Gender wars: Why does inequality still exist?

by Iain Hopkins17 Dec 2008

The position of Australian women executives is declining. Statistics confirm this and Agender in the Boardroom research (EOWA and Egon Zehnder International) exposes the systemic bias against women, revealing a multitude of barriers prevent women from getting to the top, and once there, they are then undervalued.

There are sticking points that derail or detour women's advancement. The first and obvious point is that the world is not gender-neutral. A 'men-as-default-leaders' mindset exists. Even if a woman leader adopts a gender-neutral view, others will not. If she leads in exactly the same way as male colleagues, her leadership produces dissimilar results due to her gender.

Female authority is different. A good example is when I ask women: "do you have power?" there is a moment of reflective silence followed by confidence. They tell stories about their use of influence, how they create change, build teams, develop sustainable approaches that prevent crisis; and of power-to replacing power-over. They talk of passing on what they have learned and creating meaningful collaboration through these experiences. They talk of decision-making that nurtures power-with and power-within. It's not very heroic.

Then there are stereotypical assumptions regarding non-revenue roles, working part-time or childcare responsibilities. There are gender differences in competitiveness and risk-taking impacting perceived ambition. Further, behaviour is frequently interpreted based on gender. Male and female emotion is viewed differently. There are gender differences in who asks for what including negotiating pay and bonuses. Women's appearance and communication style is scrutinised. Male mateship is seen differently to female friendship. Femininity carries the risk of women being labelled either 'too soft' or 'alpha females.'

Best-practice organisations that 'get it' integrate diversity into commercial and talent management practices, regarding this as good business. A positive movement is the increasing number of men in these companies actively involved in initiatives to bring more women into executive and board roles. Their presence and determination - engaging jointly with women - is fundamental for the diversity agenda to shift to the next level.

The role of Boards cannot be underestimated in articulating actions to address inequities limiting women's advancement. When they see their governance role for human capital extending beyond replacement plans or remuneration matters, they ensure the CEO and Chief HR Officer are accountable for a talent strategy that is aligned with both the business strategy and its diversity objectives. Boards can then take a risk-management approach to the consequences associated with gaps in capability, ensuring a robust and diverse talent pipeline.

Boards that model gender diversity better position their companies financially and in the talent stakes. There is a clear correlation between the percentage of women directors and the percentage of current and future women executives, including women in line-roles needed for advancement. Catalyst research confirms companies with a higher representation of women in senior management positions financially outperform companies with proportionally fewer women at the top.

The business case for gender diversity is evident. It makes little sense to ignore the lost opportunities that barriers create.

About the author
Dianne Jacobs is founding principal, The Talent Advisors, a boutique consulting and coaching firm based in Melbourne. She is a former equity partner at Goldman Sachs JBWere. She may be contacted at



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