understand that they can actually put some metrics in place, and I do think that's important.

We often talk about this in terms of targets or goals. For example, to have a certain percentage of women on listed company boards. If there is accountability around the goal, or it’s a mandate, that is where we use the word quota. Targets, even though some of them have accountability, are a bit more flexible.

I think targets are a very good idea. I'm actually personally not opposed to quotas; I think that they work quite effectively. We know that in certain countries around the world they have worked well. However I think the business culture in Australia finds that they go too far.

In regards to policy more broadly, do you think the government or other governing bodies have more of a role to play in advancing gender equity in the workplace?

Well, you know what isn't happening right now, and as I'm saying this it sounds a bit simplistic, but we are not promoting women at the same rate that we promote men. We can't be, how could we be?

Overall, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency figures show that around 17% of leadership in CEO or equivalent roles across the Australian business and employment sector are women. 17% is ridiculous. There are 11 female CEOs in the ASX200, and if you look at the tiers underneath those very senior levels women are also missing in action. So we have to actually look at having more women in those senior roles.

It is not because they are the only women who are important – women in senior roles, I mean. I want to be absolutely clear here. If we are going to change conditions for all women, especially lower paid, lower skilled women, we need more women in decision making roles. It is when you have those women there, including in government, that a whole array of topics that are absolutely fundamental to women's lives are considered and good policy decisions are made.

I'm actually relatively optimistic. I think we're actually seeing a bit of a shift and I think we're seeing one in federal politics and I think we're seeing it in some parts of the business sector. We've just got to make sure that we keep working on it. I think that the excuses that I keep hearing from organisations are old fashioned and need to be thrown out.

Your book Women Kind is all about the power of women amplifying women. Why do you think this is an important part of workplace gender equality?

The original reason Women Kind was written was that Kirstin (Dr Kirstin Ferguson) set up a social media campaign called ‘Celebrating Women.’ It ran for all of 2017 and profiled roughly two women every day. She ended up profiling 750 women from thirty seven countries around the world over the full year and she did it to combat the trolling and abuse that women were facing on social media.

So we had the Celebrating Women campaign up and when it was finished it was clear it had been successful. What we learnt from the campaign is that women were using it to tackle trolling, but also that they are very interested in learning about other women.

So the book looks at that; how women do actually find it rewarding and enriching to read about each other’s lives. How, in fact, that is something we've always done.

What we’re saying in the book is that we all have to work together for the longer term good. We all understand that, but in the meantime here is something you can do immediately. In fact, you’re already doing it. What we are saying is do more of it.

Elevate that women next to you, you know?  Send out a LinkedIn update saying ‘look at what this wonderful woman is doing’; amplify the efforts of women around you. Speak up for other women; get them involved in a new project or a new team.

Amplification is a really achievable thing for women and I think the readers found it incredibly inspiring and really practical. I think with those two things coming hand in hand they feel some relief and as though they have a bit of control.

And what about men - how they can help?

Men make the biggest amplifiers. They're brilliant at it. Just think about the dynamics. Women, as we know from research, are twice more likely to be interrupted by men in a meeting than a man is. So, we know that if a man steps in and says ‘look could you just let Jane finish what she was saying’ it’s enormously powerful. Or when a man steps up and says ‘you know what, I've been watching Julia and I think that she's doing a great job. I think she could be really fantastic in this new role.’

Men have an absolutely pivotal role to play; of course they do, because by-and-large they're still in charge. So we need our male allies and when they are amplifying women it does enormous good.

Catherine Fox: Finally recognising women's work 

Catherine Fox: On the importance of women coming together

Celebrating 15 years of WLA