Why are we still struggling to get women into leadership positions in Australia today?

It’s a question that led Rosamund Christie, executive coach and passionate advocate for women in leadership, to kick-start the Women In Leadership program at the AGSM.

“As women, we need to begin making change ourselves,” she says. “By knowing how to start and manage conversations, we can shift things in the workplace. And Australia’s leading business school also has a responsibility to support this.”

Rosamund explains there are two sides to this complex issue.

“First, there’s the undeniable problem of unconscious bias. We all instinctively seek out people and opinions like ours. So if we currently have mostly men in these positions of power, they will look for themselves. We see this in recruitment all the time – we are often drawn to the person who seems most like us.”

However, that’s only half the story.

“There are so many courageous, entrepreneurial women who take themselves out of the running. They might be risk-takers, but they start their own businesses on their terms. Meanwhile, others look at the culture at the top and decide they don’t want to be part of it.”

Gail Kelly, former CEO of Westpac, was widely acknowledged as a role model for female leaders when she decided to step down to pursue something different. During her last week as CEO, according to an article in The Australian, a male colleague warned her she’d suffer terrible “relevance deprivation syndrome in the days and months ahead. She laughed it off, saying that was only something men would experience, because women lead lives “so rich and full.”

This just highlights our polarising expectations of the way women and men respond to (and think about) power.

Will diversity improve business performance?

It doesn’t take much effort to find statistics underlining the business case for gender parity in the workplace or the continuing gap at leadership level. But Rosamund says the time for wringing our hands over the numbers is over.

“I believe we’re getting side-tracked by statistics. The key thing is, what can we do about this?”

She says the social and economic consequence of ‘business as usual’ is that voices are not being heard at a societal level, and the picture of business leadership does not reflect the world in which we live.

This lack of diversity and inclusion is widely understood to limit innovation and creativity, as well as business risk mitigation.

However, she points out that it’s also not a given that having more women in leadership roles would lead to a more resilient, agile or even nurturing organisation. “That’s just as much a bias – a presumption that things would be different or more effective.”

She also believes it’s time to think beyond the business case for women in leadership. “It’s a basic human right. We are a society of almost equal numbers of men and women and that’s not reflected at board level, in senior government or on a senior executive level.”

Balance begins at home

So how do we overcome unconscious bias when it is, by definition, hidden deeply inside our thinking, personal experiences, cultural norms and behaviour? We can start by bringing stories to the surface, starting a conversation to question why things are assumed, and train our brains to test whether we are making decisions based on those assumptions.

For Rosamund, those conversations need to take place both in and out of the workplace.

“Domestic examples are really important, because if it’s happening unconsciously at home how can you change it at work?”

She gives two examples. “Next time you are driving on a weekend, look at the car next to you with a man and woman in the front seats. I’d say nine times out of ten times it will be the male in the driving seat. There’s an unconscious ‘muscle’ for who gets into the driving seat and even if the woman doesn’t want to drive I’d question whether she ever openly negotiated that.”

This is important because the children in the backseat are seeing “who’s in charge when dad’s around” – even though mum is almost always the principal thinker for the household.

The other conversation she’d like to shift is one about the childcare cost for a woman returning to the workforce. “This is a huge barrier to re-entry and career progression, because if she just sees it as a deduction from her take home pay she might not think it’s worthwhile. But what if the couple saw it as a cost to the overall family finances – the cost of both parents being in the workforce?”

Rosamund acknowledges these are both specific to women in heterosexual relationships with children, which is not representative of all women in the workplace. “But what happens to these women impacts us all”.

She also believes Australia’s predisposition towards single sex schools (particularly in private and selective state schools) sets our children up for unrealistic expectations of the way the world functions.

Opening up the conversation

If you’re ready to start a conversation in the workplace to uncover unconscious bias, Rosamund has a few suggestions.

“It would be rare if it wasn’t an issue in your organisation, but it can be difficult to address. First, make sure you take any sense of blame out of it, otherwise people may become defensive. Ask people to bring up any examples they see around them, and then openly discuss what might be behind those situations. You may need a script to manage the process, and you still need to hold people to account.”

Rosamund points to Westpac as one example of a business that has made good progress in this area. It was the first bank to publicly commit to appointing women to 50 per cent of its leadership roles by 2017 and, according to its own accounts, is now tracking at 46 per cent. Westpac mandates that 50 per cent of recruitment shortlists for leadership roles, and 50 per cent of its high potential program and graduate program participants, be women.

Setting goals like these – effectively self-imposed quotas – is also part of the solution, according to Rosamund. “Obviously you’d only appoint someone to the position if they’re qualified, regardless of gender. But given we already have an ‘unconscious quota’ in place, a conscious quota would change what we look for in talent management.”

All this is part of the incremental change that must happen, perhaps slowly but just as surely, if we are to transform the way our boardrooms look, behave, and make decisions.