The Year My Voice Changed

Rose-Anne Manns reflects on decades of experiencing sexism in the workplace. 

Rose-Anne Manns2Rose-Anne Manns

“What does your husband do for a living?” the man interviewing me asked. I was 25, newly married and in shock at the question.

“Does my husband’s job have some bearing on my qualifications for this job?” I ventured, not wanting to antagonise a prospective employer. No, he conceded, just interested.

Later in the interview: “Do you have kids?”

I wasn’t sure that was a legal question (it’s not), so responded hesitantly: “No…why?” He explained, as if I were a bit dense, that the job involved travel and he wanted to be sure I had no impediments on the home front.

Later still in the interview: “Do you intend to have kids?”
That’s when I exploded. “You can’t ask me that!” I protested.
“I know,” he said. “But I just want to know if you’re going to run off and leave us in a few years.”
I was so angry at the time, I can’t recall my exact response. But I know it was stroppy enough that he offered me the job. After all, I was applying to be a journalist, for which speaking your mind is a prerequisite.
The year was 1985. It was my first brush with sexism in the workplace, and I had no trouble calling it when I saw it then. Ah, the brio of youth.

But then I entered my silent 30s. As I moved into management, I stopped remarking on sexism when I experienced it. When I was the only female CEO on the senior executive committee, I never asked where the women were. When they played golf at the corporate conferences, I never asked why I was excluded. When I was squeezing a full-time management job into four days a week so I could spend the fifth day with my young children, I never thought to fight for more than a pro-rata salary.
Like so many of Australia’s top female executives, for much of my rise up the corporate ladder, I resisted calling attention to my gender, lest the males around me think I was seeking a rung up because of it. I believed in a meritocracy. And my own staff management certainly reflected that thinking: in my 10 years in publishing management, my teams were invariably half women, I always encouraged flexible working hours, and I insisted on transparency in wage reviews. I was a feminist in action supporting other women – but I never articulated it that way.

My 40s was a radicalising decade, and for that I blame parenting. There is nothing like having children to reveal the minefield women in the workforce have to negotiate on a daily basis. How to juggle career ambition with the desire to be a good mother? How many meetings, training sessions and promotions did I miss out on because I wanted to pick up my toddler from day care at a reasonable time? It was during this period that I came to realise this was not just about my personal choice; the system was stacked against me. It wouldn’t change until a bunch of us led a collective push to change it.

Now in my wise 50s, I’ve seen that push for change gather steam, especially in the past year. The statistics show how much it’s needed. The 2012 Australian Census of Women in Leadership data reveals a decade of negligible change for females in executive ranks. In the top 200 listed companies, women still make up less than 10 per cent of the top executives, and there are only seven female CEOs. The slow progress in getting the gender balance right in business was a big talking point last year, in the media, at conferences, on boards and in C-suites. Many big companies, such as the banks, started setting targets for employing women in management. A number, including Woolworths and Telstra, have conducted gender pay audits. The Stock Exchange issued guidelines recommending companies report on diversity statistics. Change is glacial, but it is happening.

And I’m changing, too. Even though, over the decades, I always identified as a feminist, it’s been a long time since I’ve marched in a demonstration, written a letter to the editor, or attended an International Women’s Day event. The year 2012 made me want to speak out again. Like many others, I revelled in Julia Gillard’s “misogyny” speech in Parliament. I enjoyed watching Alan Jones squirm under the pressure of a social media campaign following his disparaging remarks about women leaders. And I loved reading the explosion of stories devoted to gender issues, in mainstream papers as well as in specialist women’s forums such as Destroy the Joint, The Hoopla, Mamamia, Daily Life, and Women’s Agenda.

WonderWomen is the new voice in that conversation. And although I feel slightly uncomfortable with the title (I consider myself an ordinary woman trying to do the occasional extraordinary deed), I think it’s a wondrous thing that women are finding their collective voice. Time for me to join the conversation, too.

Rose-Anne is a journalist, one of the few still gainfully employed. When she’s not working at The Australian Financial Review, she’s at UTS tutoring aspiring journalists who dream of being gainfully employed someday. In her spare time, she teaches some more – but on a volunteer basis. She delivers ethics lessons to children in primary schools, and trains fellow volunteer ethics teachers to do the same. She tries valiantly to teach her own children some ethics, too, but if she overdoes it they soon shut her up by calling her Lisa Simpson instead of Mummy. Rose-Anne can be contacted at: roseanne[at]writeresponse[dot]com[dot]au
Life Balance = Grahame, Christopher, Anthony. (The 3 people at home worth leaving work on time for)