I have always wondered why there are so few women leaders in the corporate and public arenas in Australia. As I researched further, I found sufficient material and statistical data to support this ‘perception’ of mine. In the last few decades, we have made significant strides in setting regulations that prevent discrimination against women. We are also working towards providing educational and work opportunities for over half of our population – women comprise 50.3% of our population1 and 46.2% of all employees in Australia2.
However, we are yet to achieve a similar impact in terms of the progress of women in leadership roles, and bridging the gender-based gap in pay. Even today, full-time average weekly earnings for women are 16.2% less than for men2.
Both women and men start their professional journey with similar educational milestones – in fact, among women aged 25-29, 39.6% have achieved a bachelor degree or above, compared to 30.4% of men in the same age bracket3. So what is it that’s stopping us from making the most of this female talent pool and in turn drive higher business performance? Primarily there are societal and structural issues that hinder gender equality – mainly the notions of meritocracy when it comes to assigning leadership roles, subconscious/ unconscious bias, sponsorship opportunities (or the lack of it) for women leaders, and non-availability of flexibility in many workplaces.
Meritocracy, while noble as a concept, often leads to non-meritocratic outcomes in practice. This is because hiring managers either hire people with experience or skills similar to their own, or look for technical skills rather than soft skills and an outcome-focused approach. Today, our lives and businesses are going through unprecedented, rapid and profound changes, driven by technological disruption and evolving customer needs. The skillsets required for the future are very different to what was required earlier. We need people who can collaborate with others, with the aptitude and passion for continually adapting, evolving, and delivering outcomes in tune with changing business needs.
It is also important that those of us already in leadership roles take the time to reflect, and think about any unconscious or subconscious biases that may be impacting our decision-making. While we may think otherwise, we all have cognitive biases and are generally unaware how these could affect our judgment. Being conscious that these biases exist and knowing how they influence our daily lives can minimize their effect on strategic decision-making. As leaders, it is our responsibility to take the time to mentor women, helping them work through their challenges, inspiring them in their own professional growth and development. Sponsorship provides an additional level of support as we recognize that sponsoring corporate women leaders and their talents within the organization is a part of our organizational responsibility.
Flexibility is a key determinant for women when looking at future roles as they seek to balance their professional and family commitments. For example, women are often forced to make a choice between career and motherhood due to the lack of organizational support for women taking maternity breaks. Promoting flexibility in the workplace, supporting our people to deliver on their responsibilities, and allowing part-time work at all levels of the organization would help us retain and develop talent. This requires strategic decision making processes to become authentic, and work arrangements that offer mutually beneficial outcomes. But most importantly, it calls for a change in mindset to focus on results delivered by people, not by the hours that they spend in an office.
I am proud to say that my employer has taken a leadership position that makes all roles flexible, with a mandate of having at least 50% female representation in the shortlist for both recruitment and job interviews for most roles. The policy aims to address the subconscious bias in the hiring process by ensuring women have the opportunity of being interviewed, while recognizing that we need to develop our pool of female talent and improve our stance on gender equality at all levels of the organization.
Interestingly this is not just a gender-specific discussion, as organizations require significant diversity (beyond gender) in their workforce to drive innovation. Such a network of skillsets and connections is required to address the needs of the future and the emerging diversity among customers.
As with any other business program, leading by example is critical to improving diversity in our team. As leaders, we need to be self-aware to actively harness the diversity of thought and opinions around us. We must promote a focus on outcomes among all employees and call out inappropriate behavior.
And always remember, the standard we walk past is the standard we accept.
- ABS 3101.0 - Australian Demographic Statistics, Jun 2016
- ABC News 8 Mar 2017- Fewer women run top Australian companies than men named John — or Peter, or David
- Stats at a Glance - Workplace Gender Equality Agency August 2016
Sanjay Rai, Head, Strategy and Productivity at Telstra was a Mentor in Women lead Australia Chapter 2. Women Lead Australia is a 1:1 professional mentoring platform for aspiring corporate women leaders to receive personal mentoring from c-level executives of leading Australian organizations. Chapter 2 witnessed participation from 18 leading organisations and 30 leaders across Australia. To know more about Women Lead Australia,click here.