No Change for Women in Top Leadership

3 February 2013
Knowledge, Symmetra


Despite high-profile reports about gender gaps, equal pay, and women on boards, once again the needle barely budged for women aspiring to top business leadership in Australia according to the 2012 Australian Census of Women in Leadership.

The latest census data on women in leadership reveals an improvement in the number of female board directors at ASX 200 companies, which has risen to 12.3 per cent from 8.4 per cent in 2010.

Nevertheless, the number of female board directors fell to 9.2 per cent when examining the figures for board positions in ASX 500 companies, with Australia lagging behind its overseas peers with comparable corporate governance systems.

In the US, women hold 16.6 per cent of board positions for the Fortune 500 companies, while in Canada women hold 10.3 per cent in the top 500 firms.

Helen Conway, the director of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency believes that “the really bad news and the disappointment of the census is that in executive ranks we’ve seen negligible progress.”

While there are more women on boards, there are fewer women in the pipeline. The report highlights that women hold 9.7 per cent of senior executive roles in Australia’s top 200 companies.

This is just a small increase from 8 per cent in 2010. In the US, 14.3 per cent of women hold executive officer positions in the Fortune 500 firms.

“Very concerning is that almost two-thirds of ASX 500 companies have no female executives and only 12 have a female CEO and if you look internationally, Australia has the lowest percentage of female executives compared to countries with similar governance structures,” says MS Conway.

The Sex Discrimination Act was enacted in 1984 and yet today, almost 30 years later, we are still debating equal pay and access to senior positions for women. Thus, regardless of entrenched legislation, very little is changing within the environments in which women are working.

Women will continue to be absent in the upper ranks of corporate Australia unless organisations institute structural and cultural change to appoint and develop robust pipelines of female talent.

Ms Conway suggests that “it’s pretty poor . . . As we know, getting women into those executive ranks is important because it’s a pathway to positions of CEO, board director positions and then ultimately chairs on boards.”

So why are we witnessing so little traction in the advancement of women in the workplace, despite the plethora of initiatives organisations have put in place locally and globally to assist women to progress?

Many leading research organisations, including Catalyst, believe that unconscious bias explains why there are still major barriers to the advancement of diverse groups.

Unconscious bias influences our everyday patterns of behaviour in the workplace, and impacts on the quality of many of the decisions that we make – whom we appoint, promote, or allocate major projects and clients to.

Every single one of us has bias towards someone, something and some group. Research shows that by the age of six, entrenched, implicit attitudes and impressions are already formed in the mind of a child. Thus, we start internalising a conditioned response to an unconditioned stimulus from infancy.

A recent report by Finsia shows that 64.2 per cent of men in the finance industry surveyed believed that women were well represented at senior levels while 61.9 per cent of women surveyed disagreed!

The facts support the ladies’ view.  In ASX 200 companies, 34.1 of managers in financial and insurance services companies are women, while only 7.4% of CEOs are female.

The assumptions of women and men about gender equality are unmistakably at odds, providing the challenge of aligning perception with reality in the workplace and highlighting how stereotypes and bias affect our perceptions and our behaviour.