To move ahead, companies need more women to take the lead

Despite disclosure requirements, the number of female executives in Australian companies has been declining. While mainly ingrained in corporate culture, companies may be missing out on success in failing to promote women to leadership positions.

Who would have thought that a school teacher in Zimbabwe would become one of Australia’s corporate leaders? Well, that is what former Westpac CEO Gail Kelly achieved. With single-minded determination, Kelly climbed the ranks as a bank teller at Nedcor in South Africa. In 2002, she became chief executive of St.George Bank, and joined Westpac in 2008 under the same role. Through her leadership, she was able to help Westpac acquire St.George Bank smoothly, and enabled the former to withstand the global financial crisis. For quite some time, Kelly was the only woman known to lead a ‘Top 50’ company at the Australian Securities Exchange. Now she will leave the title to two others as she heads toward a new direction.

Unfortunately, Kelly’s story is not the same for other women executives. Just last year, reports from Strategy& uncovered that the number of female CEOs fell from seven to six at ASX 200 companies. Women were often forced by the board to step down from their executive role, said Varya Davidson, author of the study and partner of Strategy&. “Comparing planned versus forced chief executive succession, 38 per cent of women were forced to leave versus 27 per cent of men,” Davidson stated. In addition, women are given less opportunities to develop their leadership skills, said Katie Lahey, former CEO of the Business Council of Australia. They are also more hesitant than men to volunteer for a new job, because they believe they need to learn more skills, Lahey added.

An analysis of BusinessDay on gender diversity disclosures of ASX 100 companies revealed the same finding. From 2011 to 2013, the percentage of women occupying senior executive roles declined from 24% to 23%. Meanwhile, the percentage of female directors climbed from 13.4% to 18.6% among ASX 200 companies. Amid the gender disclosure mandate for ASX companies, females remain underrepresented in executive roles. The policy itself is generating debate, as it can be a form of “red tape” for businesses. However, it may be needed to end inequality for women, said Claire Braund, spokeswoman for advocacy group Women On Boards. A closer look shows that it may be worsening the problem, as companies are free to interpret what “senior executive” means. Hence, they are appointing more women as directors, but not as chief executive.

In excluding women from the corporate ladder, companies are shortchanging themselves in the process. Female executives have a lot to bring to the table, especially in business. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to be in the business world and not need to have the discussion on how few women we have around the Executive and Board tables?

The business case for women executives

Firms that enable women to lead are more likely to achieve success as compared to those that are solely led by males, according to a study done by Dow Jones. In profitable companies, females comprised 7.1% of senior executive roles, but only 3.1% in less successful firms. Women may be helping companies excel because they are more resourceful and creative in solving problems. In addition, they are more attuned to the emotions of their team and are more likely to encourage engagement. They are also more inclined to consult and collaborate with others in making tough decisions.

It seems the tech industry has been ahead in realising the potential of women. Most of chief operating officers in tech companies are females. There’s Sheryl Sandberg as COO of Facebook, Emily White who left Instagram to become COO of Snapchat, as well as Sharon Feder at Mashable. For some corporate leaders, they seem to find women more suitable for the COO role because they have a good acumen for business and leadership, without getting all the credit for themselves. Startups, in particular, may find female leaders to be reliable in taking the business toward maturity. Going forward, the COO position can pave the way for women to take on corporate Chief Executive roles. If the male-dominated tech industry is seeing the potential of women in executive positions, soon the remaining industry sectors may catch up.

So what can we do to empower women to climb to the top of the corporate ladder?

Capacity-building and opportunities go hand-in-hand

To help women ascend in the corporate world, companies need to train them for career development, and provide opportunities for advancement. In particular, this entails the involvement of leadership, through ensuring that recruitment efforts are unbiased and female employees are being mentored adequately. Aside from this, employers also need to invest in professional coaching for women. For instance, in establishing an executive presence, women may need the assistance of a professional voice coach to sound authoritative, as did Margaret Thatcher.

For wide-reaching results, efforts to make the company more inclusive for women should flow down to all employees too. They should be encouraged to join local and professional communities that promote equality. In this way, they will be more aware of the need for gender parity and contribute in their company’s initiatives. Companies also need to offer potential leaders flexible work schedules. Parents need support in balancing the demands of the home and the workplace.

For women, we need to become more confident in pitching ourselves for executive roles. We need to ‘get on the radar’ with the right people recruiting executives by establishing relationships, building and maintaining broad networks, internally and externally, and clearly articulating our value.

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