One of the world’s leading recruitment consultancies has found nearly 90% of women feel underrepresented at work.
As a result, senior executives in Melbourne are calling on fellow chief executives to sponsor women’s careers, become aware of unconscious bias and embrace leadership diversity.
The Robert Walters’ white paper involved more than 4000 clients and job seekers across the Asia Pacific including Australia, China and New Zealand.
Although a clear path to career progression was found to be one of the most important strategies for women in their professional lives, nearly 80% of those surveyed feel there is a need for a more fair and equal representation of female leaders where they work.
Comparatively, only 51% of men agreed.
Most women feel this way because they believe management prefers to promote men, while most men blamed family pressures or commitments outside work.
When the number of women in senior management positions was counted, the study found they represented less than 1% at the top.
Sponsor women to the top
Change Meridian founder and chief executive Michelle Gibbings has enjoyed a successful corporate career and now leads a company of women who help larger corporates deal with complexity and change.
Reflecting on her climb up the ladder, Gibbings feels she has been really lucky, given the people who were willing to vouch for her at key turning points, which helped her build her leadership experience to get to the top.
“I had some fabulous sponsors through my career, people who backed me to do roles I had never done before,” Gibbings told Smartcompany.
“They took a risk on me and they backed me and I worked and made sure I did a really good job.”
Gibbings believes a combination of factors prevent women from getting to the top but often it boils down to the lack of sponsorship of women into executive roles.
Unlike a mentor who acts as a sounding and advisory board, a sponsor is a high level executive or board member who plays a key strategic role in a person’s career to shift them from supporting growth to leading it.
“Sponsors help them navigate the organisation, make good career decisions and help sponsor them into roles seen as non-traditional female roles,” Gibbings says.
With poor representation of women at executive levels, Gibbings says the onus is on the chief executive to make an active effort to connect aspirational and promising female workers with sponsors to navigate their careers.
“It comes down to the culture of the organisation and the willingness of the CEO to talk about gender diversity and all types of diversity,” she says.
“The [big corporates I worked at] where gender diversity was a priority of the CEO, it was something that was openly talked about and women were given sponsors.”
Make top roles flexible
Gibbings says parental leave and return to work structures should be established to ensure women in senior roles don’t miss out when children come into the picture.
“You don’t see a lot of senior women and men working part-time, there’s this notion that you have to work full-time but that’s not true,” says Gibbings.
“You can structure roles in a way, a lot of roles could be made to be part-time.”
Serial entrepreneur and new mother Rebekah Campbell believes the issue comes down to creating work environments where both men and women have equal parental leave so mothers aren’t assumed to be the primary carer, forcing them to postpone their careers.
“Most companies have maternity leave where the woman can take three or six months off but the guy can only take two, three or four weeks off,” Campbell previously told StartupSmart.
Embrace leadership diversity
Salient Communication chief executive Elliot Epstein says in sales, professional women perform exceptionally well and climb up the corporate ladder by building relationships and collecting high stake clients.
But at a certain point near the top, this stops.
“I do see at the next level of management there is still a perception that female sales directors are either perceived as too strong or all this traditional stuff associated with strong women – too tough, trying to prove something,” Epstein told Smartcompany.
He believes this discrimination seeps in as women get higher up the ladder.
“If you’re in sales or sales leadership, companies don’t care what gender you are, they care about the results until you get to the board and for some reason the boards are an issue,” he says.
Chief executives and senior managemers should be open to the fact their decisions may be affected by unconscious bias, Gibbings says.
“If people are taught about this and given the opportunity to learn different types of decision-making, that can often provide a good opportunity to become aware of [it],” she says.
Considering his own career where the measure of his success came down to delivering results, Epstein encourages women to push through and embrace their own unique leadership styles whatever it may be.
“Just be authentic, don’t try and be something else,” he says.
“Women get mixed messages about who they should be at the workplace and the most successful women are the ones who are true to themselves.”