Out in the Cold: Ice-age attitudes hold women back from senior roles

Statistics show there has been little improvement in the representation of women in Australian corporate leadership positions. There is a business case for change.

WORKPLACE attitudes that prevent women from securing senior leadership roles must change for companies to remain sustainable, the director of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) says.

EOWA director Anna McPhee, who in August released the 2006 EOWA Australian Census of Women in Leadership, says trend growth in the number of women holding senior positions has been "glacial".

She says with a "shrinking workforce" (more retirees and fewer entrants), companies "need to be accessing their entire workforce pool, not just half of it".

The census assessed the number of women board directors and executive managers in the top 200 companies on the Australian Stock Exchange.

Women chair the boards of only five of those companies, despite making up half the country's workforce. This is up from four female chairs when the census data was collected, with the appointment of Adele Lloyd as chair of Adelaide Bank.

Under-representation of women increases with the seniority of roles. The census found women hold 44.2% of managerial and professional positions but only 12% of executive management roles. Only 3% of the country's CEOs are women, and 8.7% of board directors.

A more recent study by search and advisory company Boardroom Partners found 11% of non-executive directors in the ASX 200 are women, up from 7.4% in 2003.

Ms McPhee says there is still a long way to go for women to advance.

"What's welcomed is that those boards that already have had women are appointing more women," Ms McPhee says. "But really where there's been no change since the census first began in 2001 is the number of boards with no women at all."

She says 50% of boards are comprised entirely of men. "That seems to be the biggest hurdle, getting women onto these boards."

Ms McPhee says barriers include assumptions about a lack of talented women, men appointing in their like (other men), and men not having access to networks of women.

She says companies can work to increase the number of women in executive positions, which in turn would flow through to boardrooms. And she suggests moving women into non-traditional areas and establishing policies and practices for flexibility through a woman's career, enabling her to stay connected, be promoted and gain access to training and development.

Other EOWA survey data released earlier in the year suggests some positive change is under way.

The number of organisations offering paid parental leave has doubled over four years, with organisations providing paid maternity leave increasing from 23% in 2001 to 46% in 2005, and those providing paid paternity leave increasing from 15% in 2001 to 32% in 2005.

Ms McPhee says this is a "key indicator" that many businesses are changing their attitudes towards women.

"Organisations are now offering it because it's becoming a competitive issue for them," she says. "It's something they have to do."

But she says other cultural and behavioural barriers which create a bias against women and their commitment to their careers also need to be removed.

"Obviously paid maternity leave isn't the only answer to women's workforce participation and businesses need to do a whole range of other things."

She says another area of improvement is the number of women moving into executive management roles.

In 18% of the top 200 companies, 25% or more of executive managers are women, compared with 13.7% of companies in 2004. The report declares this is partly due to a reduction in the overall number of roles, but it is still a "respectable increase".

The proportion of line executive management positions (responsible for profit and loss or direct client services) held by women increased from 6.5% in 2004 to 7.4%.

Ms McPhee says this indicates there is some corporate momentum to improve the representation of women. "It's at a very low base, but it's growing year on year. And that really is the pipeline to the most senior executive positions, to CEO and to beyond executive careers to non-executive careers," she said.

One company actively working to improve the representation of women in senior roles is ANZ.

Chief executive officer John McFarlane, in a paper prepared for the launch of the EOWA census, says having more women in executive management makes business sense.

"Organisations that lead their sector as an employer of choice for women have access to a larger talent pool and are better placed to understand and respond to the needs of customers and communities," Mr McFarlane says.

He says ANZ has identified three "key challenges":

  • moving women into customer-facing and profit and loss roles;
  • implementing policies and facilities to support women in their childbearing years; and
  • challenging assumptions about the type and seniority of jobs women can do.

    ANZ has doubled the length of paid parental leave from six to 12 weeks, regardless of length of service, and provides access to child care.

    Mr McFarlane says ANZ wants to increase the number of women in senior executive roles from 17% to 25% by 2008. The company is aiming to have women in 50% of middle management roles by the same date. Mr McFarlane insists those appointments "will continue to be based on merit".

    Initiatives put in place to achieve increased representation include ensuring there is at least one woman on the shortlists for all management positions and, where possible, one woman on the selection panel.

    "We've had tough discussions with our executive recruiters, and made it clear to them that we want a greater effort to identify excellent female candidates," Mr McFarlane said.

    Director of the online Women on Boards network, Claire Braund, agrees with John McFarlane that recruitment professionals have a role to play in women's progress.

    "Professional recruiters are shopping around, and keep shopping around the same lists," Ms Braund says. She says companies claiming not to realise there are talented women available are just not looking. Some members of Women on Boards have been to Harvard and Yale and have "credentials as long as your arm and as long again".

    Ms Braund says companies need to ensure there is a significant proportion of women on shortlists, and she dismisses claims this conflicts with appointments being merit-based. She argues if companies were looking for the best person for the job, half the people on the shortlist would be women.

    "The key issue in all of this is visibility," Ms Braund says. "It's visibility of two things: it's visibility of the women themselves and it's the visibility and the transparency and the process of making the positions available to women."

    She says one of Women on Boards' chief strategies is helping women access men's networks. "Women's networks don't get women into positions of power," Ms Braund says. "One of the key things that we say to the Women on Boards women is, 'go and network where you're not … naturally comfortable'."

    Ms Braund is careful to acknowledge getting onto boards is even more difficult for women from a culturally or linguistically-diverse background. "It's hard as a white Anglo-Saxon woman; it is nigh impossible as a migrant woman or an Indigenous woman," she says. "Often the truly exceptional, remarkable people actually succeed, whereas I'm quite sure there's a vast number of people out there, a vast number of women in that demographic who are more than qualified."

    "We choose to exercise balance in all other aspects of society, you know, environment, school, education, all those sorts of things. Why not on boards?"

    This article first appeared in Business Community Intelligence, November 2006