Ending Australia's gender pay gap: How to improve diversity in the C-suite

'It starts from the top down'

Ending Australia's gender pay gap: How to improve diversity in the C-suite

Australia continues to lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to the representation of women in leadership roles – and it’s stunting efforts to reduce the country’s stubborn gender pay gap.

Just over half of Australia’s workforce is made up of women, yet according to WGEA data from 2019-2020, only 18.3% are CEOs, 28.1% are directors, and 32.5% are in key management positions. At the current rate, we won’t see an equal share of women in CEO positions until the next century – 80 years from now.

HRD spoke to Emily Wilson, managing director at executive recruitment firm FutureYou and a seasoned TA specialist, about the barriers that are keeping women from reaching the C-suite.

“I personally think it all comes down to the CEO or the leader of the business,” she said.

“If they have got a diverse and open mindset, then they surround themselves with people who have the best flexible approach to work and who have the best HR policies to enable women to juggle some of the responsibilities outside of work - it starts from the top down.

“Even if someone is interviewing for a $100-120k job, they will still be thinking what is the CEO like? Does the organisation create policies and procedures that stack up to the right values and culture for me?”

Read more: WGEA director Mary Wooldridge says rise in Australia’s gender pay gap is 'a warning sign'

In the talent tight market Australia is experiencing, organisations cannot afford to be lax on their employee value proposition. But as Wilson said, it goes far beyond salary – especially for women. It’s why the pandemic and the forced shift to working flexibly is a golden opportunity to harness a more diverse and equitable workforce.

But just as the idea of working five days a week in an office feels outdated, archaic mindsets around talent acquisition need to change too. Wilson said people are often reluctant to hire a woman into a senior position for fear she’ll take parental leave – and the attitude is not coming just from men, but from women on hiring panels too.

On the other end of the spectrum, there have been examples of progressive organisations recruiting women while they’re heavily pregnant. Wilson said when it comes to executive hiring, organisations must go into the recruitment process with a medium to long-term view, rather than striving for instant gratification. But how can HR leaders change outdated mindsets?

“They need to be really clear on identifying the value that the individual can bring and the greater value always comes in the medium to long term,” she said.

“When I ask, how are we going to measure whether this person is going to perform in the role, the minimum criteria is their skill and experience - that is a given - but what really turns the dial on getting a greater return out of someone is their motivation.”

It's a sentiment being echoed by many HR leaders right now. Purpose, value, motivation – these are the characteristics HR professionals are looking to define as they refresh their employee value proposition in a tight talent market.

Read more: Nearmap CPO on the power of data to close Australia's gender pay gap

The jobseeker’s motivation isn’t the only ingredient for netting a great hire, however. It’s also on the employer to create an environment where all employees can be supported, treated like an individual, and given the space to grow. That cultural alignment is where the magic happens, Wilson said, and in the fight for female talent, it’s what will make the biggest difference.

While the statistics paint a dire picture for Australia’s women in leadership, Wilson said the pandemic has changed the game. As well as making remote working mainstream, the closed borders have created a labour market where the fact that an applicant has been out of the workplace raising children no longer matters if they’re right for the role. But these gains could easily be lost if CEOs are harbouring any notions of “going back to normal” once Australia reopens to the world.

“Any CEO who says they cannot have males, females, or anyone working in a hybrid way will not retain and attract talent,” Wilson said. “We've proved that it works, but I think business leaders also now know if they don't continue with a hybrid model then their business is going to falter because work/life integration is number one.”

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