David Gonski's been a longtime supporter of getting more women on boards, so when the serial board member and one of Sydney's most connected men makes a comment about how key leadership positions are filled, you can't help but take notice.
Named by The Power Index this week as the most powerful director in the country, he told journalist Andrew Crook that when it comes to making referrals, people still gravitate towards those they know.
"It's very natural, if you look at any professions or business or any sporting thing, people tend to choose people they can trust because they know what they can do," he said. "The outsider, the person they don't know, has to prove themselves ... sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn't."
So what does that mean for seeing a serious upswing in the number of women in board and senior executive positions when those making referrals for such positions are predominantly male?
According to the results of a poll by Executive Women Australia, male referral networks are the key stumbling block for women looking to land executive roles.
In an online poll of 500 members, the group found 60% of business women consider such networks their biggest challenge in rising up the corporate ladder.
As EWA executive director Tara Cheesman put it, plenty of women still feel their career opportunities are limited by a "boys club" culture. Senior roles are usually filled via referrals -- as Gonski said, it's natural to gravitate towards those you know -- and when nine out of ten board and senior executive positions on the ASX 500 are held by men, women are still well and truly on the outside.
And it's not just networks that are the problem. According to the EWA poll, one in two women believe ASX 500 companies "haven't had female executives previously and aren't willing to invest the time to evolve their company's culture". Fifteen per cent said many employers don't believe women have the fortitude to cope with the pressures of senior management.
So what can be done to help?
The EWA poll found 50% of women surveyed believe companies could see an increase in the number of women in executive roles if they facilitated the networking of C-level managers with executive women.
That would be a good start in providing the necessary introductions and getting women on the radar of key referrers.
More important will be ensuring women aren't just meeting or even getting mentored by men, but are being sponsored. As a number of leading director women said during a Women's Agenda/AICD roundtable discussion earlier this month, it's been sponsors who've largely helped them break into male-dominated cultures and boards – people who can vouch for what they can do and have seen how they work. People who've seen women "prove themselves".
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