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Women in top jobs: Why aren’t there more?




  • Women are catching up in management roles, but are still significantly under-represented in CEO and board roles.

  • Women’s caring responsibilities and insufficient childcare are key factors impacting career progression. 

  • Negative hiring experiences have a cumulative impact on women competing for senior positions.


Each woman has her own aspirations and decides how important work and career are in her life. Not everyone chooses to pursue leadership opportunities, but it’s notable that fewer women are given or take those opportunities compared to men. There’s ample data on women in management and leadership roles, along with numerous suggestions on increasing female representation in these positions. For management roles, efforts in this direction have resulted in positive outcomes. The Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency reports that more women are now entering management roles than men, and it’s expected that gender representation will become equal within the next two decades.


But how about women in senior leadership positions? Unfortunately, this is a far less rosy picture. Less than 20% of Australian CEOs and Board Chairs are female and the percentage of women in senior managerial and board roles remains stagnant at around 33%. The progress for women's participation at senior levels is extremely slow, and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency encourages employers and boards to set voluntary targets to bridge the gender gap.


Additionally, a 2018 report by The Business Council of Australia, McKinsey & Company, and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency on Women in Leadership made several recommendations to accelerate bridging the gender gap. These include workplace flexibility, investing in capability and experience, sponsoring talented women, setting inclusion targets and putting a supportive infrastructure in place. Unfortunately, Australia has not made much progress since. And I don’t find that surprising. With over 60% of females enrolled in Australian universities and stable participation of women in management roles, it surely can’t be about more mentoring and capability development for women to land the top job.


As a senior leadership recruiter, I am particularly interested in why women put themselves forward for senior leadership positions, or more importantly, why they do not. Because if you don’t apply, you can’t get the job. 


Caring responsibilities and senior leadership roles

The media currently emphasise the role women’s caring responsibilities play in their career progression, underscored by ABS data revealing that women have had a 55% drop in earnings in the 5 years following childbirth. Calls from media and women advocates for improved childcare options and workplace flexibility aim to help women stay in the workforce and continue in management roles while having children. Of course, caring responsibilities vary and impact men as well, although due to cultural expectations, generally to a lesser extent.


The impact of caring responsibilities weighs heavily on women considering CEO and executive roles. These positions demand intense commitment, requiring immediate attention to challenges as they arise, rather than suiting personal schedules. Hence, women opt for ‘easier’ and more flexible alternatives, resulting in potentially less relevant leadership experience, fewer achievements and less to show for than men in job applications. But over time, women should be able to catch up, as children grow up and they can devote more attention to their professional careers.


Obstacles in the workplace

Caring responsibilities are of course not the only reason for gender disparity at the top and researchers have identified a wide range of explanations, often related to workplace practices. These include but are not limited to lack of access to internal opportunities that provide relevant experience for women, as well as women experiencing obstacles in getting promoted within organisations. These observations are not new.


The impact of hiring experiences

As a senior leadership recruiter, I am particularly interested in why women choose to compete for executive positions or, conversely, why they do not. Achieving gender diversity in leadership requires a substantial representation of women among job applicants. After all, if women do not apply, they cannot be appointed to these positions.

Researchers from the London Business School have identified factors that affect women’s participation in the senior leadership talent pool. They found that a negative hiring experience significantly influences women’s decision to continue pursuing senior roles, leading them to disengage from the process. This phenomenon, often referred to as ‘leaning out’, occurs when women, after experiencing rejection, are less inclined to persist in their career progression efforts. While facing rejections is a common aspect of applying for top positions, men are more likely to persevere in pursuing their career ambitions. When women are turned down by a particular company, they are in general, less willing to apply again for a role at that same company or for a similar role elsewhere. These motivations are closely linked to the perception of procedural fairness during the hiring process and to how the hiring process impacts their sense of belonging in terms of fitting into the executive domain.

Consequently, the talent pool of women competing for top jobs reduces after each rejection, resulting in a smaller talent pool in the next round. This pattern aligns with sociological models illustrating cumulative disadvantage, where initial group differences in the early stages of a process magnify over time. Individual experiences that may seem insignificant at first glance add up to make a large statistical difference with significant implications for gender equality in top-level positions.


Is treating everyone the same as an equitable approach?

While there are undoubtedly more reasons for women to disengage from competing for top roles, I would like to share some thoughts on hiring strategies and advocate for a reconsideration of current practices.


Our commitment to equal opportunities has led to processes designed to ensure equitable approaches, removal of bias and the creation of a level playfield for all applicants while creating a thorough record of fair practices to avoid legal repercussions. However, it is debatable whether the emphasis on objectivity truly fosters an experience of procedural justice, appreciation of talent and skills, and the feeling of being heard. In fact, I would argue the contrary.


Top jobs are not mere reflections of job descriptions, but are shaped by the unique approaches, experiences, and talents of the incumbent. Each top-level applicant brings a distinct strategic perspective, set of skills and personality, making it impossible to conduct identical interviews or measure and compare responses in a linear way.


Moreover, it’s crucial to recognise that every individual is unique and may prefer to be treated differently. Boards and leadership teams of good companies have been trained in unconscious bias and understand the impact of inclusive teams on organisational performance. Additionally, organisations often engage external recruiters to assist in the hiring process for top roles, further mitigating the risk of biased decisions.


Acknowledging this, could enable active support for the diverse experiences of senior women throughout the hiring journey and break the cycle that creates barriers for them. It's not just about unlocking doors for talented women; it's about fostering a hiring process that encourages and values the diverse experiences of every individual, irrespective of gender. In doing so, we can cultivate a process that not only motivates but empowers everyone to aim high and thrive in leadership roles.



Sources: 

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2022-23). Barriers and Incentives to Labour Force Participation, Australia. ABS. https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/labour/employment-and-unemployment/barriers-and-incentives-labour-force-participation-australia/latest-release.

Azmat, G., & Petrongolo, B. (2014). Gender and the labor market: What have we learned from field and lab experiments?. Labour economics30, 32-40.

Bahar, E., Bradshaw, N., Deutscher, N., & Montaigne, M. (2023). Children and the gender earnings gap: evidence for Australia. Department of the Treasury (Australia).

Brands, R. A., & Fernandez-Mateo, I. (2017). Leaning out: How negative recruitment experiences shape women’s decisions to compete for executive roles. Administrative Science Quarterly62(3), 405-442.

Gregory, S. K. (2021). Managing labour market re-entry following maternity leave among women in the Australian higher education sector. Journal of Sociology57(3), 577-594.

McKinsey and Company Australia. Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA); Business Council of Australia (BCA). (2018). Women in leadership: lessons from Australian companies leading the way.


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