Stronger leadership is required to tackle the underrepresentation of women in corporate leadership, according to a new report by Ernst & Young, while leadership incentives could be adjusted to the finding that successful women prefer to view success in terms of “making a contribution”.
The Ernst & Young report, the fourth in a series on women in leadership, explores the issues affecting female representation in the workplace based on 15 interviews conducted with successful business women about their careers and challenges. The women interviewed include Jane Hemstritch, Cathy Foley, Therese Rein, Annabel Spring, Leah Armstrong and Renata Singer.
The report confirmed the widely held view that maintaining work-life balance was an issue for women, and that women were facing considerable unconscious bias, inflexible working conditions and issues with finding affordable and accessible childcare.
But it also found that successful women are “rarely motivated by power or money”. Each of the 15 women interviewed spoke of success in terms of leaving a legacy, and making a difference by “contributing”.
The report claims there is a gap between the money/power incentives of reaching the top levels of business success and this “contribution” motivation that most women thrive on. “This is a problem because talented women will only stay in the corporate leadership pipeline if they share an organisation’s values,” states the report.
Seeking out the women who may not know they’re ready
Self-confidence and sponsorship were another two issues explored in the report, with a general consensus that men were more likely to assert their skills and believe they are ready for promotions earlier than their female peers. Non-executive director Jane Hemstritch is quoted as saying it comes down to women believing “you have to be totally qualified for your next position before you put your hand up for it”. Meanwhile, Woodside senior vice president Tina Thomas explained that even when women do promote themselves, such initiative may not be viewed favourably.
The report advocates for company leadership to be more proactive in spotting talent in their female staff and promoting them. Cathy Foley and Therese Rein both mentioned how important someone else giving them a push was in the early stages of their careers.
Little progress despite a decade of data
The report references the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s 2012 Census on women in leadership, which found that women hold less than 10% of executive positions in the ASX200, as opposed to the public sector, while Ernst & Young recently found women hold 37% of leadership positions. Critically, women only hold 6% of line management positions in the ASX200. At a women’s summit at UTS this week, leading businesswomen agreed that line management experience is essential to achieving the very top roles in companies.
“Our research found that there are some fundamental changes that need to occur across these areas before we are likely to start seeing real change. We need to ‘up the ante’ and start doing things differently at a government, company and an individual level,” said Edyta Torpy, Ernst & Young’s Diversity and Inclusiveness leader.
The report advocates for government to re-consider quotas and review Australian childcare. It also calls for women to seek mentors and be more assertive, and emphasises the importance of role models for women, as well as strong leadership on the issue. “Change has to be driven from the top,” said Marion Webster and Renata Singh.
According to Torpy: “Women in positions of influence also have a very important role to play in terms of stewardship – creating a better workplace for future generations – and all the women we spoke to felt strongly about leaving a positive legacy in the workplace.”