The debate about why there are still so few women in senior leadership positions in Australia rages on. I’ve read countless articles on this topic that collectively offer a myriad of answers to this challenging question. Human Capital magazine recently published such an article claiming as its title suggests that ‘Male corporate culture remains the biggest barrier to breaking the glass ceiling’. While I have no doubt this may be part of the answer I doubt it’s the whole story.
I’m sure most would agree that significant progress has made in recent decades to improve the standing of women in our society. However, while women in Australia have more employment opportunities and are more educated than ever before, gender equality in the leadership ranks has yet to be achieved. Despite making up close to half of the labour force (46%) women remain under-represented at senior levels within both the private and public sectors. In fact men continue to dramatically outnumber women not only in the public and private business but in the upper and lower houses of federal parliament as well.
While we have undeniably moved forward, progress has been slow. For ten years the Australian Government Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) have conducted a census of the top 200 companies on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX 200). In that time little has changed; the number of women in executive management and board director positions remains disproportionately low.
In 2012 only six boards (3.0%) had a woman as chair (one more than in 2010, and two more than in 2008); only seven companies had a female CEO (3.5%, up from 1.3% in 2002). At board director level we have seen an increase from 8.4% in 2010 to 12.3% in 2012. On a positive note, for the first time since the census began, more ASX 200 companies had at least one female director than those who did not (62%).
While we are lagging behind, this is far from a uniquely Australian story. In 2012 only 16% of board directors in the United States were women (compared with 12.3% in Australia). In South Africa 5.3% of board chairs were women (compared with 3.0% in Australia), and in Canada, 6.1% of CEOs were women (compared with 3.5% in Australia).
So why do we still have so few women in senior leadership roles? What are the key contributing factors that we need to address? I don’t have the answers to these questions but believe its incumbent upon all of us (men and women alike) to strive to understand why and find ways to affect real and meaningful change. Below are the contributing factors I most often hear talked about.
- Blatant discrimination – women perceived as less capable or committed as their male counterparts
- Unconscious bias – cognitive shortcuts, in essence stereotypes that influence our perceptions and decision making
- Work-life demand – greater challenge for many woman in balancing work and family commitments
- Choice: women opting out of the ‘big jobs’ because they don’t want the demands, stress and politics that often go with them
- Culture – measures of success skewed toward masculine attributes e.g. intellect over emotion
What do you believe is holding us back from achieving greater gender equality in the senior ranks of corporate Australia and government?
There is no better example of how far woman in Australia have come than the group of dignitaries that met Queen Elizabeth II upon her arrival into Canberra for the start of her 2011 tour. The powerful line up of senior women that greeted Her Majesty was regarded a considerable first; Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Governor-General Quentin Bryce, and ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher. Just as powerful a symbol of change was the announcement of Ita Buttrose as Australian of the Year for 2013. While these successes are worth celebrating the fight for greater gender balance in business and government must continue.