Feminists Don’t Want To Join Your Boardroom Boys’ Club by Mel Campbell

“Businesses rule the world – and who runs business? Blokes,” said Stephen Mayne at the Feminism Has Failed debate.

His observations are borne out by the 2010 Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) census, which last week revealed that women hold only 8.4% of board directorships, 8% of key executive roles and 4.1% of line manager roles (such as chief operating officer or chief financial officer) in the top 200 companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.

Much of the debate surrounding women’s proximity to power has focused on how we can make these statistics less shabby. However, it’s more of a feminist act to agitate against the corporate ideologies that define leadership potential as total allegiance to the will of those already at the top.

Feminism is actually in a perfect position to critique the crushing personal sacrifices that come with corporate and political leadership, because historically it has fought to free women from institutional control. Feminism is about granting everyone – male and female – the same rights to shape their lives according to their unique capabilities.

Certainly, Mayne is right to highlight that basic inequities at the top make wider workplace culture unwelcoming to women. While women comprise 55% of university graduates, and corporate entry-level intakes are fairly even between the genders, the drop-off in talented senior women is largely due to institutional barriers that those in power are invested in maintaining.

Smart CEOs, such as ANZ’s Mike Smith, change their institutional structures to include flexible working arrangements, family leave and childcare allowances that benefit both male and female employees.

But rather than shoehorning more women into traditional pathways to power, we should be recognising – and placing greater value in – women’s success in alternative forms of leadership. Perhaps women prefer to lend their talents to the boards and executives of non-profit and philanthropic organisations. Perhaps they’re top bureaucrats rather than parliamentarians. They’re shaping public debate as book publishers, festival directors, publicists and independent media owners and editors.

Mayne mocks the very notion of a ‘machine woman’ in Australian politics – but what else is Julia Gillard? She is a woman who chose to sheathe her personal convictions and qualms – the things that made her human and individual – in pursuit of political power. Sensing the moral bankruptcy of the last federal election, the Australian electorate punished both Gillard and her opponent by rewarding neither with outright power.

Another ‘machine woman’ is CSL’s Elizabeth Alexander – one of just six women to chair an ASX top 200 company. Her response to the EOWA census was that women “determine their own destiny, but if circumstances [at work] are not encouraging then moving on is the answer.”

Mayne argued that Alexander has “abandoned the sisterhood” by not encouraging more women onto her company’s board. But I’d argue that Alexander has firmly subscribed to corporate ideologies that are fundamentally uninterested in solidarity with the disenfranchised.

Rather than helping more women get closer to traditional sources of power, feminism’s great opportunity is to redefine how we see power and leadership in Australia.

Mel Campbell publisher and editor of The Enthusiast and is film editor for the Thousands network of city guide websites.