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Time to stop toeing the line on line positions

There is no doubt that women – and most men – agree that we need more talented women in the senior roles that have eluded them for some time. Of course this would change organisational culture and mean that fewer men would hold these positions, but there’s ample research to support that more women in senior positions is good for business. If ‘merit’ truly prevailed, there would be a roughly equal mix of men and women in leadership positions, bringing a diversity of thought, strengths and style.

Since 2015, we have seen a remarkable increase in the number of women in Board positions. This is encouraging, especially when little happened during the previous decade through self-regulation and an expectation that talented women would be promoted on merit. In fact, almost two thirds of board positions a decade ago were filled by a tap on the shoulder through the networks of existing board members. This meant that women held less than 10% of board positions in the ASX200.

What really made the difference was a carrot and stick approach. Firstly, encouraging board members and chairs that boards should have at least 30% women, both from a business profitability argument, and also that it was the ‘right’ thing to do to take advantage of different skill sets and perspectives.

Secondly, the Australian section of the global 30%Club supported by AICD and ASX, set a target that women should hold 30% of board positions in the ASX200 at the end of 2018. To support this, they release a quarterly update on the progress towards this target. The progress from 8.50% to over 25% has been a testament to the importance of targets. After a decade of no change there has been a significant shift, although to achieve the target by the end of next year is still ambitious.

The success in changing the dial on women in board positions has not, unfortunately, been replicated within the businesses themselves. The percentage of women in senior leadership roles has shown little movement in the ASX200. Perhaps it is due to the lack of an external group measuring and targeting change, or perhaps organisations simply don’t want to share their metrics. We know that “what gets measured gets done,” and while there is much discussion of change being needed, there is still a reluctance to make the hard decisions to make it happen.

The Chief Executive Women’s inaugural Senior Executive Census 2017, published on 8 September, found that women make up about 20% of ASX200 executive leadership teams, and hold just 12% of line roles and 30% of functional roles in executive leadership teams. Currently, it seems the natural progression to CEO is generally limited to those who have progressed through line positions and the CFO.

Men often assume women are nurturing (and women might present as such), and therefore be encouraged to work in non-line areas of the business.  Others move away from line positions during their career. It is unfortunate that, too often, women say they want to help others and move into HR roles, and yet leadership is very much about managing and inspiring teams to achieve excellence.

When women take on line positions they gain a depth of understanding of the organisation, its strategy and its financial outcomes. We must encourage women to gain line experience if we want to increase the number of women in CEO positions. Too often women are mentored for confidence and presence, and men in business acumen, a challenge for women that’s clearly articulated by Susan Colantuono in her TED Talk:

If you would be interested in a half-day workshop on developing business acumen, email Diana Ryall.

Diana Ryall

Diana is a leading voice and advocate for Gender Equality in Australia and Founder of Xplore.