The disappearing female leader | Women's Agenda

The disappearing female leader

In the US recently, Bain & Company Management Consulting shared the results of a study of more than 1,000 men and women in a mix of industries and sectors. With answers to just two questions, it revealed what the corporate world is facing with the potential lack of future female leadership;

– “Do you aspire to top management within a large company?”

– “do you have the confidence that you can reach top management?”

At first, the results looked encouraging for leadership gender parity; women with two or less years of work experience actually led men in their ambition for the top jobs. Give them more time in business though – two plus years – and aspiration went down by 60%, confidence by 50%.

The men?

A 10% dip in confidence only, with no change in aspiration. (These figures were independent of marriage status and motherhood).

In a different way, India is experiencing an equally worrying drain of female leadership talent. Nearly 50% of the graduates who enter the corporate pipeline drop out before reaching mid-level management, because they marry early and are expected to give up all paid work for familial duties.

There is also a gender pay gap over time, (approximately AUD$6,000 per year by the time Indian women are 12 years into their management career). They also tend to receive less training and fewer international assignments.

“There’s a lot of evangelising, a lot of political correctness, a lot of talk, but very little concrete action from companies,” says Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes, a jobs and careers community for women. “There’s still a lot of subtle sexism: woman are shunted towards HR, content writing or “feminine” roles. Companies accept women in the workplace, but they don’t want to make an investment in them.”

There are similarities to both these situations here in Australia. There is a record high gender pay gap, with the average weekly full-time pay for a man sitting at 18.2%, or $283.20 more than that for a woman. For those who say ‘oh, but it’s because women tend to be attracted to the softer skilled industries, which pay less’ – well, they are even worse, with the health care and social assistance sector having the highest gender pay gap at 30.7%, followed by financial and insurance services at 30.0%.

At the same time, the percentage of women on ASX200 company boards is just 20.4% as at 30 April this year – and 38 of those companies do not have any women on their boards.

If we asked the questions here of 1,000 men and women in various industries that Bain & Company asked in the US, what do you think the answers would be?

This is a work journey that seems to be, if anything, going backwards. More and more young women are choosing to leave corporate life for entrepreneurial paths, or taking positions that are less than their talents merit. Why? Because they are not having their ambition, their drive, their aspirations and their confidence actively fostered – or recognised. And worse, they’re being paid less than their male peers.

Those who are fortunate enough to be in a position of influence now – both men and women, but especially women – have to start being far more active in terms of sponsorship and driving change. Otherwise? There is no behaviour modelling from our current female leaders – for younger males especially.

They then see this lack of support as acceptable, and don’t make any effort to support and strengthen. Younger women meanwhile see nobody of substance to aspire to be like, or to look up to.

If this continues, we will lose not only half of our brilliant minds, but also the yin to the male corporate yang. We have complementary personal skills, and this is not a bad, or a shameful, thing to admit. Men and women should work collaboratively at a leadership level; it’s what makes teams – and decisions – great.

Women’s ‘soft skills’ as leaders – to empathise, to compartmentalise, and to bring diverse groups together – should never be underestimated, along with our ‘hard’ business skills.

Let’s see the answers to those two questions become more than encouraging. In fact, let’s see them become the norm – or face societal and business devolution.

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