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The leadership challenge

The number of women in executive leadership positions continues to lag. What is the way forward and how can men be part of the solution?

While Australia has been notching up gender equality milestones for more than 150 years, when it comes to women in leadership positions across business, media and political organisations, it seems the numbers are low and progress is slow.

Last year, the Gender Equality at Work 2018 report revealed that women in executive management remains stagnant at 20 per cent – statistics that were echoed in an address by former prime minister Julia Gillard who described the rate of change as moving at a ‘glacial’ pace.

Dr Melanie Kan is lecturer in the Department of Management in Deakin Business School and over her career (with many private and public sector clients) she’s led the development and national rollout of career development programs – including those specialising in equity and diversity issues for older workers and parents– and has investigated the turnover of women executives in the finance industry. 

Dr Kan says that despite research evidence that a diverse and inclusive workforce provides significant advantages for organisations, the slow movement of women into business leadership roles represents an ongoing challenge for Australia at both a corporate and societal level. 

‘This doesn’t mean there haven’t been successes along the way – there are many people working extremely hard to make a difference – it’s just happening slowly,’ she explains.

‘The challenge is particularly clear when we look at how Australia performed, internationally, in the global index of gender equality where it slipped down the ranks from 15th in 2006 to 35th in 2017. Even though more women than men are finishing university degrees, their educational success is not translating into equitable economic participation or career opportunities.’

Not surprisingly, it’s establishing and raising a family – and the position that women hold as primary carers – that most profoundly impacts career progression and with it, the opportunities for leadership roles.  

‘The reality is women have babies – they are primary carers and society expects this, to the point that even women without babies can also cop career-damaging assumptions. There is an underlying culture expecting women not to be business leaders but to adhere to our culture’s norms and to do the unpaid work that goes with it,’ she says.

‘Our organisational structures struggle to support people who are primary carers to move forward in their careers. We need to look at employer attitudes to career breaks and non-traditional career trajectories that tend to reflect women’s career directions.’

Although Australia has very clear policies and laws to protect women’s career from career breaks and gender discrimination, it can be underlying assumptions that hinder progress says Dr Kan.

‘It’s whether women are offered the types of career-boosting projects, travel opportunities and mentoring, that are offered to men. Or, for example, they are offered roles deemed suitable for women with children or women in general. These assumptions may not be made out of malice, it may be an unquestioned assumption that women can’t or won’t take on these opportunities because of their other roles as carers.’

In partnership with two of Australia’s leading researchers in diversity and inclusion – Dr Graeme Russell and Dr Michael Flood – the Diversity Council Australia has recently produced the report ‘Men Make a Difference: Engaging Men on Gender Equality’ which outlines a range of effective tactics that can be embedded into an organisation’s culture and strategies. These include:

  • treating gender equality as a business issue – it’s not just a women’s issue
  • involving everyone as equal partners in equality initiatives
  • targeting all gender equality areas (e.g. paid work, financial security, personal safety, power and decision making)
  • looking at all key areas of gender equality issues: the connections between work and home, communities and society
  • appealing to everyone, men as well as women
  • engaging men from all demographics and organisational level
  • educating and supporting effective leading for change
  • providing opportunities for both men and women to change their assumptions and behaviours
  • encouraging everyone to challenge gender-biased organisational policies and practices.
Dr Kan believes that moving towards gender equality is also about enabling men workplace flexibility, and acknowledging, valuing and supporting the roles that have previously been the domain of women. 

‘We need to be inclusive of everyone to succeed in bringing equality into the workplace. To that end, there are some promising movement towards greater inclusivity, bringing men, bringing everyone into the discussion.’ 

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