The double standard treatment of Ardent Leisure CEO Deborah Thomas

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Jane Caro

I feel for Ardent Leisure’s relatively new CEO Deborah Thomas. I know Deborah slightly and like her. Whenever we meet she is always warm and friendly and has the air of someone who is both capable and intelligent. 

No doubt she was excited when she took the leap from media management into the world of amusement parks. I bet she was also nervous and not just because she had a lot to learn. There remain very few female CEOs in Australia, or indeed the world, and every one of them knows that due to their sheer novelty, they come under much greater scrutiny than their male counterparts.

They are also nervously aware that their rarity means they represent more than just themselves. If they fail, some observers still see it as proof that women are not cut out for leadership. This is the invisible millstone around every female leader’s neck.

Nervous or not, never in her wildest dreams could Thomas have imagined she’d have to handle a tragedy like this within a year of her appointment. She has made some mistakes, particularly in the few – no doubt panic-stricken – days after the terrible accident. To her credit, she was quick to acknowledge her clumsy response and has donated the entirety of her bonus to the victims.

Not all the initial errors were of her making, however. The timing of Ardent’s annual AGM, where, as is usual exec pay was discussed, less than two days after the tragedy, could not have been worse. But it was legally impossible to shift it at such short notice. It remains to be seen whether Dreamworld are guilty of more than a bumbled and insensitive response to the accident and we should not speculate in advance.

I cannot imagine the emotional devastation of the families of the four people killed at Dreamworld on October 25. The sound of the sobbing 12-year-old girl who had just lost her mother will stay with me for a long time. The families have every right to want answers about how their loved ones could be killed doing something that ought to have been exciting – but safe.

Thomas deserves some criticism and must learn from it, but we should also acknowledge that she has not reacted defensively and has been both open-hearted and humble in her responses to the public bollocking she has received. What she does not deserve is even a whiff of anyone expecting better of her because she’s a woman or, worse, death threats against her or her family.

Watching the commentary on Thomas, I couldn’t help wondering whether we still judge women in leadership positions more harshly than men particularly when – as all humans do – they stumble and make mistakes? Do we have higher expectations of women leaders in the face of tragedy? Do we expect them to be more compassionate and unselfish than we do men? Do we demand they humble themselves?

I think you can make a strong case that there is a double standard. Partly this is just because women’s rarity at the top makes them more conspicuous. It is hard to differentiate one besuited male CEO from another, particularly when there are more of them called Peter than there are women.

However it is also because we may still subconsciously feel that there is something illegitimate about women at the top. If they get there we expect them to be not just better than any man but perfect. No flaws are tolerated.

Just look at the weird equivalency people are making between Hillary Clinton’s mistakes and Donald Trump. Clinton has been damned for being “careless” over her emails and is now under suspicion because emails on her aide’s estranged husband’s computer may involve her in some unspecified way.

She gets paid for speeches (so do I, by the way) and her (only) husband couldn’t keep his dick in his pants. Trump, on the other hand, hasn’t paid tax for 20 years, cheats suppliers, runs a fraudulent university, sexually harasses and assaults women, has been married three times and – forget suspicion – has actual, scheduled court appearance dates to answer for alleged offences that include rape of a 13-year-old girl, but apparently Clinton’s the crook!

Julia Gillard’s every move was scrutinised ruthlessly when she was PM. Her empty fruit bowl, earlobes, unflattering jackets, and “deliberate” childlessness were discussed, criticised and judged without mercy.

Anna Bligh, Joan Kirner, Kristina Keneally, Carmen Lawrence, Cheryl Kernot  … the corridors of our parliaments are littered with the bodies of scorned, vilified and ridiculed women who had the gall to aspire to lead. Many of them were only handed the top job because the situation of the government or party was so desperate no bloke wanted it (hello Theresa May). There’s even a name for this phenomenon.

It’s called glass cliffing – a woman only breaks the glass ceiling when the organisation is about to fall off a cliff. If Turnbull is toppled and Julie Bishop becomes PM, for example, you know the LNP thinks they’re about to lose office.

Meredith Hellicar is the most famous example of glass cliffing in business because she was appointed chair of James Hardie just before the asbestos compensation scandal rocked the company.

Deborah Thomas was not glass cliffed. No one knew this awful tragedy was going to happen. She has not handled it brilliantly but is improving. She deserves criticism for her mistakes and, if poor decisions by the company are shown to have contributed to this disaster she, as its leader, must take responsibility.

However, the standard for women leaders should not be set higher than that for men. Indeed, perhaps we will only have true equality when there are as many mediocre women in positions of power as there are mediocre men.

 

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