Barriers to women in senior leadership in Australian corporations

Kathryn Evans

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

    278 Downloads (Pure)


    Despite decades of equal opportunity legislation, there is still a paucity of women in senior leadership positions in Australia. Furthermore, although women have become better educated, are entering the workplace in greater numbers, and have been able to reach middle management levels, the progress at senior executive and board levels has been slow, and the number of women reaching these positions remains disproportionately small. This research identifies that women continue to face many barriers, and discrimination remains an important factor in the ability of women to advance their careers, with even very small levels of unconscious bias having a profound effect. While overt sexism may be less obvious in today’s society, benevolent sexism is no less relevant in terms of its impact on women’s progress, and male managers’ biased perceptions of women’s managerial aspirations and competing family priorities can have a particularly detrimental effect. Improving gender diversity at senior levels within organisations is not just a social justice issue, there are also sound economic and business reasons for making it a strategic priority in Australian businesses, and awareness of those reasons is growing (Werner, Devillard, & Sancier-Sultan, 2010). The Australian Public sector has made significant progress and the gap has steadily narrowed over the last 10 years towards a goal of parity, with women now holding 49% of senior executive roles in the Australian Public Service (Australian Public Service Commission, 2017b). This experience demonstrates that with the right policies, strategic goals and supporting frameworks, gender balance is achievable. Unfortunately, this is in contrast to the private sector, where women make up 21% of executive leadership teams of ASX200 companies, a figure that drops to just 12% when considering those line roles with profit and loss responsibility that represent the pipeline for future C.E.O. roles (Chief Executive Women, 2017). More concerning is the fact that 63% of ASX200 companies have no women in line roles, and therefore it is no surprise that women hold only 5% of ASX200 C.E.O. positions and it has been reported that there are less women running Australia’s top companies than men named either Peter, John or David (Liddy & Hanrahan, 2017). So why is it that Australian businesses are not making the sort of progress that the Public Sector has demonstrated is clearly possible? At a time in Australia’s history when equality is resonating with discourses of social fairness and parliament has legislated for marriage equality, surely the time for “homosocial reproduction” (Kanter, 1977a) in Australian leadership is over, and the time for “inclusion” of 50% of Australia’s best and brightest has arrived. This research proposes that it will require a comprehensive national approach to bring all of the policy areas together in order to effectively address the ongoing inequality. This research explores and identifies the reasons why Australian corporations are not making more progress, by conducting 15 qualitative interviews with women in key senior positions to gain their insights into what is preventing organisations from making gender diversity a key strategic goal while exploring the deeper reasons for the on-going gender bias in contemporary Australian business. It also investigates the gender equity initiatives and structural changes that may be needed to support this goal and makes recommendations on what Australia can do as a nation to drive economic growth and business prosperity through key policy measures to address the current inequities.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Business Administration
    Awarding Institution
    • Charles Sturt University
    • Maley, Jane, Principal Supervisor
    • Tilbrook, Kerry, Principal Supervisor
    Award date01 Dec 2018
    Place of PublicationAustralia
    Publication statusPublished - 2019


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