There aren’t many women who run Australian companies. In fact, there are more male CEOs of Australia’s top 200 publicly listed companies (known as the ASX200) called Peter, than there are women. Fourteen men called Peter run top listed companies compared to just 11 women.
One of those women is Deborah Thomas and this week, she was humiliated in a vile and sexist cartoon in Australia’s leading financial newspaper, the Australian Financial Review.
The name of the company Thomas runs is Ardent Leisure, an Australian organisation with a market capitalisation of over $800 million. It owns everything from theme parks like Dreamworld and White Water World to health clubs, marinas, shopping centres in Australia and overseas.
The following cartoon appeared next to a story about Deborah Thomas’s work as Ardent Leisure’s CEO, titled “Ardent Leisure on shaky ground under Deborah Thomas”:
So do you get the ‘joke’? If you can even call it that, it’s a puerile play on words that depicts Thomas having sex with a shareholder.
That is how the media voice of corporate Australia chooses to portray one of the very few female CEOs of ASX200 companies.
Thomas has remained silent since the cartoon’s publication, not because she’s not deeply offended and insulted but because she’s in an impossible position. No CEO of a publicly listed company, whose share price can be drastically affected by public perception, can afford to antagonise the Financial Review. The AFR know this. That’s why the newspaper and its editor in chief, Michael Stutchbury, are able to repeatedly publish sexist and demeaning gossip columns and cartoons like this one about women.
Protest publicly – or even privately – and you risk negative coverage for your company, something every CEO must avoid because of the impact it can have on the share price.
It’s often asked why there aren’t more female CEOs of big companies. Is it because women don’t like big jobs? They want to stay home and have babies? Is it because companies are blinkered to the talents, or ‘merit’, of female leaders? Is it because of an insidious unconscious bias?
Or is it because corporate Australia remains a boys club? Where the country’s leading business publication has a well-earned reputation for making sexist jokes and writing scathing commentary about women in business?
That backdrop paints a rather persuasive case for why many women might choose to opt out altogether.
So isn’t the cartoon hilarious and clever? Depicting a female CEO screwing her shareholder? Because how else could you possibly portray a company leader, if not in bed? (Incidentally this leading business journalist managed to in a recent puerile-free article on Deborah Thomas and Ardent Leisure.)
Of course it’s not hilarious or clever. It’s desperate, base and so very telling.
It reminds us, again, that women in power are still readily viewed through the prism of sex. And not just from the occasional lewd bystander, but by a widely respected and powerful newspaper no less.
I can hear the howls of protest already. The handbag hit squad at it again! Calling out sexism that is in their own head! Playing the victim. Playing the gender card. Can’t they just take a joke?
Usually, I can. The circumstances in which I can’t take a joke is where something legitimately offensive is later and conveniently disguised as a “joke”. Treating women as second-class citizens and subjecting them to explicitly sexist standards isn’t funny.
The Financial Review is Australia’s leading publication for business leaders. It isn’t a tabloid or a hobby project: it is powerful. If the attitude it espouses in this cartoon is anything to go by, it’s not difficult to understand why corporate Australia remains hostile to women.
Watch: The gender gap doesn’t just exist in the workplace. Post continues below.
Earlier this month a study conducted by The Peterson Institute for International Economics, of 22,000 publicly listed companies in 91 companies produced some compelling findings. It found that companies with 30 per cent female executives make as much as 6% percentage points more in profits. It isn’t the first study to show that female led businesses perform better in hard financial terms.
But that’s not a message you’ll read often in the Financial Review or corporate press. Too often the subject of getting more women in leadership is sidelined as being separate to the big and important business of running companies and making money. Which is ludicrous considering that companies with more women in leadership roles make more money.
So if we want to talk about who is screwing the shareholders let’s talk about the companies without any females on their boards. And let’s talk about the attitudes that help entrench that arrangement. Incidentally, the exact attitude that was on show in the Financial Review last week.