Speed Read

  • Companies with a higher than average and growing representation of women in leadership roles have ten things in common
  • A clear business case for change, role models, flexible work practices and a focus on challenging unconscious bias are some of the attributes of leading organisations
  • Best practice organisations have a comprehensive focus on achieving gender equality and challenging systemic biases

Earlier this year, a study by University of Sydney researchers found just 31 per cent of women surveyed believed men and women were treated equally at work, while 50 per cent of men felt there was equality in the workplace. That same study found 10 per cent of the 2,000 female respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment on the job, a disturbing reality for too many as the #MeToo movement has revealed. Broader workplace statistics show while we’ve made great strides in women’s workforce participation and leadership representation over recent decades, we’re still a long way off achieving more gender-balanced companies in Australia. 

According to Chief Executive Women, women graduates start out earning less in 16 of 19 key industries and few make it to the top. Only five per cent of CEOs in the ASX200 are women, and 21 per cent of executive leadership positions are held by women. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t because women lack confidence for leadership roles, or because there are too few women in the pipeline in most industries. Neither is it due to competing work-home priorities. 

We now know unconscious bias is a key barrier to diversity and inclusion progress in organisations.  A 2011 survey of 842 Australian business professionals conducted by Bain found that Australian companies are dominated by men who tend to appoint people with styles more like themselves (affinity bias), so the demographic loop is being reinforced time and time again.  

A woman and man in casual business attire working together on a laptop

Challenging unconscious bias in decision-making, together with challenging traditional views of merit in recruitment and promotion, is just one of a number of things companies can do to improve gender equality. A 2017 study by the Business Council of Australia, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and McKinsey & Company analysed the last three years of workplace gender reporting data and conducted over 40 interviews in companies with a higher than average representation of women in leadership roles. The study identified 10 actions that drive change for gender equality in an organisation. Decision makers in any business; small, medium or large can influence change for the better by adopting these practices. 

If your company is serious about promoting gender equality, here are ten key actions you’d be likely to see.

Case For Change

1.Build A Strong Business Case For Change

What this looks like in practice: Your leaders articulate the way diversity and an inclusive culture supports your organisation’s values and business objectives. The connection between diversity and performance resonates for your specific culture and business imperatives. For example, resources companies often link efforts to challenge unconscious bias and create “speak up” cultures to their safety objectives; retailers refer to the importance of reflecting diverse customer demographic groups.

2. Role Model A Commitment To Diversity, Including With Business Partners

What this looks like in practice: Leaders form teams with talent from different backgrounds and with different experiences. They support diversity initiatives in your company and/or externally. They proactively take a stand on equality (e.g. asking for gender balance relating to speakers they co-present with at conference panel discussions). Diversity is built into business partner relationships, such as having a supplier diversity policy or putting diversity requirements into Requests for Tenders (e.g. ensuring all design provided is in accessible formats).

3. Redesign Roles And Work To Enable Flexible Work And Normalise Uptake Across Levels And Genders

What this looks like in practice: Flexible working is established in the broader working culture, where individual, team and customer needs are balanced. Options aren’t limited to formal flexible arrangements (e.g. job sharing) with a diverse mix of informal arrangements available, allowing people to work at their best. Roles are designed around flexible work and there’s a consistent process in place for having productive discussions around flexible working. Leaders are trained in increasing their confidence around managing teams that work flexibly, while personally using flexible work arrangements, where they openly talk about it and “leave loudly” from the office.

4. Actively Sponsor Rising Women

What this looks like in practice: Your business invests in identifying and sponsoring talented women across a broad range of roles to prepare them for senior opportunities. This might mean, for example, proactively encouraging women to take on secondments or rotational opportunities to build their business experience or connecting them to senior influencers.  This is active and programmatic sponsorship, including advocacy for individuals. It challenges affinity bias by going beyond the traditional model where mentors offer advice or people are given promotion opportunities based on an informal “tap on the shoulder” approach.

A group of men and women working together in an operating theatre

Reinforcement Mechanisms

5. Set Clear Diversity Aspirations And Measures, And Keep Leaders Accountable 

What this looks like in practice: Your business has clearly identified targets to achieve gender balance in leadership which are regularly tracked and measured, including analysis of roadblocks and actions plans to address them. Leaders are held accountable for meeting them and organisations with the most mature approach to this are building the targets into leader remuneration scorecards. With this measurement approach, leaders are accountable for answering the following types of questions:

  • What is the percentage of women in your team and on hiring shortlists, through to being made offers over the past year? What’s the attrition rate for your business, including return from parental leave, and what are we doing to stop women from leaving?
  • How many flexibility requests have you had from your team and what has the implementation rate been (including reasons for why not)?
  • Where are the gaps and how can we keep improving on your diversity and inclusion scores in the company engagement survey?
  • What steps have you taken personally to demonstrate your support for inclusion?

6. Support Talent Through Life Transitions

What this looks like in practice: Your company actively supports people through different life transitions, particularly the transition years around parenthood as this is typically where we see women opting out of their careers when they are not supported. Keep in touch programs, coaching and networks for new parents are offered to support those returning from parental leave. Flexible work arrangements are in place for a range of reasons, including supporting mature age team members moving into retirement or to retain employees with disability.

7. Ensure The Infrastructure Is In Place To Support A More Inclusive And Flexible Workplace 

What this looks like in practice: There are various systems, processes and enablers that support an inclusive culture. The broader governance framework includes specifically documented policies for diversity and inclusion, recruitment, flexible working and a range of leave options. Technology such as laptops, conference dial-ins and video conferencing tools, are available to help employees work flexibly.

8. Challenge Traditional Views Of Merit In Recruitment And Evaluation 

What this looks like in practice: Your leaders are aware of the potential impact of unconscious gender biases on decision making, particularly recruitment and assessment decisions, and are trained on challenging stereotypes and other biases that inhibit diversity. Recruitment partners are briefed on the business’ expectation for diversity in sourcing candidates.  Process supports are in place (e.g. ensuring 50 per cent women on leadership interview shortlists).

Capability Building

9. Invest In  Front Line Leader Capabilities To Drive Cultural Change

What this looks like in practice: Your frontline leaders are competent and confident in having meaningful conversations about diversity, inclusion and flexibility. They recognise and challenge unconscious biases (such as affinity bias and stereotyping) and demonstrate intentionally inclusive behaviours. Your leaders have undertaken 360 degree reviews of their inclusive leadership capability and adapted behaviours as required.

10. Develop Rising Women And Ensure  Experience In Key Roles

What this looks like in practice: A proactive management to the leadership pipeline is in place at all levels of the business. Women are encouraged to get operational experience and leadership exposure early in their careers. Specific attention is given to non-functional roles and investing in talent outside of areas such as HR and marketing. Your company offers formal career development programs for women, with transition to leadership within a certain time frame included as a measure of success.