11/06/2014 - 05:24

Changing realities on gender disparity

11/06/2014 - 05:24


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Business leaders and politicians says all the right things in terms of women’s ascension up the corporate and political ladders, but what’s really being done to make it happen?

Changing realities on gender disparity
EQUAL FOOTING: Many businesses are working to identify and act on the barriers to women’s leadership aspirations.

Business leaders and politicians says all the right things in terms of women’s ascension up the corporate and political ladders, but what’s really being done to make it happen?

In Julia Gillard, Australia had its first female prime minister, yet the current federal government includes Julie Bishop as the only woman in its 19-member cabinet.

In business, while the world cheers as the latest FTSE100 company includes a woman on its board, the fact is that only 18.5 per cent board positions for ASX100 companies are held by women, and eight still have boardrooms filled solely by men.

There’s clearly a disconnect between the rhetoric and reality.

The benefits of increasing the number of women in leadership are clear. Studies suggest that closing the gender gap in workforce participation could boost Australian Gross Domestic Product by 11 per cent, while other research has found that companies with sustained high numbers of women on their board significantly outperformed those with sustained low representation.

It seems unlikely that companies and the public sector are actively trying to exclude women from leadership positions, so why does inequity remain so entrenched across the senior ranks of business and government in Australia?

Some of the identified organisational barriers that stand in the way of women reaching their career potential are: lack of access to flexible working arrangements at senior levels; inbuilt biases in recruitment and promotion criteria; and unconscious bias.

Some would suggest that it is women who hold themselves back from leadership positions. Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead catalogues the many personal barriers that women must overcome to fully ‘lean in’ to their careers. These include the success-versus-likeability dilemma, whereby women, branded with the negative connotations of being ambitious and bossy, find themselves less liked as they enjoy more career success.

Furthermore, women are often reluctant to negotiate effectively on their own behalf, especially when it comes to salary, so they often find themselves paid less than their male colleagues in similar roles.

A number of strategies being employed by organisations and offered by consulting firms focus on providing women with support and improved skills to overcome the barriers to their career advancement. These include leadership programs designed especially for women, networking circles, and training in areas such as negotiation, resilience, leading change, and personal purpose.

Organisations such as Westpac and IBM have also implemented sponsorship programs where senior leaders work with a high-potential woman to assist her in finding her next career position in the organisation – recognising that women are less likely to have the informal sponsors than their male counterparts, and often lack a willingness to promote themselves.

So, do women need to change the way they operate in the workplace?

The Male Champions of Change, a group of top Australian male executives committed to addressing the imbalance, would say it is only a part of the solution. If women are to genuinely become better represented in senior ranks, organisations need to have a critical look at the way they recruit, manage and promote female talent.

A number of major Australian corporations are leading the way in identifying and countering these organisational and ‘personal’ barriers.

Telstra has adopted the policy that all roles in the organisation will be advertised as flexible. Since this initiative commenced, some business units have already had significant increases in the number of women applying for and being placed in roles.

The Australian Treasury identified and addressed inbuilt gender skews affecting the talent pipeline, where female graduates were more often channelled into stakeholder and networking roles, and men into more analytical roles – meaning women were then less likely to meet the selection criteria for senior roles, which required exposure to analytical work.

For many organisations, examining unconscious bias represents a significant opportunity to increase diversity in the C-Suite.

In the workplace, our automatic assumptions can play a significant role in decision making – especially where jobs and opportunities are gendered in the sense that certain people are seen to ‘fit’ a job and others are not.  In simple terms: ‘think manager, think male’, or equally, ‘think receptionist, think female’. An unconscious bias training program at the law firm Freehills has delivered tangible results as it has given participants an opportunity to uncover and reflect on their own biases without judgement, and discuss potential biases in decision making.

It is well documented that women face career challenges that are both different and additional to those faced by their male colleagues. A positive and constructive approach to addressing these at an individual and organisational level will result in a win for everyone, not to mention happier and more productive workplaces. 


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