The ‘wait’ for leadership parity won’t happen with the number of female CEOs going backwards

The ‘wait’ for leadership parity won’t happen with the number of female CEOs going backwards

The number of female CEOs leading ASX 200 organisations has gone backwards, dropping from 14 to 12 over the past year, in figures that demonstrate ‘waiting’ for gender parity in leadership won’t make it happen.

It doesn’t help that the appointment rate of women to such jobs was close to non-existent over the past year: of the 25 CEO posts up for grabs, just two of them went to women.

The Chief Executive Women (CEW) ASX200 Senior Executive Census 2019, released today, tells the story.

A story that shows improvements on figures measuring progress for women in leadership can not be assured over time.

The World Economic Forum most recently said it will take 202 years to close the global workforce gender gap, but when it comes to women in the highest leadership positions — particularly across business— it’s easy to see how quickly we can find ourselves running in the past.

The percentage of female CEOs on the ASX 200, now at 6 per cent instead of 7 per cent, is tiny to start with, showing we can’t simply expect to continually see progress on women’s representation in ‘traditional’ forms of leadership. Nor can we wait and expect to see the spillover effects that can occur with women in leadership, like progress on policies that better support flexible work for all, paid parental leave, equal pay and women’s health. As this Census finds based on the tiny sample available, a female CEO often indicates greater gender balance in their line roles.

Fewer women at the top means a much smaller — and therefore significantly less diverse — candidate pool of women that girls and women can visibly see themselves in when considering the possibilities of leadership.

We also know that less female CEOs means more conference organisers saying they ‘couldn’t find a woman’ because none of the handful of women with the required job title were available. It means less photos and quotes from women in the business media. And less opportunities for those working in corporate Australia to see and experience new forms of leadership.

It means the ‘most powerful’ and ‘best CEO’ business lists will continue to ignore the input of women because women don’t hold ‘traditional’ titles of power. like this list of 100 innovators that features one woman and 99 men.

The lack of female CEOs means more people talking up the need to appoint on ‘merit’, outlining their fears that a qualified men could be overlooked for a job. It means more boards thinking they’re ‘experimenting’ with a female CEO, and possibly more women only elevated to such roles when the chance of failure is significantly high, and there’s a ‘glass cliff’ on the horizon.

The lack of women at the top — also often being a symptom of a lack of women at the higher end of the leadership pipeline — means women are missing from groups and committees that aim to address the future of work for Australia and how we interact and engage with technology, including how we will increasingly engage with AI, already considered a future concern due to its lack of diversity, by the World Economic Forum.

One example today is the inaugural Australian Digital and Data Council, featuring seven men and one woman. This is not a business example, and those invited were appointed separately by their premier or prime minister, but it show how a lack of diversity in these ministerial positions becomes a lack of diversity involved in discussions about matters that affect all of us — and ultimately a photograph like this.

Back to the CEW census, there were some small pieces of progress to note. There are now 17 ASX companies with no women in their executive teams, down from 23 in 2018. But as CEW President Sue Morphet says, it’s absurd that in 2019, 17 such companies are still yet to appoint a woman to their executive teams.

The proportion of female CFOs is up, with women holding 16 per cent of such roles, a 4 per cent change from 2018.

There are now 24 ASX 200 companies with gender balance in their executive leadership teams (meaning women hold 40 to 60 percent of such positions), up from 21 in 2018

Small, incremental wins.

But so small that such progress is only a few changes away from going backwards.

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