I realise that this year’s International Women’s Day theme #BalanceforBetter is focused on advocating for more gender balance for a better world. It’s about more women as leaders, on boards, and in STEM. It’s about closing the gender pay gap and accelerating gender equity.
But I keep seeing the #BalanceforBetter hashtag and thinking about my personal battles with ‘balance’ as a woman. I have over the last 12-18 months been working on the notion of balance in my life. Redressing the balance towards self-care, wellbeing, health and mental space, factors that have been crowded out by busyness, work, commitment to family, wanting to make a difference. I have written about trying to say ‘no’ to more things and to prioritise what matters.
I’ve been writing a book as part of my push to be ‘10% braver’ as the #WomenEd squad would say. Two other projects are examples of my advocacy for women; as co-editor of the recently-published book Flip the System Australia: What matters in education, we ensured that more than half of the chapters were contributed to by women authors, and I have co-edited a special issue of the Journal of Educational Administration and History in which we offer female-authored papers on re-imagining school leadership. I’ve been lifting heavy weights to feel physically stronger and floating in floatation tanks to feel mentally lighter. I know this is a first-world take on the notion of ‘balance’. I’m in a privileged enough position that I can consider my writing, wellbeing, family and leisure time. I have choices available to me, which is not the case for all women.
This week I saw the following sculpture at Perth’s Cottesloe beach as part of the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition.
It is by Hamish McMillan and is called ‘Internment’. The wire figure interned within the cage slumps over his desk, met by the words, ‘Nice work, Jeff!’ on his computer screen. He is surrounded by boxes with messages of those things perpetuating his imprisonment in a toxic work culture: “obligation to colleagues”, “I make a difference”, “credit card due”, “mortgage due”, “failure is not an option”. How many of us are chained to our devices or caged within our work worlds because of obligation, inspiration, ambition, bills to pay, or the desire to make a difference? At what cost? Is it being a ‘bad feminist’ if a woman does not aspire to a powerful, well-paid management position? Or is it just making good choices that suit us, even if it does nothing to balance gender roles at the highest levels of the workforce? Three female politicians have recently left the Australian Liberal Party. Sticking it out in an unsatisfying, harmful or misogynistic work environment may not be worth the power, pay and prestige it provides.
In my field of education, the longitudinal Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey of principals and deputy principals has found that in these top school roles, a disproportionate number of women are consistently paid less than their male colleagues. It also found that physical violence towards principals and deputy principals is now 37% or 1 in 3 principals (9.3 times the rate of the general population). Women are most at risk with 40% experiencing violence compared to 32% of men. So women principals and deputy principals in Australia are more likely to be paid less and also more likely to experience physical violence in their work than their male counterparts. This survey also reveals worrying trends in work hours, mental wellbeing and physical health for principals and deputy principals, something that dissuades potential candidates, particularly women, from aspiring to and applying for these roles.
Those who lead organisations or who stand on the stage normalise ideas about who can lead, who should speak and to whom we should apparently listen. Often in leadership roles, keynote presentations and film, advertising or media representations of leadership, women are under-represented. So what can we do to #BalanceforBetter?
Organisations can consider how to advance women in their ranks, including into top jobs, governance positions and roles traditionally held by men. Conference organisers, event planners and awards panels can continue to work on broadening the diversity of those who present, sit on panels (no manels, please!) and receive awards. The media can stop asking women how they cope with juggling work with family, while not asking the same of men. Colleagues can refuse to tolerate off-hand remarks that are sexist or demeaning to women, even when masked as ‘jokes’. Men can question those things they take for granted or see as normal, that perhaps work in their favour, but do not benefit the women around them. Researchers can consider the diversity of their citation practices. Women can consider how to equalise and advocate for gender balance in their organisations, and also how to find a sense of balance and wellbeing in our own lives. We can all take positive, even micro, actions towards more balance.