Women make up 15.4% of CEOs: That’s just terrible business

Next year will be a significant milestone for women's education, with 2016 marking the final year men outnumbered women in higher education. 

It was in 1987 that the Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded more women than men were enrolled in our academic institutions.

It was the year the pipeline was officially created. Surely, it'd only be a matter of time before women started making up the ranks of the top jobs in organisations, in at least equal numbers to men.

Well in 2015 we know that's still far from being the case. As the Workplace Gender Equality Agency's data, covering more than 12,000 employers, has this week revealed, women make up just 15.4% of CEOs across Australia.

The figure proves there's a definite clog in the pipeline for women on the way to the top, and that no amount of education can shift the gender imbalance when it comes to those leading organisations.

It's bad business. It's wasted potential, and a huge investment loss when Australia can rank 1st in the world for women's educational attainment but 52nd in the world for women's workforce participation.

The question is where in the pipeline the clog is occurring and what we can do to fix it.

There are a few clues.

Women are getting into management, making up 36.5% of all management positions (a figure that's still well short of expectations) and then dropping to 27.4% of key management personnel positions. This shows women fall off the ladder the higher the ladder gets.

Just as WGEA suggests employers can do more to narrow the gender pay gap (found to be 24% according to its latest data release), employers must also do more to address the shortage of women in leadership.

We've seen some success with targets, particularly at our largest banks and tellingly when such targets are publicly disclosed and linked to key performance indicators that affect bonuses.

But targets have done little to address the problem in other sectors - particularly in law where female graduates far outnumber men, but women often make up fewer than 20% of partners in large firms. Targets have also done little to see a more respectable number of women get to CEO.

We’ve also seen some increased talk about flexible and part time work, and many large organisations shift to hot-desking and activity-based-working in a bid to encourage more employees to work from home.

But again, the WGEA data is telling, regarding the significant gender imbalance on how such options are being utilized. Women make up three times as many part time employees across the workforce as men. While women are almost half the workforce (48.8%), full-time working women account for just one in five full-time positions. A tiny 6.3% of management role are part-time.

We’ve made the structural changes and have the technology to support more widespread flexible working options, but we’re yet to see them mainstreamed across both genders. We still need to address a culture that considers a “part time career” as being a “parked career”. 

First up, employers should consider targets to address the gender imbalance of part time employees. Just like there are leadership and mentoring programs introduced to aid women's success, there can be cultural programs to aid management's understanding of promoting flexibility, and in making it more acceptable for both genders to request such opportunities – and to excel in their careers while doing so.

Meanwhile, any outdated notions that success and productivity can be measured according to face-time in an office need to be dealt with once and for all, especially in knowledge-based industries where employees can usually manage the bulk of their work from a laptop, phone and a good WiFi connection.

Finally, employers should address the many, many gender-based assumptions that still prevail in the office. These are the assumptions regarding who can and can't work part time, who can and can't take parental leave, and who is and isn't willing to take a promotion, an overseas assignment or a major project.

We have enough educated women to see more women achieve management and ultimately CEO status across the workforce – even if they need to work part-time or flexibly for a period during their careers. We’ve wasted thirty years of great potential and education investment already; it’s time for some serious change.

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is a Publisher with Private Media and the founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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