Let’s make every day International Women’s Day

Topics Gender

After a week that culminated on Saturday 8 March with International Women’s Day (IWD) where we came together to celebrate all that had been achieved in the gender equity space and lamented all that still needs to be done, it is important to remember that every day that is not IWD is what matters. And while IWD does a great job of focusing our attention, the hard yards must continue after the breakfasts, the cocktails and the speeches.

What was most striking however, about the many wonderful and worthy business IWD events, featuring many current and emerging female leaders, is how homogenous the audiences were. Where were the men?  There were a few of course, but they were the exceptions.  How can a conversation about gender equity be had in Australia if only women, or ‘half the sky’ as Mao Zedong would have put it, take part?

Despite the Male Champions of Change campaign that the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick has spearheaded, male champions who have been inspired by this group of male CEOs were difficult to find in numbers that were significant. 

In DCA’s research Get Flexible! and its follow-up report, Men Get Flexible!, we identified that male leaders being active and role modelling effective and inclusive behaviour is an important part of the solution in creating workplaces with mainstreamed flexible career paths.  So why hasn’t there been more active championing of IWD events led by men and supported by their male colleagues?

And as well as the lack of men, there was little evidence of diversity among women either. Where were the Indigenous women at these corporate events?  Where were the culturally diverse women?  Where were those with disabilities? It would seem that, just like men, female leaders tend to be disproportionately white, English speaking, middle class and heterosexual. The pool of true diversity reflective of the Australian landscape just gets smaller and smaller the closer you get to the top.

A major contributor to this lack of diversity in leadership is the notion that leaders need to have good ‘cultural fit’. In practice, this can mean we continue to hire the same sorts of people for leadership positions. Unfortunately, women and people from other diversity groups are likely to miss out even though research has shown the best leadership teams actually have diverse perspectives and experiences.

Looking at the broader picture for women in leadership, despite some positive trends for the overall number of women leaders amongst Australia’s largest listed companies, there is still a long way to go before women reach anything like equal representation with men.

While female directorships in ASX 200 companies have more than doubled, from 8% in 2009 to 17.6% in February 2014, the proportion of women that held directorships in the wider ASX 500 group of companies was still appallingly low at 9.2% at the last WGEA Census of Women in Leadership in 2012, and there has been little change in women in management statistics in the broader labour market since 2005.

So beyond IWD, what can be done to create change? Why aren’t our current programs to increase women leaders working? And how do we ensure we promote diverse women?

DCA analysed current popular solutions being invested in by organisations attempting to improve their gender diversity in leadership.  What we discovered may surprise you.

There is no evidence that relying on the ‘pipeline’ of women leaders to reach the top will help (despite the pipeline being filled with ambitious and talented women) or that focusing on merit alone will solve the issue.  Organisations spend a lot of time and money adopting programs such as mentoring that aim to ‘fix women’ or encouraging them to ‘lean in’ more.  But ‘deficiency-based’ initiatives are unlikely to make any material change to the levels of representation of women in leadership.

We looked at a report (by Hede and O’Brien) that tracked a set of 1,200 Australian organisations over a six year period and established that at current rates of change, it would take another 159 years to reach 50:50 women and men in management in those organisations – that is, not till 2173!  The general consensus amongst those of us in the corporate community would surely be that this is an unacceptable period of time.

So what does work?

Evidence shows that other initiatives – in particular actively ‘sponsoring’ women into leadership positions, addressing bias (both conscious and unconscious) at every level, adopting broader definitions of what leadership looks like so that the prototype for a leader incorporates characteristics beyond the stereotype of masculine attributes, and public accountability via reporting on measurable outcomes – will actually deliver results.  

Men in particular can play a key role in sponsoring women, and because they currently hold most leadership positions, they have the power to choose what programs will be implemented and what won’t.   

So with this in mind, let’s focus our attention every day for the next 12 months on putting in place programs that will actually deliver results.

I hope that when we gather together on IWD in 2015 and in subsequent years, we can celebrate that we have made real strides in encouraging more (diverse) female leaders – and that our male colleagues are active partners in changing the picture.

Lisa Annese
DCA’s Programs & Development Director

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