Women are ‘awesome’ but where does balance lie for them in the workforce?

Women are “awesome” but there can still be an unconscious bias in the recruitment of them to senior leadership positions.

These were just two of the statements to come out at a Question and Answer panel event hosted by Griffith Health last Thursday night (19 October).

Titled “Healthy Leadership: The Balance,” the panelincluded senior staff from Griffith and QLD Health and aimed to discuss the gender balance required for healthy leadership.

However it was noted among attendees that the audience was a predominantly female one with only about four men present out of 120 attending.

“Unfortunately I think there still exists an unconscious bias in the workplace when it comes to recruiting women in senior positions,” said Griffith’s Professor Martin Betts. “I remember a time not so long ago, working at another university’s engineering department where I was overseeing the recruitment for six heads of schools.

“For some unexplained reason, following the interview process the recruiting panel managed to all independently select male applicants to all six of the positions. Was this just a fluke?

“I don’t think it was deliberately sexist but I think they just had some form of unconscious bias towards believing that that was what was required in that situation.”


A male and female culture divide ‘alive and well’

Professor David Elwood is Dean of Medicine at Griffith and a clinician. He agreed that biases are often still evident in many workplaces, especially in the world of medicine. “There is no doubt that a male and female culture divide is alive and well in medicine and I am not surprised that women don’t like it,” he said. “Being an obstetrician I can honestly say that women are absolutely awesome, especially in what they sometimes go through in difficult pregnancy situations, so it’s difficult to see women still face awkward situations in the workplace.


“On the other hand, I can admit that maybe even I may suffer from an unconscious bias at times. Only recently I was looking for the name of the chief medical officer of the NHS. I couldn’t work out why I couldn’t find it until I realised this person in the role was actually a woman. I hadn’t even stopped to think that this person could be female.”


Professor Sheena Reilly, PVC for the Griffith Health Group, agreed that men are often more comfortable promoting other men. “In Canberra, where my daughter works in government, she reports to all male bosses. Of course we brought her up to believe she could do anything and that’s how she was when she first started, but now she does admit there are ceilings.”


The issue of whether it’s more difficult to be a female leader than a male one also arose with former Griffith HR director, Janine Walker who said that women do not always have the competitive drive approach more commonly seen in male leaders.


“Males typically apply for leadership roles more commonly than women and are less likely to hold themselves back.”


“I remember early in my foray into senior leadership, I didn’t always feel as confident as I should have sitting at the boardroom table,” said director of Menzies Health Institute Queensland, Professor Suzanne Chambers. “However a male colleague tapped me on the shoulder and said to me ‘”of course you belong at this table as much as anyone else, please just behave like it”. It was a challenging thought.”


The subject of promotional opportunities for the middle ranking positions at Griffith were also brought to the fore, with an audience member lamenting the lack of career pathways above a level seven role.


The issues of flexibility and worklife balance were also discussed, with Ms Walker admitting that “many employees have been subjected to the ‘power boss’ who runs 20km before work every day and sends you an email at 4am”.


Professor Reilly stated that she “cannot understand why some people do not take any annual leave.


“From personal experience, I know that I generally get the balance right but it can easily be put out of kilter and I need to make sure that I have time for myself; it’s so important.”


“Just because you are a leader or aspiring to be a leader, does not mean someone should not take leave,” pointed out Dr Liz Fitzmaurice from Griffith’s School of Medicine.


An audience member agreed and lamented that being criticised for something as simple as taking a lunch break is unfortunately sometimes more than just an isolated workplace experience.


“It’s so important for people to take time out of work and find time to simply switch off and relax,” she said.

Leanne Geppert, Executive Director of Mental Health and Specialised Services (West Moreton Hospital and Health Service), stated that most people agree that great leaders are our mentors and should therefore demonstrate values such as integrity and respect, with work/life balance being integral to this.

Summing up, Professor Betts highlighted the extensive research which concludes that diversity in the workplace with a good gender balance is conducive to more efficient workplaces. “It’s probably a lot to do with having more of these persuasive conversations around change and showing the benefits,” he said.


There was considerable support from the audience for this event to become a more regular aspect of the Health Faculty, with ideas for a series of events around the theme of Leadership.