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Glass ceiling cracks in Australia but women still blocked at executive level

Business

The glass ceiling for female executives is finally starting to crack with Australia exceeding 30 per cent women on top listed company boards, according to a report from the University of Queensland.

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The report found that Australia was one of only three countries in the world to exceed 30 per cent of women on top-listed company boards without legislated quotas.

It was considered a significant turnaround from 8.6 per cent in 2008 to 33.6 per cent in 2021, according UQ Business School researchers Dr Terry Fitzsimmons, Dr Miriam Yates and Professor Victor Callan.

But opposition remains. The UQ report said further progress was being impacted by a “pushback’’ among a minority of men. 

“Given the dominance of men on boards for the past century, many believed that there was still a sense of entitlement among the older generation that men should succeed to the board after a successful executive career and the number of women coming on to boards was undermining that entitlement,’’ the report said.

The report also found there was “a level of fatigue’’ identified, “particularly in relation to the requirement to constantly reimagine or reinvigorate messaging to maintain momentum on the issue. 

“This is particularly salient given the underlying structural barriers in the Australian economy, and society in general, which act against workplace gender equality and require constant effort to combat,’’ the report said.

However, Fitzsimmons said the accomplishment of reaching the 33 per cent level was remarkable considering Australia had a limited pipeline of women reaching ASX chief executive roles roles and that only 5 per cent of CEO roles in the ASX200 were presently held by women.

But the report also pointed out that it was achieved against a backdrop of Australia’s generally poor track record in gender equality. 

“Relative to leading gender equality countries, Australia also has a persistent gender pay gap that has hovered above 20 per cent for the last two decades, as well as very low numbers of women in chief executive roles in our ASX200 companies,’’ the report said. 

But Fitzsimmons said it was a “truly encouraging result’’ and that Australia was leading progress for women on boards at an international level despite the challenges women still face to achieve gender parity, especially in the corporate landscape.

The Australian Institute of Company Directors chief executive Angus Armour said he hoped the report would help invigorate the conversation on diversity and the work still required to improve outcomes for women.

“The Australian experience is a fascinating example of corporate-led change without government intervention,” Armour said.

“This warrants investigation so that other jurisdictions might gain insights from our experience.”

The study revealed the number of women joining ASX200 boards in Australia grew by approximately two per cent each year from 2009 to 2021.

The research found key individual and organisational influencers increased female acceptance on publicly-listed boards, including financial media outlets, prominent ASX50 chairs, the 30 per cent Club and AICD campaigns.

“The two greatest barriers from our research were the lack of universal, affordable child care and persistent gender role stereotypes,” Fitzsimmons said. 

“While we’ve broken one ceiling, we will hit another as women try to progress into C-Suite (corporate level) roles until we address these issues.”

 

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