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Australian businesswomen, where are you?

There are almost no women sitting in executive boardrooms across Australia. Although the ASX recently announced plans to force companies to set targets for gender diversity, it seems Australian women are hitting their head on the glass ceiling more than ever before.

Women in Business ASXThe statistics are embarrassing and are only getting worse. In 2008, the ASX found that, in the country’s top-performing 200 companies, just over 10 percent of executive management positions are held by women, 51 percent had no female board directors, and you could count the number of female CEO’s on one hand (four to be exact).

Australia continues to lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to workplace gender equality, with fewer women actually making it to the top. In the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2009, Australia is equal first in the world for women’s educational levels, but 50th in terms of female workforce participation (we dropped 10 countries last year).

We have more women than ever before enrolling and graduating from uni. They start off with the same level of intelligence, commitment and expectations as men, yet hardly any are actually making it to the top.

Research shows a strong connection between women in leadership positions and strong business performance, with women often scoring better than men in most leadership parameters during feedback assessment (McKinsey & Company study, 2008). So theoretically, it seems, women should be well outperforming men in the corporate world. Which brings us to the obvious question: Are women culturally restricted to becoming corporate leaders?’

These studies suggest that, when it comes to perceptions of Australian women in the workplace, women are rating other women in high positions really well while men continue to rate women poorly. Unfortunately, the paradox here is that men are usually the ones making the decisions for women to enter leadership roles, and so the cycle continues.

I believe another problem with Australia is that the Tall Poppy Syndrome continues to be alive and well, especially amongst women in the workplace. Australians are particularly bad at accepting success. Women in particular don’t sell themselves well. They often sit back and wait for recognition and are less likely to put themselves and their ideas out there. Women really need to start believing in themselves and continue to promote and push themselves as leaders so others around them believe it too.

[Next: What about quotas?]

Perhaps it was their appalling statistics in 2008 that prompted the ASX to release a plan in December 2009, that will soon force companies to publish a gender breakdown of directors and senior staff, and to set targets for gender diversity. According to federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, this is the first structural intervention Australia has had. Broderick notes that in Norway, for example, board quotas were introduced in 2003 and the number of women directors has leapt from seven to 40 percent since then.

So it seems a similar intervention has worked for other parts of the world, but will it work for Australia? The introduction of gender diversity targets could support company growth, but in some cases could end up being restricting. A gender balance and a skills balance is an excellent thing in the workplace but the downside to this sort of arrangement is the simple fact that if you don’t have women already in leadership positions or with the skills to progress, businesses could be forced to look over their best talent in order to simply meet quotas.

As to why Australia has fallen so far behind in leadership gender diversity, it all comes down to a few cultural perceptions. In Australia, we have a poor perception of work/life balance. Australians work some of the longest working hours in the world and it seems that more and more people, especially women, are starting to weigh up whether their careers are actually worth it. I see a lot of people looking at the next options for their career and asking themselves if they really want to work 60 or 70 hours a week and weighing up if the rewards are worth it. I think especially for a woman returning from maternity leave, the work/life balance can be a deterrent to keep those ambitions alive.

The benefits of having more women in leadership roles are enormous and I believe it’s just a matter of time before Australian women break through the perception of our ‘blokey’ corporate culture. It has become an almost downward spiral for women in Australia. There is an element of intimidation of male-dominated boardrooms, but this can’t change until we get more women in.

2010 could be a turning point for women at top levels in corporate Australia, which could well see businesses perform better overall. Women offer different leadership styles that really can improve high performance in the workplace and, of course, diversity is what makes teams work.

–Tony Wilson is an expert in high performance teams and team culture, leadership and personal performance.

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Tony Wilson

Tony Wilson

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