How will women get to the top if they can't even get on the shortlist? With incentives

Headhunters must share some of the blame for the woeful lack of women in senior executive and board positions across corporate Australia. But headhunters can also help with the solution.

As we now know, thanks to the release of the Australian Census of Women in Leadership yesterday, women account for fewer than one in 10 such positions across the ASX500. It's a sobering figure, especially as we've been celebrating the upwards trend of women on ASX200 boards since 2010.

There are many factors to blame, some of which were discussed during a panel session of prominent business leaders following the release of the Census by Governor-General Quentin Bryce.

But equally, there are plenty of incentives that can be put in front of recruiters, senior leaders, hiring managers and other staff members within an organisation to help.

According to Coca-Cola Amatil group managing director Terry Davis, one impediment to women in leadership comes from headhunters not fully appreciating the need for a diverse range of candidates.

"Going to some of the major headhunters in Sydney for executive talent it was surprising the lack of acknowledgement to get women on the shortlist," Davis said. "I spoke to one very senior headhunter at the time and he asked 'Well want do you want: the best person on the job or the best person on the list'? I said 'Well that's not the answer I was after'."

Here's a great incentive: tell headhunters to put women on their shortlist. If they don't, fire them.

An internal incentive could be to link performance-based bonuses and pay to "building sustainable people organisations", according to ANZ CEO Phil Chronican.

A more personal incentive, especially for getting women back into the workforce after having children, would be to better promote flexible working arrangements and careers, as well as tax-based changes that can lower the high costs associated with childcare, agreed the panelists.

A broad business incentive could be for companies to avoid quotas, a path Oroton CEO Sally Macdonald said would be "disappointing". She told the panel just the threat of quotas should be incentive enough to encourage large organisations to take their gender-based leadership targets seriously.

And finally, there's the incentive to simply build better businesses and recognise the productivity benefits of improving the participation of women. QBE chairman Belinda Hutchinson believes large organisations such as ANZ, IBM, Woolworths are finally getting it. "I think in terms of the work they're doing where the CEO is sponsoring women and is actually looking at the cultural changes needed, that's where you're starting to get some real traction," she said.

But so far and beyond some of our largest companies, the business case for diversity hasn't been incentive enough.

Let's hope some of the above can further promote change.

What incentives do you believe should be put on the table to get more women into leadership? Leave your thoughts below.

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and 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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