Helping women to break into the ‘boys’ club’

There are still very few women in top jobs, even though their presence gives companies a strategic advantage. Now a new report has identified ways employers can help them rise through the ranks.

With less than 20 of the top 500 listed companies having a female CEO, Australia’s boardrooms remain very much a male domain. Although female graduates have outnumbered males for the past 30 years, there are still very few who make it up the ladder to reach the highest levels of industry.

Now Western Australia – whose economy is dominated by the traditional male strongholds of mining, energy and construction and which has the lowest number of female CEOs in the country – is leading the way in pressing for change.

Concerned by the low level of women in leadership roles, the influential think-tank, the Committee for Perth, commissioned Dr Terrance Fitzsimmons and Professor Victor Callan of UQ Business School to carry out research and help find solutions.

They studied evidence from around the world, carried out interviews with 173 senior business people, and worked with a steering committee to run a series of focus groups. Their landmark report, Filling the Pool, draws the conclusion that achieving gender equality is everyone’s responsibility and outlines actions that government, companies and women themselves can take to improve the situation.

The study found that the situation in Perth was exacerbated by the presence of a highly masculine business culture and a tightly knit corporate community – described as a ‘boys club’ by almost every woman who was interviewed. However there was also a feeling that the city’s ‘can do’ culture could help to bring about change.

Dr Fitzsimmons said: “There is a clear economic argument for engaging women as numerous studies have shown that it provides businesses with a strategic advantage and an improved bottom line. However until now, research has focused on the scale of the problem rather than what can be done about it. Our study provides a strategic blueprint for action.

“While it examines gender inequality in the context of Western Australia, the barriers facing women are similar the world over and therefore the recommendations are equally valid for firms elsewhere.”

Here are 12 key steps which the report recommends organisations take to help improve gender equity:

  • Drive change from the top

To be successful, any significant change program must be led from the top. The board needs to embrace the rationale and view it as something which will provide a strategic advantage. The CEO must champion the gender equality cause, set out the vision and lead by example - and should be accountable for the results.

  • Measure performance

To manage change, companies must first be able to measure their performance. Ensure that you record relevant gender data such as the numbers entering and leaving the company, their performance and achievements and requests for flexible working, and carry out a pay equity audit along the lines suggested by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).

Larger organisations will already be recording some of this data but usually it is the minimum to satisfy reporting requirements. The initial figures provide a baseline which you can use to benchmark your performance against other businesses and measure future progress.

  • Set targets with teeth

Few people are in favour of quotas because of concerns about choosing the wrong person for the job or casting doubt upon the capabilities of females who are appointed. Setting ‘targets with teeth’ may be a better alternative and managers are more likely to commit to them. Targets should be specific and challenging and aligned with key performance indicators. Managers should be made accountable and rewarded for achieving them.

  • Keep mums on board

The childbearing years are a critical time when women often leave for more family-friendly jobs or drop out of the workforce altogether. Paying special attention to women around the period of maternity leave can reduce their stress levels and improve retention rates.

Engage in honest and open conversations with women about to go on leave about their expectations and plans to return and express your commitment to supporting them throughout. Maintain their desks, laptops and passwords if possible and use a fellow worker as a ‘buddy’ to maintain contact and keep them updated. Resume the discussion on their return to ensure they are receiving adequate support.

  • Keep travel to a minimum

Extensive travel – whether by the woman herself or by her partner - places real pressure on employees with families. Cutting out unnecessary journeys and using virtual connections where possible will not only relieve the strain, but also cut your carbon footprint.

  • Have a flexible working policy

Parents love flexible working and studies suggest it can improve productivity and reduce staff turnover. However managers often claim it is impractical, disruptive or would affect client service. Another problem is that where flexible working is allowed, such roles are often seen as ‘women’s work’ and effectively devalued, even where the employee outperforms other colleagues.

One solution is to have a clear policy on flexible working and make it open to all employees. Managers should work with HR to conduct a job analysis of each role to determine if flexible working is appropriate. Even where the company is unable to accommodate the request, it provides a solid ground for refusal. A systematic review of this type may also reveal opportunities to improve efficiency.

  • Use targeted training

While cases of direct discrimination may be on the decline, women report that discrimination is becoming more subtle and indirect. Ingrained gender stereotypes undoubtedly play a part but it can be difficult to change long-held beliefs and attitudes.

Training can make people aware of unconscious biases and challenge gender assumptions, as well as explaining the rationale for the overall strategy and showing ways to apply the new policies.

  • Provide mentors

Research has found that mentoring plays a critical role in men’s career development but is even more important for women. Many of the women interviewed spoke about the value of female role models who had shown them how to ‘lead as a woman’. Set up mentoring and advocacy programs, both formal and informal.

  • Have clear pathways for progression

Succession planning in most organisations rarely extends beyond two layers below the CEO. Because there is no clear pathway to the top, women do not understand how to get there or what these roles entail. Companies should link their diversity programs with succession planning by having a clear progression pathway from the bottom to the top, and should provide information about what type of skills are required in the most senior roles.

  • Recruit fairly

One of the biggest challenges facing women seeking board positions is the lack of female talent in the pipeline. Most top appointments are made on the basis of a very narrow criteria which often includes senior operational experience in the industry – a particular problem in industries such as mining, given that only 15 per cent of graduates entering engineering roles are women. Boards may insist on sticking to this criteria, even though it means women are systematically excluded.

Selection panels should include at least one female and panelists should ensure that the criteria is valid for the role. There should also be at least one female on the shortlist if possible and if not, the panel should explain why.

  • Make networking inclusive

Networking can provide a real advantage for career progression but women often miss out – whether because of the location or nature of the event or because they may end up talking to other women and not the senior males. Avoid sports or other events designed to appeal to a male audience and try to make functions more inclusive.

  • Provide childcare

Access to childcare is one of the most important factors for working mothers. Organisations which are big enough to do so should consider providing childcare on site.

Dr Fitzsimmons points out that business cannot act in isolation. “Achieving gender equality is the responsibility of everyone,” he says. “Government and women themselves have a role to play and the recommendations in the report need to be approached holistically. However unless we all work together and take action now, the problem of gender inequality may persist for generations to come.”


Last updated:
27 February 2019