After ‘an evening with Hillary’, Andrew Pettifer takes an honest look at his emotional responses to gender – and asks others to do the same.

Attending ‘An Evening with Hillary Rodham Clinton’ last week crystallised some thoughts which have been running around my head for a while now. Hillary raised many interesting points but the one that struck me most was about success and popularity. Her assertion was that when it comes to leadership and men, there is a positive correlation between the two – the more successful they become, the more popular they are – whereas for women, the opposite is true. Women are popular when in support roles, but when they step up to take the lead their popularity falls. This is her personal experience of course, and she may be accused of sour grapes, but if I’m honest what she said, for me, rang true. And being honest is in part what this post is about.

The case for equal opportunities and equal representation of women (and yes, all other under-represented groups) in leadership is crystal clear. Enough studies have shown that diverse groups make better decisions and therefore improve performance. It’s patently obvious that we live in ‘a man’s world’ and that has to change if we are going to have a fair and equitable society in which women are afforded the same opportunities as men. The logic of the argument is clear.

Using reason to win the argument is getting us somewhere. For the first time ever there were more women than men appointed to ASX200 boards during the first quarter of this year. This is a clear step forward, albeit that the issue of board representation seems to have leap-frogged a more important parameter, which is women in senior management roles. But the dial is moving.

The contribution I would like to make to the debate is this. Change comes about when we move hearts and minds. We need to both feel comfortable with and understand the need for change if we are going to effect it. We need to stop talking so much about the logic of the argument and start addressing the emotions within it. A good starting point would be those who care about making a difference being honest about their own emotional response to the issues and that is what I am going to do here.

Being honest about what we think is quite easy. We choose what we think – or we at least have the opportunity to challenge and reframe our thoughts before we communicate them. Being honest about our emotions is quite different. We don’t choose how we feel – it just happens to us – and it’s remarkably difficult not to convey those feelings even though we might try hard to do so. I understand that being honest with emotional responses is challenging – it feels dangerous, exposes our weaknesses and leaves us open to accusations of bias, prejudice even. But that is the point – if we don’t seek to understand our innate prejudices, we are not going to change our behaviours and decisions.

So here goes…

I recognise that my emotional responses to situations are influenced by gender. I admit it.

Let’s take an extreme example: mass murder. If I were to hear about a mass murder being committed by a woman I would be far more shocked than if it were committed by a man. Does this mean that I have a higher expectation of women than of men, that I hold them to a different standard? At least as far as mass murder is concerned, I think so.

If I read about a female business leader who has presided over a business that has behaved dishonourably or fraudulently I have a stronger emotional reaction than if it were a man. I’m not surprised when a man is in this position – it happens all the time. But I’m more saddened when it is a woman in this position. I can rationalise that this is because as a supporter of gender diversity in leadership I am disappointed to see a role model fail. But if I’m honest it’s more deep-seated than that, founded on a sense that women should be good – that stereotype of women as the ones who care for others, not rip them off. I’m not trying to defend this. It’s how I feel.

This seems to fit with Hillary Clinton’s point about women not being popular when they take the lead role and step into the rough and tumble of the man’s world compared to when they are fulfilling the stereotypical support (ie caring for) role. There appears to be a paradox in here – we judge women more harshly because we think better of them.

I don’t believe that this is just something that affects how men might feel; as far as I can see, the same applies to women too.

An infamous article in the Australian Financial Review recently was a character assassination of Catherine Brenner, erstwhile Chair of AMP, referencing how long it took her to do her hair and make-up each day and commenting on how little her children had seen of her. It was an appalling piece of journalism, clearly demonstrating gender bias. Written by a woman. An isolated incident maybe, we can only wonder what the journalist’s motivation might have been. But here’s something else that really shocked me. In the 2016 US election, more white women voted for Trump than Clinton. We might question what were they thinking but also what were they feeling when they chose to ignore the opportunity to elect the first female president, a highly experienced statesperson with a long record of humanitarian achievement and instead vote for, well….Trump?!

The culture change we need to create a real and lasting impact on gender parity will require us all to face up to our deepest prejudices and the emotions that drive them. I’d love to hear others, men or women, reflecting on their emotional responses to gender and how, having recognised them, we can use this knowledge to help drive change. I’m feeling a bit exposed by putting mine out there, but I guess that’s really the point.

Andrew Pettifer is a self-confessed middle aged white anglo-saxon bloke, husband, dad and grandad. He is a leader at Arup (which feeds the soul) and a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur (which builds emotional resilience!). Andrew can be found on twitter here @andrewpettifer