Gender balance in boardrooms – canapés or childcare?

It was hard to ignore the talk of paid parenting leave and childcare costs in Australia with federal budget announcements about changing the system and those calls to stop 'double dipping' from employer childcare schemes.

"Given the credentials and experience needed for a board seat the trickle of women through the management ranks is not only disturbing but certainly doesn't bode well."
Catherine Fox, Journalist, author and public speaker

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It's a discussion that seems a long way from the sleek chrome and glass of Macquarie Bank's refurbished Sydney offices where a bevy of the great and the good from the business world recently gathered.

Over excellent wine and canapés, they were discussing how to get more women onto boards and to launch the 30% Club in Australia. The initiative started in the UK and enlists senior men – such as ANZ and Coca-Cola Amatil chair David Gonski and Macquarie chair Kevin McCann in Australia - to help advocate for more women directors.

But any perceived gulf between corporate canapés and slaving at home for the kids is only superficial. They are part of addressing the same dilemma - how to ensure women get a fair go in the workplace and the same chance of climbing the ladder or getting a seat at the leadership table as men.

Even with all the debate and binders of research, there's often a strangely head-in-the-sand quality to some of the discussion on what is known as 'the pipeline' of women into more senior jobs.

The good news is the boardroom has finally registered some progress with the ratio of women on ASX200 boards moving from about 8 per cent in 2009 to 20 per cent this year. As the name implies, the 30% Club's goal is for women to occupy about a third of directorships.

The upper ranks of organisations, however, are not seeing the same rate of growth with many women remaining firmly stuck under the ubiquitous glass ceiling. This is despite the introduction of diversity reporting and guidelines for ASX companies, government policies such as the PPL and a range of large employers setting targets for women in management.

Given the credentials and experience needed to qualify for a board seat – and the hurdles are often higher to compensate for being female – the trickle of women through the management ranks is not only disturbing but certainly doesn't bode well in the hunt for more directors.

One goal is contingent on the other. But the data is depressingly clear.

Last year's research on Australia's leadership pipeline revealed that 26.1 per cent of key management personnel (KMP) and just 17.3 per cent of CEOs are women, according the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Women account for 39.8 per cent of 'other managers'.

One-third (33.5 per cent) of employers have no female KMPs, and 31.3 per cent of employers have no women executives/general managers. Just 26.2 per cent of the top three layers of management are women. The WGEA data was collected from 11,000 employers with a total of 3.9 million employees.

The picture is pretty bleak in the listed company space too. In the ASX200 just 3 per cent of CEOs are women, who make up only 9.7 per cent of key executive management roles.

This is a very poor report card in anyone's language. And it shows that what's happening on the way up the ladder must be derailing talented women.

The pressure for action in this critical area has to continue and without false hope from the dynamics that has seen the very welcome recent increases in board appointments.

There's some specific and difficult stuff to address within organisations and it's hindered by a couple of factors. One is the continuing concentration on trying to ensure women have careers that match male breadwinner norms.

This means there's a focus on what women lack - the deficit model - and it's resulted in a lot of expensive and time consuming mentoring schemes and remedial workshops to show women how to behave in line with traditional standards.

Or there's the 'sheep dip' route of putting everyone in management through unconscious bias training and hoping for the best.

Some organisations have been sticking to these levers for years with only incremental progress. While these tools can be of some help, if they do nothing to confront the biased systems that keep women out of the top jobs then there's not much chance of a big leap forward.

Another dead end is taking the compliance path on gender which can backfire. Recent research from the US found when a woman is appointed to a top five senior role in a company the chances of another woman being appointed drop dramatically.

This wasn't because powerful women typically pull the ladder up after themselves, the authors said (Why Are There So Few Women Top Managers? Cristian L. Dezső, University of Maryland, David Gaddis Ross and Jose Uribe, Columbia Business School).

It was more likely something called “negative spill-over effect" was the culprit. This occurs when a company feels pressure from a range of stakeholders to get with the diversity agenda but having added a senior woman to the leadership ranks they believe they have met their obligations.

It's a band aid solution to structural and systemic problems. But it shows how the pressure to notch up some quick results can actually add more stumbling blocks for women in some cases.

And it's very hard to say if any of these measures have had any effect on the staunch idea that men are at the top because they naturally have large amounts of that highly subjective ingredient - merit.

The glacial change to women in management ranks suggests it's an even more thorny problem than boards, although the causes are similar. Different action on both areas is needed.

Being lulled into thinking that, because the conversation has changed, there are hordes of women about to surge into the corridors of power is way off the mark. The good fight on multiple fronts continues.

Catherine Fox is an author, journalist and long time commentator on diversity in corporate life. She was for many years the Australian Financial Review's highly acclaimed Corporate Woman columnist.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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