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Women and the Glass Ceiling: Are we THERE yet?

by admin on November 25, 2012 · 0 comments

Last week I was invited to speak at a Human Rights Law Conference on this topic. This is an edited version of my speech.

‘When I started work 30 years ago, I thought it would be just a matter of time before there were women at the top. My daughter enters the workforce next year; nothing has changed and unless we do something bold she’s unlikely to see change within her lifetime!’

This was the lament of one of a group of influential women who met on 22nd October to discuss how to accelerate the pace of change for women within our organisations.

I’ve been working to advance women’s leadership for the last 15 years and frankly if we don’t start getting creative nothing is going to happen before I die!

Are we there yet? Far from it, but I guess it depends on where ‘there’ is and I would suggest that ‘there’ should be 50% women at all levels across all organisations within all industries and sectors.

There is an increased, or maybe I should say, renewed, focus on women’s participation at the top – possibly because of the political parlaying with sexism and misogyny, but also because of Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Liz Broderick’s influence and the formation of the Male Champions of Change.

It’s gratifying to see some male leaders championing women’s progress to the top and in some cases, very few, more women are progressing to senior levels. But overall, women are inching their way to the top at a glacial pace, and it seems to me, like glaciers in the throes of global change, they sit there precariously and may slip at any time. There is no guarantee that they will be joined by too many other women because frankly it appears that it is very strongly dependant on CEO commitment rather than any inherent systemic or cultural change.

So where are we?

  • Australia is ranked 14th out of 34 in the participation rate of women in the OECD.
  • 15% of ASX 200 board directors are women.
  • 51 ASX 200 companies have no women on their boards.
  • The numbers of women in senior leadership roles across ASX 200 companies is still not much more than 10% (we’ll find out more when the EOWA census results are released this week).

In smaller companies – especially those in industries generally regarded as ‘blokey’ – IT/engineering/manufacturing/construction there are far fewer women and there is no particular imperative to change: ‘if the big companies aren’t doing it why should we?’

And this is the case despite the fact that:

  • Women comprise 50.8% of our population.
  • 87% women attain year 12 qualifications or above, compared to 82% men
  • Over 50% of university graduates are women.
  • Australia is ranked number one in education and market participation across the world. [Read the report]

This means that Australia is [still] not harnessing the powerful economic resource contained in this very talented pool.

Recently it was estimated that GDP growth could be significant if women’s expertise was better utilised.

According to a productivity report released and then updated last year by Goldman Sachs chief economist Tim Toohey, raising women’s workplace participation to the level of men’s would lift economic growth by 13 per cent and help solve the fiscal burden of a greying population.

In dollar terms, Toohey estimates that if that gap were closed, it would increase economic activity by $180 billion. But to do this, he says, policies and reforms would be required, including a minimum quota of two female positions per board in Australia’s top 200 companies, and an audit on female representation at executive level.

2 women on each of the ASX200 boards is still a far cry from 50% of the possible board seats. Does Toohey think this sufficient? It is certainly not equal to the workplace participation level of men!

How can we possibly come up with the best ideas, develop the best policy, achieve the best possible outcomes or be the most competitive if we fail to tap into 50% of our (very well educated) pool of talent?

It was in this context that one month ago, Catherine Fox from the Australian Financial Review and I convened a group of senior and influential women and we decided that it was time to be bold – or at least fair.

This group of women decided that it was reasonable (and smart) to now expect that women comprise 50% of all appointments at all levels across all industries and sectors and include 50% of:

* Graduate intakes * Selection committees * High profile appointments and assignments * All functional teams * Leadership development programs * Conference delegates and speakers * Political parties * Award recipients * Positions of scholarship, leadership and internship * Schools and universities across all curriculums including maths, science and technology * Executive teams and boards across all sectors including the not for profit * The judiciary • You get the gist…

Once we provide women at all levels with the same opportunities and positions conferred, without thought, on men, we will start developing, nurturing and noticing the talent and expertise at our door. There will no longer be any excuse NOT to expect 50% of our leaders to be women.

The ‘50:50 if not why not’ initiative is being promoted actively by the group of women who came up with it and those they’ve been talking to. It has been picked up by the male champions of change, (possibly as their idea). 50:50 is destined to become an accepted practice (it’s not a target or a quota!) and if not, why not, the question we automatically ask of all decisions.

It is a practice I invite you to adopt no matter where you sit within your organisations and communities. The more people who expect 50:50 and ask if not why not, the more people will notice imbalance, irrationality and inequity. We will also hear that ‘why not’ is steeped in cultural, gender and institutional bias, rather than grounded in any rational or economic reason.

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