Where are the women?

Amid the cascading bad news for women to emerge from the pandemic – more job losses, unpaid work and domestic violence – a fundamental existing problem has been starkly exposed. 

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Despite an obvious and critical need for women to sit around the decision-making table, they have often been noticeable by their absence in this country.

"In Australia, despite years of advocacy well before the pandemic, progress remains painfully slow or has been sliding backwards for women in senior ranks.”

As the business world grappled with the COVID-19 crisis in recent months, and town hall meetings became de rigueur, the lack of women from senior cohorts stood out like a sore thumb. Scanning the field of key public and private sector advisory panels, women were lucky to make up a quarter of the number. Diversity more generally was lacking.

Meanwhile a growing number of credible economists, think tanks and commentators have pointed to a noticeable lack of financial and policy measures targeted at women in what many have termed a ‘shecession’.

This failure has made it clear the essential economic value of women’s leadership remains misunderstood or, worse, has been ignored.

That’s a massive risk for business as well as a brake on economic recovery efforts.

At the same time, international attention has been drawn to the number of women leaders – such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern – who appear to have handled the crisis with more success than their male peers.

A more collaborative style of leading, along with strong listening skills and openness to advice, the pundits have suggested, allowed a more effective approach. While men can, of course, use the same style these characteristics are usually associated with women (who also run the risk of being penalised for showing a more assertive approach).

Casual links

In Australia, despite years of advocacy well before the pandemic, progress remains painfully slow or has been sliding backwards for women in senior ranks.

Recent census figures from Chief Executive Women found just 10 of the ASX200 CEOs are women, a decline over the last two years. Out of 25 ASX200 CEO appointments in the past year just one was a woman.

And Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) data show the number of women on boards and management committees has hardly moved in six years, sitting around 25-26 per cent, while a third of organisations reporting to the agency have no women on them at all.

Yet Australia is leading the pack with data showing a boost to the number of women in top jobs directly flows to the bottom line, according to research from Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre and WGEA.

The data show for the first time a causal link between increasing the women in leadership roles and improved performance, productivity and profitability, says WGEA director Libby Lyons.

“If I were running a company now and had some of this data in front of me and I knew I could increase senior women by 10 per cent and it will lead to a 6.6 cent increase in the market value of the average ASX listed company - or $A105 million - that is a quick win and a no brainer,” Lyons says.

“And it doesn’t cost a lot or effort to do it. It just takes will and others in an organisation being accountable for achieving some of these things.”

Some organisations were well aware of the need for change and the benefits of more women but the data have also made them sit up and take notice, she says.

Which makes the lack of local response puzzling.

“The fact that business leaders in Australia today are not looking at this hard evidence and acting on it baffles me,” Lyons says. “They could be leading the pack in their sector in a few months. This evidence is compelling; it absolutely baffles me.”

Decision makers

In September, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins told the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 decisions are most effective when they are made by people with diverse experience and knowledge.

“It is imperative that women be included in decision-making roles in our pandemic response, and that decision-makers and government meaningfully engage with those with gender expertise,” Jenkins told the Committee.

“Of course, decision makers also need a strong evidence base, which means we must collect gender disaggregated data throughout this crisis, data like that collected by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.”

If evidence is mounting about the benefits of women’s contribution it hasn’t come a moment too soon for the business community which continues to go long on rhetoric and short on diversity action - even as sexual harassment scandals unfold with unacceptable regularity.

“I think we’ve still got a long way to go,” says Lyons.

“The fact that the shareholders and Debbie Blakey (CEO of industry super fund HESTA) are saying ‘as investors we will not accept this poor behavior’ - and boards and others thinking they can sweep these issues under the carpet and it will go away – because it’s not going to go away.”


In early October HESTA launched its 40:40 Vision that aims to see women fill at least 40 per cent of executive roles in the ASX200 by 2030.

The campaign is backed by prominent investors with more than $A1 trillion in assets under management. There were eight inaugural signatories: Aberdeen Standard Investments, BlackRock Australia, Ellerston Capital, Fidelity International, First Sentier Investors, IFM Investors, Pendal Group and WaveStone Capital.

Investors joining the initiative will commit to engaging with ASX200 companies to encourage them to achieve 40 per cent women, 40 per cent men and 20 per cent any gender among C-suite roles by 2030 and to set clear and public targets towards this goal.

And if Australian organisations have been slow to pick up on WGEA data, perhaps recent global interest will encourage them to have a closer look.

“In terms of the reaction we have had international interest in it - for the first time ever it (a WGEA report) was picked up by Bloomberg,” Lyons says. “When you have a premier business outlet picking it up it speaks volumes and they now regularly contact us for interviews.”

As the recovery continues in Australia, women play a crucial role in ensuring the money we are investing creates wealth and opportunities for everybody, Lyons points out. But history shows progress can quickly go into reverse in a crisis.

Overhauling structures

During the global financial crisis (GFC) the reason the pay gap went up by about 2 per cent was the resources sector, which is male dominated, had shortages and it drove up wages and widened the gap.

“It means we have learnt that lesson now and how do we ensure we upskill women to take on those roles and structural things to ensure women can – such as childcare? It drastically needs an overhaul to give women the same choice of jobs,” says Lyons.

In a more positive sign, despite massive economic challenges, the agency has had a 93 per cent compliance rate from reporting organisations which will provide the largest data set it has ever compiled. There will be no shortage of further evidence on the benefits of diversity.

Likewise, flexibility has now become reality for men and women which may prove a bonus, although Lyons warns businesses will need to start monitoring the working patterns of all employees to ensure informal discrimination does not take place.

“What worries me about this pandemic is that old habits die hard and as we set up to return to a new normal we will get to a point where all the blokes go back into the office or workspace and that’s where they feel comfortable, and the women who have probably found they are more productive at home will work from home,” she says. “And you end up with another way of women being discriminated against because they are excluded from that informal network.”

The global interest in WGEA’s research and the discussion of effectiveness of women’s leadership internationally are signs of hope.

Some men with power are listening, says Lyons. But like many advocates she knows the value proposition must be repeated again and again to ensure it becomes responsible business practice.

“As long as we have men dominating in wealth creation industries and leading governments and making important decision about how they run their business, we have to keep our foot on the pedal because the minute we take it off it can all fall apart,” she says.

“We cannot allow women and the opportunities women have to go backwards, we just can’t, it’s not an option.”

Catherine Fox is a journalist and author of Walkley Award winning “Stop Fixing Women

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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