“Very disappointed”: The number of women moving into CEO positions is backsliding

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It’s not just that progress for women in CEO positions is slow.

It’s that it’s flatlined… and actually gone backwards.

Just one of the 25 CEOs appointed to lead ASX200 organisations in the past year has been female, and it’s not something we can glibly excuse as a 2020 anomaly.

The year before, only two female CEOs were appointed, according to new research by Chief Executive Women (CEW).

It’s hard to believe that the already minuscule number of women leading these organisations could have dwindled further, but it has. With a drop from 12 to 10, just 5% of ASX200 companies are now led by a woman.

You can now count them on both hands.

There’s also a very limited pipeline to suggest we are on the cusp of meaningful change here, with the line roles and positions that typically lead to CEO appointments being overwhelmingly held by men.

Two-thirds of organisations don’t have any women in the line roles that lead to these appointments.

CEW refers to these as the “CEO feeder roles”, and they often have profit and loss responsibilities. Notably, women make up just 12% of these positions.

When companies do have women in their leadership teams, they tend to be in “support function roles” such as HR, legal, risk and corporate affairs. And it’s rare for CEOs to be selected from support function roles.

In the four years that CEW’s census has run and shone a light on this issue, it’s disheartening to see so conclusively where we’ve landed.

This is a sentiment shared by Chief Executive Women’s president Sue Morphet.

“I was very disappointed with the results of the census,” she said.

“We’ve been running it for four years now and we felt that surely we will start to get some traction and a tick up.

“Any movement in the positive direction throughout the census has shown a glacial change, but generally speaking it’s flatlined, and in the key jobs of line roles and CEOs it’s gone backwards.”

These results also stand in contrast to progress achieved on gender equality at the board level, where women have hit a record 31.3% of such positions.

It proves that when attention and scrutiny are applied, and flexibility is provided, at least some progress is possible.

While women continue to come up against multiple obstacles in their careers that make progressing along ‘traditional’ lines difficult, 2020 has provided an opportunity to reset some of the rigid structures placed on how and when we work. These are the structures that may be pushing women off course on the path to leadership in business.

It’s something big employers should pay heed to.

We’ve seen CEOs of major companies pivot to work and run businesses during what is likely the toughest climate of their careers. They’ve worked from home and utilised technology to achieve results.

Meetings have still moved ahead, deals have been signed, and boards have met virtually — without having to travel interstate every second week, or overseas every couple of months.

And we’ve also seen the data-backed value of having more women in leadership during these difficult times.

We don’t need a ‘business case’ to prove why just one of 25 CEO positions going to women is a terrible reflection on the corporate business community.

But it’s worth sharing one anyway. Especially as it’s only been three months since analysis by Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) went global by putting a dollar figure on the additional worth a company can generate by getting more women into key decision-making roles.

The research found that companies that increase their share of female key management personnel positions see a 6.6% increase in their market value.

The report also found that appointing a female CEO can be particularly helpful to the bottom line, resulting in a 5% increase in market value for those ASX-listed companies that have done so, worth an average $79.6 million.

As WGEA Director Libby Lyons said on releasing the research: “The findings mean that, if you are a business leader, you no longer have an excuse for avoiding action.”

In this volatile and hugely challenging year, there has been one silver lining when it comes to the workforce. Namely, a reset on how and when we work, including clear evidence that we can move away from traditional ideas of the facetime required to be ‘successful’ in your job.

Chief Executive Women is using these findings to issue a wakeup call to corporate Australia. It is calling for businesses to take action in a wide range of ways that will help break the barriers that exist for women.

We have never been in a better position to commit to these measures and turn these numbers around.

Other key stats from the CEW report

  • Just 5% of leadership line roles in healthcare are held by women, despite the workforce being female-dominated.
  • Women in senior IT roles have dropped to 9%, from 21% four years ago.

This is an edited version of an article first published by Women’s Agenda.

NOW READ: Women are “maxing out and burning out” because of COVID-19, says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg

NOW READ: For every month of the pandemic, Australian women are losing one year of progress towards gender equality

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