Unequal opportunity: Where are all the female CEOs?

Not only has progress stalled on the number of women being appointed CEO, but the numbers show a small decline on three years ago.

Women in business have made giant strides in recent decades, but new statistics suggest female leadership is going backwards. What is behind the problematic figures?

By Johanna Leggatt

While women have advanced up the rungs of the corporate ladder over the past few decades, a quick glance at the current list of CEOs running Australia’s top companies indicates the nation has a long way to go.

The latest ASX200 senior executive census by advocacy group Chief Executive Women (CEW) lists only 10 female CEOs. From a total of 50 CEO appointments in ASX200 companies since 2017, only three appointees have been women. Not only has progress stalled, but the numbers show a small decline on three years ago.  

Yet, the mere act of appointing a female CEO can increase the market value of ASX listed companies by 5 per cent, or nearly A$80 million on average, according to a study by the federal Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).

The study has also found that increasing the number of women in leadership positions boosts the likelihood of companies outperforming in their sector on three or more key profitability and performance metrics.

Libby Lyons, director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, says these figures clearly show that “workplace gender equality is not just about fairness, it also has a compelling commercial imperative".

"This research provides hard evidence that more women in top-tier management levels will deliver improved profitability for business. Now more than ever, achieving workplace gender equality is an absolute necessity for every organisation in Australia.”

System-wide change

The ASX200 senior executive census found that some 96 per cent of CEO appointments were drawn from “line” roles – those dealing with profit and loss accountability or from the role of chief financial officer. 

Yet, women currently hold only 12 per cent of line roles – something that chair of the Bank of Melbourne and Nestlé Australia, Elizabeth Proust AO, finds hugely significant. 

“Women need to be aware that success in CEO roles requires experience in significant line roles,” Proust says.

She also believes corporate Australia should focus on its appointment process to promote women into the C-suite.

“Companies need to ensure that there are women on all interview panels, and that there are no all-male short lists,” Proust says.

“This measure was put in place in the Victorian Public Service in 1982 and has made a significant contribution to the increased percentage of women in senior management.”
Psychologist and executive coach Dr Karen Morley agrees with the top-down approach to effecting change. 

She adds, “There also needs to be some good leadership development. We need to actually be showing leaders how to be inclusive leaders, and then holding them to account.”

Companies also need to continue challenging outdated notions around work and gender.

“Women are often held back because they are such great team members, they’re great to have as the support person,” Morley says.

“So managers like to keep them in that role, rather than saying, ‘Actually, if we had more people like that in leadership, then our leadership might be better engaged and the culture of the organisation may be better’.”

Finally, companies must implement tangible ways of measuring change, which will look different for each business and for each level of department seniority.

“At the top of the organisation you might have a quota-based measurement, but then down the organisation, you need to think about what needs to change in different business streams,” Morley says. 

Small steps, big benefits

Changes to organisational culture are imperative for having more women in CEO roles, but there are also steps women can take now to put themselves, and their female colleagues, in the best position for leadership roles.

According to Proust, this involves women supporting and mentoring other women in the workplace.

“No one achieves success on her own, and as we become successful we need to recognise that and make sure that other women are also successful,” she says.

Morley also urges women to become aware of their own unconscious biases, including the fear they are not qualified enough for management roles.

“One way to be more inclusive and overcome unconscious bias is to start to believe we are not always fair when we make decisions or appointments,” Morley says.

“Then we can decide that we're going to be more aware of our bias, to look out for it, and then use better decision-making processes.”

December/January 2022
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