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Or, how to shift attention from Catherine Brenner and lipstick, to why corporate leaders in major financial institutions take illegal actions and make corrupt decisions. And why it took a Royal Commission to bring this to light.

What is the connection between corporate financial misdoings and gender? The media storm of the last couple of weeks would suggest quite a lot. I’m not getting it. It seems that there is a serious misdirection of our attention going on.

That Catherine Brenner ‘s behaviour is reprehensible is not in question. What is in question is why it is that she has had much more media real estate devoted to her, compared with many others engaged in the same or similar behaviour.

And not all of that attention has been devoted to what she did, or didn’t do.

Quite a bit of the explanation for Ms Brenner’s behaviour is, apparently, her gender. The media headlines devoted to her make-up routine, to golden skirts and queen bees, and to her gender, run the risk of turning the clock back years on an objective discussion about leadership and the characteristics of good, ethical leadership.

How, exactly, does the time spent on beauty routines help us understand whether or not someone adds value in a board room? As Joe Aston says in Rear Window, Catherine Brenner is the least of AMP’s and corporate Australia’s gender problems.

As he says: ‘Still lost here, is that whether Brenner was man, woman or mountain goat, the company she sat astride knowingly charged its customers fees for services it didn’t provide; then she inserted herself in its cover-up; and then she refused to accept her fate with any semblance of dignity.’

How does this conduct actually relate to her gender? Still not getting it.

Before the Royal Commission there was no ‘furore’ over Catherine Brenner’s lack of senior corporate experience. Now, according to the media, there is.

How did we get from N=1 to all women?

And it isn’t just Ms Brenner’s lack of corporate experience that is being discussed. It is women’s suitability for board roles in general. This case is being used to question women’s suitability for senior roles and to oppose quotas and targets. We’ve gone from one case, to a whole gender.

Catherine Brenner’s behaviour is being extrapolated to all women – innocent bystanders?? The comment that Brenner’s behaviour ‘raises uncomfortable questions … for wider corporate Australia and those who seek special favours for women’ cuts a wide swathe.

Invoking the Queen Bee myth to deride women who seek to support other women is indeed ironic, when the Queen Bee myth is that women don’t support other women. What? Part of the damned if you do, doomed if you don’t dilemma.

This debate has the potential to undermine legitimate gains made in recent years. More support for women’s development for senior roles, and an increased use of targets to counter-act bias and create accountability have resulted in increases in women’s representation in senior roles.

Even the discussion about women’s lack of senior corporate experience and the need to focus on an assessment of women’s finance and operational skills perpetuates the idea that women don’t have the capability to be competent at the top. Organisations and women should be working hard to shift the disproportionate lack of women who gain significant operational leadership roles. This shouldn’t be taken as any kind of slight on the women who are in top jobs now.

Jenna Price’s article bemusingly shifts the discussion in the opposite direction, by claiming that given that the majority of corporate controversies have been in organisations led by men, maybe we should ban all men from leadership decisions.

Whether or not someone is competent to run a business isn’t related to their gender. It may be an uncomfortable truth that women are as likely to fail as men. Unfortunately, this is an area in which there is gender balance.

Stop the gender blame

To stop the blame for corporate disasters continuing to fuel gender wars, and to undermine progress towards gender balance, keep the conversation firmly on the issue. Ask how:

  • Is corrupt/unethical/illegal behaviour best mitigated against?
  • Swiftly and decisively should we act when we notice it?
  • To be accountable and hold others to account for their actions?

And take every opportunity to support women leaders, callout positive progress, and tell stories of successful women leaders to balance out the negative.

And just for the record, quotas and targets are not responsible for this kind of behaviour. See more in the article below:

Download a copy of Quotas and targets

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