I recently submitted the first empirical article from my ARC DECRA project (except for the pilot, here and here)! It uses a content analysis of the Australian Financial Review’s weekly ‘Corporate Woman’ column to argue that popular discourse around Australian women in corporate leadership reflected various postfeminist contradictions. I was very happy to present this paper at the recent InASA conference in Canberra (December 2022), and genuinely thank the participants in the room for their fantastic feedback.
I came to this archive essentially by accident. While I still don’t know who the first Australian corporate woman was, in the 1980s and 1990s women began to be appointed to leadership roles. In 1986 there were 4 women on top 100 boards, and by 1997 that had increased 10-fold to over 40 women. I was doing some background reading on this period, and in my travels I stumbled across the ‘Corporate Woman’ column, published weekly by the AFR between 1988 and 2000-ish. It seemed pretty important. Reading the column I was struck by column’s regularity – reflecting in some measure the quotidian experiences and interests of woman in corporate work in the late-80s and 1990s. I was also struck by the messaging of the column, in a classic journalistic way the columnists advocated for women’s place in the corporate labour market and leadership ranks in a very ~1990s~ way, discussing the reasons corporations should engage in affirmative action and the way women should navigate the corporate world.
I use postfeminism to frame the evidence. Coined by Rosalind Gill, postfeminism came to prominence in the 1990s as a way to make sense of the contradictions inherent in women’s experiences at the end of the twentieth century, after the certainty of second wave feminism. Feminism, at this time, split, between mainstream groups focussed on labour politics and union organising, and liberal groups emphasising policy change. The latter’s narrow emphasis on affirmative action, property ownership, and divorce law deflected from intersectional matters, but galvanised support from middle and upper middle class white women. Feminism thus evolved, in part, from a struggle towards downward redistribution into a marriage with neoliberalism, with the ‘Working Woman’ of the Thatcher and Reagan era strutting around in a power suit. Feminism became a project of individual market success focussed on female autonomy, agency and choice, with pronouncements of gender equality, celebrations of ‘girl power’, and women’s success in work and leadership alongside intense, hostile scrutiny of women in the public eye, a persistent gender-pay gap and segregated labour market, and interest in sex-based differences. Feminism itself was deemed redundant, entangling feminist and anti-feminist ideals and with any remaining inequalities the result of ‘natural’ differences and/or women’s choices.
Reflecting the mainstreaming of second wave feminism and women’s work outside the home, in the late-1980s the Australian Financial Review began to systematically cover the advancement of women in the corporate world. ‘Corporate Woman’ reflected the growing emphasis on women in corporate work, and was a key space for advocating for women’s equality to a mainstream, lightly-conservative audience. The column covered a variety of issues relevant to women working in corporations, including work and caring responsibilities, women in the professions, and discrimination legislation. There were also changes in content across the decade, with issues relating to caring responsibilities attracting above average space in the first few years, and more columns on leadership in the latter part. Over the decade, ‘Corporate Woman’ published 80 columns that directly addressed women in corporate leadership (19% of the total). Columns identified the extraordinarily low numbers of women in corporate leadership, with slow progress in Australia was compared to trends overseas.
Individualism and collectivism
Postfeminism shifted women’s empowerment from a collective movement to an individualised, autonomous concern, with the success of women in leadership attributed to merit. Women were seen to be “highly skilled, competent and ambitious”, getting ahead with “having to check their persona at the office door”. Women in leadership were appointed “because they [were] the best for the job”, with merit seen as the solution to addressing the lack of women on boards, that “women can only benefit” from more stringent appointment processes, nomination committees, and use of external specialists.
The focus on the individual, was met with individualised advice. Women’s conduct was seen as, at best, the solution, and at worst the source, of their own oppression, with career counselling, confidence-building workshops, financial rewards, and education and training schemes advised to improve the number of women in corporate leadership. Individualised advice sat uneasily with collective generalisations regarding ‘natural’ sex-based differences (see below) and structural barriers for women’s career progression, with women seen to be inevitably unsuited to leadership, yet told to enrol in MBA degrees, find a male mentor, make better pay demands, and be funnier (feminists were considered a “humourless bunch”).
The focus on individual merit corresponded with resistance to collective interventions. The postfeminist focus on legislative change from the 1980s prompted the assumption that barriers to women’s promotion had been removed, and that any external target or quota would lead “inevitably to discrimination in favour of women”. Affirmative action was seen in direct opposition to individual merit, with the column repeatedly focussed on appointing “suitably qualified” female candidates, implying a concern that affirmative action put downward pressure on the quality of directors. Bagwell commented on the popular discourse that affirmative action gave “jobs to incompetent women […] at the expense of highly experienced men”, arguing that women “steadily gaining ground” in middle management was not due to “arbitrary affirmative action”, but the necessity for any enterprise to promote its best and brightest.
The focus on the individual led to some anti-feminist sentiment. Bagwell noted that women at the top were “not a radical bunch”, not “agitators for the sisterhood”, and had “distance[d] themselves from the efforts of those champions for social change who helped smooth the way for them in the first place”. The lack of “feminist sympathies” was justified on individualist grounds, with the column arguing that they “often made it to the top in the face of extreme prejudice and certainly without any female executive support infrastructure”, and commentary from contemporary corporate women that if they “can’t stand the heat, then they should get out of the kitchen”.
The contradiction was that while the column promoted an individualist and anti-feminist image of women in corporate leadership, their appointments were simultaneously portrayed as a collective win for feminism. Women in leadership were seen as evidence of female empowerment, with Bagwell arguing that women in leadership have “shown how feminists can succeed in the business sector”, and were evidence that the situation was “not really so bad”. The appointment of women to prominent leadership roles, their place on the cover of BusinessWeek, their status as overpaid CEOs, and as hereditary successors to corporate empires were all positioned as a “big step forward for women”. Women in leadership was also used to obscure the complicated progress of feminism in Australian society, with Neales arguing that despite “numerous and continuing incidents of women being discriminated against in the community […] the behaviour of Australia’s leading blue-chip corporations does tend to point the way to […] welcome advances”.
The final contradiction to the columns individualism was the portrayal of women, collectively, as the natural manager for the 1990s. Discussion of women’s ‘natural’ managerial style packaged women’s liberation in a way that aligned with traditional stereotypes of the female mission to ‘nurture and civilise’. Reporting in the column reflected, and often directly reported on, a flurry of books published in the decade that identified a new ‘feminine’ style of leadership. It was argued that women were “more logical, more intelligent, more conscientious and all round just brighter and smarter”, and that they “manage in an interactive and circular way, encouraging participation, sharing power, delegating and relying on team-work more than male managers”.
At the same time, the emphasis on ‘natural differences’ between women and men was seen as a barrier to women’s inclusion in corporate leadership. Women were argued to be “too emotional, too illogical and too irrational to succeed in the managerial world where the best executives were cool, detached and tough”. Women “lack[ed] experience in the exercise of power”, were “not commercial enough”, “trade[d] on their femininity”, and “impose[d] their own glass ceilings” by lacking ambition and aggression. Simultaneously, women were criticised for being “dogmatic”, a “bossyboots”, or adopting a “tough and aggressive persona”. Infuriating.
Choice and freedom
Aligning with the postfeminist focus on individualism and choice, women were told they were free to choose their own life path, as either a good wife and mother, or a corporate leader. Workplace ‘flexibility’, implying autonomy, was discussed as a major consideration for women in corporate work, and that many were “choosing part time and casual work to accommodate family responsibilities”.
However, while the choice between work and family was presented as evidence of women’s empowerment, women were also dissuaded from stepping too far outside of traditional gender roles. Corporate women’s apparent choice of “spinsterhood and childlessness” was presented as undesirable, with Bagwell instead urging women to “have their cake and eat it, too”. Women opting for a demanding corporate career rather than a family were sometimes met with disapproval, with Bagwell, in a column entitled “The easier way up: no kids”, implied selfishness on the part of corporate women choosing to remain childless: “they think it unfair to inflict the demands of their job on children – nor are they willing to sacrifice their careers for them”.
Life at the top was seen as inevitably incongruent with family (for women at least), with the column reporting uncritically on women taking on the lion’s share of parenting and home responsibilities. At the same time, columnists were critical of the incompatibility of work and family for corporate women, arguing that while “the male population [enjoys] the benefits of a family as well as the benefits of work”, “women have had to relinquish the possibility of half of that life experience”.
Empowerment as capitalism
Women’s empowerment in the 1990s aligned traditional stereotypes of femininity, the postfeminist interest in ‘natural’ sex-based differences, and the goals of Australian capitalism at the end of the twentieth century. Reflecting the neoliberal turn towards market forces, women’s distinctive managerial style was the basis of the ‘business case’ – comprising 54% of leadership columns – in favour of their appointment to the top job. Columns argued that there was a shift in motivation for appointing women to leadership roles, moving on from the so-called ‘tokenism’ wrought by affirmative action legislation in the 1980s, and a “gradual recognition of the value of women’s contribution to corporate management”. “Market forces” were seen as the antidote to structural barriers preventing women’s access to the boardroom, and that “smart companies […] recognise that if they want to stay competitive, they have to hire, train and reward women at the managerial level”. Women in leadership were promoted based on their value to the corporate labour market, with women seen as beneficial for clients and consumers, for staff morale, and profit.
Women’s ‘natural’ managerial skills were connected to the needs of 1990s capitalism. Early in the decade, concerns regarding the Australian economy necessitated, it was argued, the appointment of women managers. Structural adjustment away from manufacturing and towards more ‘femininized’ service operations prompted the appointment of women, as it was “symbolically and strategically essential for women to take their seats in the boardrooms of companies that are increasingly relying on women for their financial well-being, as their customers and shareholders”. Women were also linked to the needs of companies in a free-trade environment, with female managers needed to succeed in “ferociously competitive” global markets. Women’s “consultative and consensus approach”, it was argued, was also “better suited to the less hierarchical and power-obsessed corporate scene of the 1990s”. Women in leadership were deemed necessary for the nation’s progress, with the “talents of our women […] used to the country’s advantage” in the face of an ageing population and falling birth rates.
However, despite their apparent necessity for businesses and the economy, women were advised against making meaningful changes in the boardroom. Wendy McCarthy, interviewed for ‘Corporate Woman’ in 1991, argued that women can bring “insights and new attitudes”, while at the same time commenting that companies search for a woman director who is “safe” and “won’t rock the boat too much”. Richard Beck, of KPMG Peat Marwick, warned women seeking to be “change agents”, arguing that “if you are a radical outsider, you don’t stand a chance”. Beck argued that search committees look for “compatibility” with the rest of the board rather than “specialist skills”, with Bagwell conceding that “fitting in” was preferable to “standing at the back of the room”.
A further contradiction to the ‘business case’ was commentary that the economy could not ‘afford’ women’s empowerment. A report by Catalyst, discussed in the column, found that “women in management cost corporations more than men do”, with corporations reluctant to pay for women’s ‘down time’ while returning to work on “flexible schedules”. Much of the debate on childcare, a major theme of the column, centred on its ‘cost’ to corporations. Columnists advocating for expanded childcare and maternity leave provisions due to the skills shortage were pitted against male industry leaders concerned with the cost to the corporation of a so-called woman’s ‘choice’. An industry leader of the time apparently shook his head and said: “I don’t know. All these extra costs of employing women – maternity leave, child care, affirmative action and all that – it’s almost getting to the point where it is becoming too expensive to employ women”. Neales reported a similar attitude amongst male partners of law and accounting firms, that they “don’t want to pay for female partners to take time off to have other men’s children”.
The column, in addition to being infuriating, demonstrates the way media discourse reproduced stereotypical gender relations, and the contradictions of being a woman in Australia in the postfeminist 1990s. Women, particularly those in positions of power, were intensely scrutinised, and were advised to be feminine, but not too feminine; that their career success depended on their individual merit, but there were structural barriers to their success and they were naturally predisposed against corporate work; that they were the pinnacle of collective feminist achievement and yet were distant from it; that they were free to choose their own life path, but would be a failure to the sisterhood if they neglected their career or to society if they neglected their family; that they needed to demonstrate capitalist value in order to earn their keep, and yet were a burden on corporations and could not risk making any meaningful changes in the boardroom. Women in work and leadership were required to align with both traditional ideals of femininity and progressive ideals of female empowerment and autonomy. The column demonstrated a distinctive Australian ‘brand’ of postfeminism, characterised by the integration of the old and new, with traditional gender relations, second wave feminism, and fledgling broad-based feminist politics existing in an often uneasy balance.
Let me know – what examples of contradictory corporate feminism have you encountered, and what do you think is the impact of this for women and girls?