Why so few women CEOs in Australia? 60 CEOs share their insights

21 May 2013

Only 3.5% of ASX200 companies have female CEOs, making it one of the lowest rates in the Western world, behind Hong Kong, Thailand and China. It's a figure that's barely moved in a decade, despite women now accounting for more than 45% of MBA graduates.

Recently, at the Australian Executive Women's Symposium held in Brisbane, Dr Terrance Fitzsimmons shared his 2012 research findings on why women are still not reaching such leadership positions from his thesis, Navigating CEO appointments: Do Australia's top male and female CEOs differ in how they made it to the top? His research found that based on current progress, Australia will achieve gender parity by the year 2300. The very same problems to have faced older generations will continue for Gen Y women and many generations of Australian women to follow.

Dr Fitzsimmons spent more than three years interviewing 30 male and 30 female CEOs of Australian listed companies. He found that a key difference between male and female CEOs was the role spouses played in the career progression of male CEOs. Virtually all of the male CEOs had children and stay-at-home wives who took on the primary caregiver role, providing the men with stability, balance and more time to devote to their career progression. The women who had made it to CEO had options available to them around after-hours child care, or one or both sets of grandparents willing to help out, as well as an equitable sharing of domestic duties with their respective spouses.

Critically, most of the female CEOs interviewed noted their female colleagues who had dropped out of the workforce along the way had done so because they were forced to choose between family and career. Not being completely consumed by domestic responsibilities allowed the female CEOs time to maintain work connections, serve in industry associations, and present at conferences; most receiving their CEO appointment opportunities because of these activities. Early promotion opportunities and mentors also played key roles in putting the women forward for strategic line roles. Most female CEOs identified mentors as helping them gain confidence and pushing them forward for promotion, in contrast to the male CEOs who did not attribute mentors to their success.

Dr Fitzsimmons further found that family, school, society and childhood experiences matter for the attainment of leadership positions by women. Too often, we allow our sons to do things that we will not allow our daughters to do at the same age and at the same time. This means that boys may have career relevant experiences that girls miss out on. Differential treatment by parents and educators give men advantages in the childhood accumulation of career relevant capital – especially in the areas of self-confidence, leadership and strategy.

If gender equality is to be obtained in Australia, further intervention is required at education, business and government level. Daughters need to be given the same opportunities and values as our sons. Dr Fitzsimmons says companies need to ensure that talented women are identified very early in their career. They need to be mentored and sponsored to gain line role experience. Succession planning needs to reach far deeper into organisations.

His study also points to the need for societal equality for girls, and government and business to co-operate much more to provide workplace flexibility, as well as extending child care hours to match the hours often required by executives.

What do you think? How can we end up with more female CEOs in the future?

Leith Mitchell

Leith Mitchell is the diversity consulting Director of Mitchell Services and a passionate champion of diversity, flexible working and mindfulness.

Twitter: @leith_mitchell 

Facebook: Mitchell Services  


Website: mitchellservices.net.au/
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