A lack of willingness by organisations isn't necessarily to blame for stagnant progress on gender diversity. Nor are the challenges facing women attempting to juggle work and motherhood.
Instead, it could be that women are missing one essential component of leadership development: getting the "hot jobs".
That's the opinion of the authors of a new research paper from action group Catalyst on why women are still underrepresented in senior leadership positions, and it's a finding that provides a much-welcome shift from the "have it all" debate – calling on organisations to do more to help, rather than asking women to get more training, mentors and sponsors in a bid to make themselves more "leader-like".
According to the report released this week, the gender leadership gap may come down to women not receiving the same access as men to the development opportunities that tend to spring a career forward.
These opportunities are usually found in the "hot jobs", where an employee can access three key factors: highly visible projects, international experience and mission-critical tasks. They're all elements that contribute to advancement, according to the study of 1665 MBA graduates (or individuals deemed ready and fit to take the "hot jobs") by Christine Silva, Nancy Carter and Anna Beninger.
The authors cite research that finds just 10% of employee development occurs formally, with 20% coming through relationships – including networking, mentors and coaching – and 70% on the job.
Plenty of us can relate: leadership is difficult to learn in a classroom, but the lessons we pick up while being stretched on a particular task are often invaluable. So if a woman doesn't have access to the key projects that include the best development opportunities she may not only have a lesser chance of career advancement, but also of becoming the best leader she can be.
Interestingly, the "highly visible" aspect of a project matters significantly. The study found men reported working on projects with twice the budgets of the projects led by women and that male-led project teams had three times the number of staff involved.
And more men had projects deemed a risk to the organisations (30% compared to 22% of women) and were more visible to the C-suite (35% compared to 26%).
Meanwhile, 88% of men were assigned tasks that included global teams without requiring relocation compared to 77% of women. And while less women reported a willingness to relocate internationally, when it came to the men and women who said they'd happily shift overseas more men were handed the opportunity by their employer.
So, how can you get the "hot jobs"? Mentors will help – as long as they're of a level powerful enough to assist advancement, but sponsors are better for opening the right doors. Neither, however, will provide the "silver bullet".
The best help will come from organisations that can be more strategic on how opportunities are divvied up; those that can seek to ensure that high-potential women receive jobs and tasks that are comparable in size, scope and importance to those handed to the men. This may require very deliberate planning and detailed analysis on the value of particular projects, the opportunity they provide, and the ways in which they're allocated. It won't be easy, but could just be the necessary catalyst for making some progress on closing the gap.
As the report finds, offering even more training to women will not provide the level of change required. Women have been graduating from Australian universities in equal numbers to men since the mid-1980s. We've been there, done that, and haven't seen the results. Let's not over-train another generation of women only to have yet more of the investment wasted by not allowing them to enhance the skills they've learnt with experience on the job.
We've got enough highly-trained, brilliant women available now. It's now over to organisations to ensure the excellent pipeline of women our academic institutions have created is put to good use – and that women are given the "hot jobs" they deserve.
Do organisations allocate the hot jobs to men and women equally? Have your say below.