Getting results on women in leadership: Employers must ditch what they think works and do what actually works

Media releases
Topics Inclusion Gender

In the lead up to International Women’s Day on 8 March, Diversity Council Australia urges employers to look carefully at their women’s leadership initiatives, with evidence showing many existing approaches don’t work and may even be making things worse.

DCA has reviewed a range of the latest research on leadership and concluded that many programs aimed at increasing the representation of women are failing to deliver results, said DCA’s Programs and Development Director, Lisa Annese.

“Despite some positive trends for women leaders amongst Australia’s largest listed companies, there is a long way to go before women reach anything like equal representation with men. Relying on the ‘pipeline’ of women leaders to reach the top, thinking that merit alone will solve the issue, adopting programs that aim to ‘fix women’ and blaming them for not ‘leaning in’ enough have not and will not change the picture.

“In contrast, the evidence shows that other initiatives – in particular actively sponsoring women into leadership positions, addressing bias at every level, adopting broader definitions of what leadership looks like, and public accountability via reporting on measurable outcomes – will actually deliver results,” said Lisa.  

Many of our current leadership models are based on male stereotypes and need to be redefined, said Lisa.   

“Conventional wisdom says that the best leaders have good ‘cultural fit’, ‘executive presence’, gravitas, and need to be ‘ideal workers’ available 24/7 but these stereotypes not only favour men but actively work against women. As just one example, women’s voice pitch, height and physical build can interfere with perceptions of their executive presence and authority.

“Just as importantly, these are also not necessarily the best measures of leadership capability. For example, research shows that introverts can be just as, and sometimes more effective as leaders than extroverts, caregivers make better people managers, and women in flexible roles are the most productive employee segment. It also clearly demonstrates that diverse perspectives add real value – a value lost when ‘cultural fit’ is relied upon,” added Lisa.

What doesn’t work

  • The ‘pipeline theory’ that says gender balance will be achieved over time now that there are more women entering the workforce and moving into more senior roles
  • Formal talent management programs that ignore gender (they are linked to lower representation of women than programs which acknowledge gender)
  • A focus on promoting ‘meritocracy’ (this results in gender biased decision-making and favours men)
  • Asking women to ‘lean in’* more (they are already ambitious and leaning in, and men benefit more from leaning in than women).

What does work

  • ‘Gender conscious’ initiatives such as targeted recruitment programs and women’s leadership development
  • Fixing the culture by moving away from the ‘deficit model’ that says women are the problem
  • Sponsorship (which is associated with women’s advancement) rather than mentoring (which develops women but doesn’t lead to their advancement)
  • Addressing bias of all kinds (conscious, unconscious, individual, organisational)
  • Targets and public accountability as well as a dedicated diversity function
  • Adopting a broader, more gender inclusive (and effective) definition of leadership capability.

DCA has a range of spokespeople available for interview on the topic, including:

  • Lisa Annese, Programs and Development Director, Diversity Council Australia
  • Mark Hand, Managing Director, Retail Distribution at ANZ and Chair of ANZ’s Australia Division Diversity Council
  • Carol Schwartz, Founding Chair of Women’s Leadership Institute Australia and prominent director
  • Dr Jennifer Whelan, Visiting Research Fellow, Melbourne Business School.

*'Lean in’ refers to a book written by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that suggests women need to more ambitiously look for and grab new opportunities for leadership.