Why redefining expertise is essential to achieving gender diversity


Source: Women's Agenda

With International Women’s Day just around the corner, gender diversity in corporations, particularly at the senior level, remains an important conversation. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s recently released report, women represent 19% of CEOs in Australia, an increase of just 2% since 2013.

Two-thirds of Australia’s key management personnel are men, and 22% of companies have no women on the board — compared to less than 1% that have no men on the board.

The barriers to greater gender diversity in corporations are often more subtle than outright discrimination like bullying or exclusion, though sadly those still occur too. Ask any professional, and they’d probably admit to seeing familiar patterns that limit career progression for women.

Women are more likely than men to set themselves a higher bar before considering themselves ‘experienced’ in a certain sector. And in addition to battling ingrained gender biases or gaps in their careers due to parental leave, women are also documented as being less likely to engage in ‘office politics’.

Rather, they are judged more harshly than their male counterparts for displaying ambition and behaviours considered assertive or competitive, all of which can create not just penalties for women who do aspire to leadership roles, but disincentives and a lack of self-confidence to reach for those ‘stretch’ positions.

Individual women can also make themselves more ‘qualified’ candidates for leadership roles by developing an area of expertise and a point of view on their industry, building networks, and gaining concrete responsibilities for commercial outcomes. It’s even better if their career interests lie beyond support functions such as HR or marketing that already have a high proportion of women.

It’s high time that we broaden our vision for what constitutes relevant experience and expertise, and reassess the positive difference it can make to have teams that are more diverse.

Collectively working to encourage and value diverse contributions

A key step corporations must take if they’re serious about improving gender diversity, particularly at the senior level, is to reassess what it means to be inclusive. Hiring candidates who look like and have similar backgrounds to previous incumbents of senior roles will hold us back not only in gender diversity, but in responding to new business realities and future opportunities.

Women can and should feel empowered to reposition their previous work experiences in new ways, and to know that their individual perspectives and ways of thinking are valuable and desirable assets. A candidate who wants to leverage functional skills such as project management or analytics, for example, should feel empowered and encouraged if they want to leverage those skills in a new industry, and not ruled out because they don’t fit narrowly-defined criteria for experience or expertise.

Diversity of experience is highly valuable. There are now endless studies which show that homogeneous teams of people from the same professional backgrounds and experiences make for poorer performing teams than those with a diversity of backgrounds.

So considering the critical shortages being faced by Australia’s technology industry in particular, businesses that pigeonhole potential recruits based only on their previous job titles and experience in very similar businesses are only doing themselves a disservice. While role-specific knowledge can be very important, many positions don’t need the highest level of technical skill. Rather, they need candidates who can manage programs, detect patterns in competitive dynamics and grow teams. Those willing to invest in the development of people that can grow in the role will be well served by canvassing for talent more broadly.

Making diversity of experience a desirable attribute in the recruitment process — not just in one organisation, but across the whole of corporate Australia — will naturally open more doors for women, who must also back themselves to excel in something that they aren’t necessarily the perfect fit for ‘on paper’, but have the potential to make their own.


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