October 1, 2019

Is the parlous state of women in leadership of top ASX companies really only bad news for women?

Is the parlous state of women in leadership of top ASX companies really only bad news for women?

A few weeks back Chief Executive Women released its latest census of women in the top ranks of Australia’s largest listed companies. Unsurprisingly, the results show tiny progress with women now making up only 13% of the line roles that lead to CEO, which partly explains why the number of women CEOs dropped from 7% to 6%. In good news, women now make up 25% of exec roles up from 21% the year before.

Almost a decade of Male Champions of Change, mandatory gender reporting and CEW advocacy and programs and still only teeny tiny steps are being made, sometimes in the opposite direction.

People decry this as unfair for women and a sign of ingrained institutional sexism. No doubt this is true to some extent. But the more I look at this problem, the more I wonder if women are actually making better choices about their career and their lives.

Rising to the top of a large ASX listed company is a hard road for anyone. Long days, the emotional and mental burden of managing personality conflicts and senseless politics, and the time foregone with family and friends are among the sacrifices made for this version of a rewarding career. And that’s before you add the gendered layer of bias at best, and sexism and harassment at worst. Walking through wet cement is an analogy that comes to mind.

Even if you did remove all the bias and sexism, I think many women want a far more interesting and diverse life than the singled-minded pursuit that inevitably comes with running the rat race to land a ‘line’ exec role in major companies.

I know this is a somewhat controversial view so let me be clear that I’m not in any way saying the slow rate of progress for women at the top of corporate ladders is due to them not being as ambitious or qualified as men. But I think it says a lot about what type of ambition is required and the type of race that has to be run. I’d love to see some research on how the type of ambition varies between women and men. My anecdotal experience suggests women are more motivated by purpose and positively impacting the world while men are more motivated by being right and winning.

Meanwhile women are starting up new businesses at a faster rate than ever. In fact over a third of all new businesses are owned and run by women. For some women this leads to incredible success. Here’s a list of the ones who are nailing it on the mega millions scale. And there are dozens behind them who are nailing it on the ASX CEO millions scale.

I totally appreciate that for most women who run their own businesses, the cost of this freedom is lower super balances and less economic security. But the fact that the majority (57%) of these female bosses say they are pleased or delighted with their lives says a lot about what the alternative company job presents. This report has some great stats on women in business, FYI.

So perhaps we should stop lauding all the blokes and the apparent power and privilege that comes with running a mega company and spend more time and energy enabling and profiling the incredible women who are nailing it in other domains.

And perhaps the exec and line role stats are the wrong numbers to self-flagellate over. The dynamics of workplace gender equality are so much more nuanced than these headline composition stats suggest. I’d love to see a benchmark that measured personal and professional fulfilment and wellbeing of women and men in these top companies.

That research should assess the levels of values congruence, self-awareness, empathy and connection employees feel. Learning and growing while being supported to do their best work is the endgame.

Now that would be a set of numbers to obsess about improving.

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