Women CEOs have “traumatic” childhoods: UQWC Letter of Complaint in response to ‘Momentum’ Article

A member of the UQ Women’s Collective was recently surprised and dismayed to come across an article in ‘Momentum’, the magazine of the UQ Business School. The article profiled male and female CEOs, essentially arguing that virtually all female CEOs have had dramatic or traumatic childhoods, which equipped them with the leadership and adaptation skills necessary for success in the business world. Meanwhile, male CEOs were seemingly endowed with these skills naturally – which, the author seemed to suggest, was largely due to the presence of a stay-at-home mother. As a collective, we were upset with the researcher’s methods, tone, assumptions and conclusions, and so we wrote a complaint letter to the magazine to tell them so.

To whom it may concern,

On behalf of the UQ Women’s Collective, I am writing to register my disappointment at the publication of a recent Momentum article – ‘Women at the top’, by Dr. Terrance Fitzsimmons. While we welcome the fact that new research is being conducted on the phenomena of Australia’s embarrassingly low rate of female CEOs, we found this article to be offensive and damaging.

Firstly, we found Dr Fitzsimmons’ research methods to be questionable in the following areas:

a)    Self-selecting participants with no subject matching criteria.

b)   No verification of participant responses (e.g. the claim that most male CEOs were football captains. It is no secret that people can and do invent past achievements – for instance, the CEO of Yahoo blatantly lied about having a Bachelor’s Degree.)

c)    Bias introduced by having the interviews carried out by the investigator rather than a question script presented by a blind actor.

d)   Bias introduced again by the investigator coding his transcripts without using multiple blind.

e)    No consideration of the type of life events considered significant by patriarchal gender expectations (e.g. social emphasis on women; achievement emphasis on men). Instead the investigator asked only about significant life events.

f)     Interview times were significantly longer for female participants (70 minutes, as opposed to 48 minutes). If the interviewer emphasised certain areas repeatedly with only the female participants, the results are no longer valid.

g)    Conclusions not supported by statistics or even raw numbers of the contextual categories between groups, although they were supposedly coded. Statements are supported solely with exemplar quotes and blanket statements such as ‘a trend emerged’.

Reading Dr Fitzsimmons’ thesis, we were particularly troubled by page 184, which contained a diagrammatic representation of the different roles prescribed by male and female CEOs to their (heterosexual) parents. While female CEOs prescribe a spread of values to both their fathers (including equality) and mothers (including integrity, work ethic, leadership and self-efficacy), male CEOs label their fathers’ roles to include ‘dominance’, ‘maleness’ (as if maleness were a widely accepted trait as opposed to a contested social construction) and ‘self-efficacy’ and prescribe the sole value of ‘supports male’ to their mothers.

Dr Fitzsimmons presented these traits as fact, rather than participant opinion. We find it difficult to believe that there exist so many women who have no values at all except to support men, and would postulate that these data in fact reflect the blatantly sexist attitudes of male CEOs. From which one might pose the alternative hypothesis that such attitudes from current (male) CEOs either affects, or are representative of the attitudes of the executive boards that appoints new CEOs (and executive board members, and upper management roles etc), resulting in the under-representation of women in these positions.

Furthermore, we were troubled by Dr Fitzsimmons’ assertion that “[t]here is nothing you can do right now to fix the problem, no matter how much legislation you ram through, because you are talking about a deep-seated cultural issue”. This statement seems to offer an excuse for governments, companies and current CEOs to not even attempt drafting equal opportunity laws, employing more women in higher-level positions, or fostering a workplace culture that encourages and supports women.

As is surely obvious, people in positions of power do not willingly give away that power. They must be forced to, and often the only way this can take place is through changes to the law. In asserting that the CEO gender gap is a “deep-seated cultural issue”, Dr Fitzsimmons discounts and ignores the enormous possibility of legislation (as a tool and reflection of culture) to effect cultural change. (He also contradicts himself later, by stressing the importance of governmental support for extended childcare hours.) We offer the situation of Norway (now one of the most ‘equal’ countries in the world, following the introduction of a quota system) as an example of successful change through legislation.

We were also extremely disappointed by the lack of attention paid to men’s roles. The ‘conundrum of the working women’ is a trope that too often ignores the immense capability of men to assist with child-rearing and housework. Thus women find themselves working two jobs – one in the ‘formal’ workforce, and one in their own homes. Dr Fitzsimmons seems to recognise this latter point, but encourages increased childcare subsidies, instead of an expectation that men take an equal role in looking after the home and children that belong to them just as much as to their female partners.

Furthermore, childcare and housework services bring their own problems – although useful for working women, it is largely ignored that childcare workers, nannies and housekeepers are women of a lower socio-economic status, often women of colour. This perpetuates gender and race stereotypes at the expense of allowing a certain type of woman (white, upper-middle class) to ‘get ahead’ in the workforce.

We were especially disheartened by the lack of solution offered by Dr Fitzsimmons. If he discounts legislation, what is left? Does he wish to let time pass and hope the issue will resolve itself? As mentioned before, power is never given willingly – it must be taken, often after generations of perpetuating the ideal of a more just, inclusive and equal society. We feel that Dr Fitzsimmons’ research insults and damages the work that many are doing to advance towards such a society.

In disappointment,

The University of Queensland Women’s Collective 

~
This letter of complaint was also published at NUS Women’s Blog.
It will also feature in the upcoming issue of Wom*news

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