Time for Australia’s powerhouse women to put their hands up and show their faces

I came across a newspaper magazine feature the other day listing the 50 most powerful women in business in Australia. It was a good read and I was terribly impressed with the women’s achievements. They could each be role models on this International Women’s Day.

But there were only a few among them I recognised. Even fewer I had seen or heard speak publicly. If these women are the country’s top echelon of female business grunt, then why aren’t they household names?

Think about the top 50 most powerful businessmen in Australia. James Packer and his dad before him didn’t seek the limelight, but were not shy when they had something to say. Let me roll a few other names off the top of my head. Kerry Stokes, Gerry Harvey, Lindsay Fox, Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, Frank Lowy, Solomon Lew, Daniel Grollo, Ahmed Fahour. You get my drift. They are successful businessmen running giant corporations and they’re not media shy. You can certainly put a face to the name.

Now, test yourself. Name 10 top businesswomen in Australia. OK, so Gina Rinehart might be No. 1, but who else can you identify?

It’s not just in the business arena that women either hold back or are held back when it comes to media appearances.  Over decades working as a journalist on radio and TV, I struggled to find “spokespeople” who were women. Even the word “spokesman” rolls off the tongue more easily then “spokeswoman”. Women were either not in the positions of power, or when I found them were reluctant to speak publicly.

Look at the print media. For example, the Comment pages in The Ageand the Sunday Age. On a rough estimate, I would say that  three-quarters of the writers who feature are male. Seventy-five per cent! Are women too afraid to express their opinion and contribute their expertise, or are they hiding undiscovered? Certainly among my peers there is no shortage of insightful, articulate women who can put their views in a forthright manner – but, I hasten to add, often only in private.
Now let’s look at the electronic media. Leave aside the dearth of female hosts of current affairs radio shows (hello Jon and Neil, and Tom and Raf, and Denis and Richard, and Ross and John and Red). Just listen to those being interviewed on radio and TV.  The politicians, the academics, the business leaders, the union reps, the police officer at the scene of the crime, the “talent” as they’re called – how many of those are female voices? Apart from some of the talk-back callers, not many. Not enough.

I can only proffer a few suggestions as to why. Perhaps girls of my generation, and those before, were brought up not to be showy, not to talk too much, not to boast about their achievements and not to create waves. You wouldn’t want to be be labelled pushy or arrogant or a smart arse, would you? But such labels were rarely applied to the loud boys.

Here’s a memory from way back. As a primary school student I recall on numerous occasions knowing the answer to the teacher’s question but being too afraid to put my hand up, then kicking myself afterwards for not doing so. Not sure why I didn’t throw my hand up, it could have been just shyness or fear of the reaction from my peers. I can confess that, as an adult, I sometimes still do the same.

Here’s another recollection, this one more recent. Offering a potential solution to a problem in a room dominated by senior male colleagues, my suggestion was ridiculed, only to be adopted later. Is it any wonder that some women’s first instinct is to stay silent?

Or perhaps in today’s sometimes-vicious social-media age, women fear the potential backlash if they speak out in public. I hope not. I want to see and hear and read many more women give me and the wider public the benefits of their experience, their views, their knowledge, their insights, or just their 10cworth. Coz I’m tired of hearing it only from the boys.

Josephine Cafagna is a writer and communications consultant.

This article was published in The Sunday Age on 8 March 2015

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s