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?