Women need to see other women at the top to get ahead

Time alone won't increase the number of women in senior leadership positions, with new research finding the biggest factor in women breaking into executive roles is seeing other women who've already made it to the top.

According to research released by Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women today, the presence of women at the senior executive level proves to women in middle-management that their company has an inclusive culture and supports a range of leadership styles.

The study of more than 800 male and female business professionals found that women are five times more likely to be promoters of their organisation if they see women account for more than 25% of the executive team.

It's a matter of women seeing visible role models in order to boost their career confidence. "Unless we have women in senior roles, we won't have role models for women to come up the ranks," Chief Executive Women president Belinda Hutchinson told a breakfast of key business leaders to mark the launch of the report this morning.

Report co-author and Bain partner Melanie Sanders told the breakfast launch that organisations need to get serious about confronting some of the issues that may be affecting the career progression of women. "The sobering reality is that my daughter is likely to face a workplace that looks like this in 25 years time."

She said the focus of the study was to address whether organisations are really creating conditions where women can reach their full potential. And to identify the "fuzzy" and "uncomfortable to talk about" issues that may be standing in the way.

Today's research, the latest in a three year study, comes on top of earlier research that found women are ambitious, deemed equally effective at delivering outcomes to men, but overwhelmingly perceive they don't have equal opportunities to be appointed to leadership positions. Last year, the authors found women reported that their differences in leadership style is an inhibitor to them getting ahead.

"Women enter organisations full of hope, ambition and possibility but somewhere on the way to the top it nose dives," she said. "This [in the middle management stage] is when women start to realise their difference in style might be a barrier to their career progression."

Sanders outlined four actions organisations need to take to create a "positive cycle", and ensure women's career confidence is sustained through the middle management stage.

  1. Remove the barriers to employment facing women
  2. Focus on the middle-management years for women. Track and report it, identify high potential women and opportunities for promotion.
  3. Offer real and genuine sponsorship for women
  4. Make every manager count

Men are still nine times more likely than women to make it to the senior executive ranks of large corporations according to the report, and yet women have been graduating from university at higher rates than men since the mid 1980s.

Check back with Women's Agenda for more on this report, including suggestions from senior business leaders on what more can be done.

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