Organisations need to be more accountable for the lack of women in top jobs

by External08 May 2013

How can businesses help high performing women break through the glass ceiling? Wendy Montague provides some answers.



Hillary Clinton was once quoted as saying, “women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world”. This is particularly true in business as we continue to see women being underutilised and undervalued, especially at the upper echelons of an organisation.

Over the past 10 years, women have made slow, incremental gains in their representation in management and Board level positions. Currently, females in senior positions only account for nine per cent of all executive roles in Australia1. There has also been a significant drop in the number of women appointed to Boards with only 36 appointments in 2012, compared with 68 the previous year2. If this trend is to continue, it will be decades before equality in the boardroom is achieved in Australia.

Research has shown that having more female employees, especially at the management and executive level, not only helps broaden the talent pool in a talent-constrained environment; it also brings shareholder returns through greater innovation and performance. However, despite the strong business case, gender inequity continues to be entrenched in workplace culture. 

In order to provide insights into how to drive the participation of women in executive positions, Hay Group recently conducted a comprehensive gender diversity study that featured 27 female executives from across Australia and New Zealand. The research findings provided valuable insight in to how organisations can effectively support women and pull them through the business to take on more senior management roles.

According to the findings, 44 per cent of the women credited mentors as the biggest professional support in helping them transition into executive roles. They believed the stronger the relationship with their mentor, the easier it was to have open discussions about their career progression goals.

As a result, one of the first proactive steps organisations can take in order to drive the participation of women in top jobs is to introduce and formalise their mentoring programs. By doing so, organisations will ensure that an effective support system is in place that will facilitate professional growth. Also, having a structured mentor program rolled out will lead to increased awareness of high potential women among senior members of the business; helping overcome any conscious or unconscious bias that may exist.

The study also revealed that over a third of the women executives considered their bosses as another important source of support, offering valuable career opportunities during key periods of professional transition. Given this insight, businesses need to ensure managers at all levels are equipped in the skills of coaching, identifying talent and career development and are held accountable for making sure high potential women are being pulled through the ranks of the organisation.

In order to narrow the gender gap at the upper management levels, businesses must also ensure they are providing women with rich career experiences such as job rotation or international secondments. With the findings revealing that women executives were energised by learning new things, organisations must look to gradually increase the responsibilities of high potential females throughout their careers to ensure they remain motivated and engaged.

Although poor work-life balance did not come up as a major challenge for the women involved in this particular study, research has revealed that it is an issue affecting countless female professionals with domestic responsibilities often preventing them from advancing in their careers. To address this issue, organisations should consider providing flexible work options such as telecommuting or part-time arrangement to women that they want to not only retain but promote through the business.

Finally, it is vital to consider the ROI of the business’s approach to improving the representation of women at the higher levels of the organisation. This includes reviewing existing HR programs such as high potential and graduate initiatives, to guarantee effectiveness in delivering long-term female potential to the top of the organisation and ensuring a strong return on investment is achieved.

The equal representation of women at the higher levels of organisations is still eluding the majority of Australian companies. As a result, businesses need to act fast and look for new ways to help high potential women transition through their careers and break through the glass ceiling.

About the author

Wendy Montague is the National Practice Leader for Leadership and Talent at Hay Group and is an expert on gender diversity in the workplace.

1. Source: EOWA, 2012

2. Source: Australian Institute of Company Directors, 2012