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Diversity Council Australia has found measures to promote gender equity in the workplace have failed dismally at getting more women into leadership roles. The independent council, which advises businesses, has reviewed current measures including mentoring and found they have not worked.

It has also found gender stereotypes persist and that women are still used as scapegoats for structural problems in the workplace.

“If we did nothing at the moment, with current practices that are in place, it would take about 177 years to reach gender equity in our workplaces – which is pretty unacceptable,” the council’s Lisa Annese said.

Ms Annese says unless methods such as career path sponsoring are widely adopted, women will will remain under-represented in executive ranks.

“Relying on the ‘pipeline’ of women leaders to reach the top, thinking that merit alone will solve the issue, adopting programs that aim to ‘fix women’ and blaming them for not ‘leaning in’ enough have not and will not change the picture,” she added in a statement.

“In contrast, the evidence shows that other initiatives – in particular actively sponsoring women into leadership positions, addressing bias at every level, adopting broader definitions of what leadership looks like, and public accountability via reporting on measurable outcomes – will actually deliver results.”

Ms Annese says research shows many current leadership models are based on male stereotypes and need to be redefined.

“Conventional wisdom says that the best leaders have good ‘cultural fit’, ‘executive presence’, gravitas, and need to be ‘ideal workers’ available 24/7 but these stereotypes not only favour men but actively work against women,” she said.

“As just one example, women’s voice pitch, height and physical build can interfere with perceptions of their executive presence and authority.

“Just as importantly, these are also not necessarily the best measures of leadership capability.

“For example, research shows that introverts can be just as, and sometimes more effective as leaders than extroverts, caregivers make better people managers, and women in flexible roles are the most productive employee segment. It also clearly demonstrates that diverse perspectives add real value – a value lost when ‘cultural fit’ is relied upon.”

What does not work, according to the Diversity Council:

  • The ‘pipeline theory’ that says gender balance will be achieved over time now that there are more women entering the workforce and moving into more senior roles
  • Formal talent management programs that ignore gender
  • A focus on promoting ‘meritocracy’ (the council says this results in gender biased decision-making and favours men)
  • Asking women to ‘lean in’ more (the council says they are already ambitious and leaning in, and men benefit more from leaning in than women).

Instead, the council wants to see: 

  • ‘Gender conscious’ initiatives such as targeted recruitment programs and women’s leadership development
  • Fixing the culture by moving away from the ‘deficit model’ that says women are the problem
  • Sponsorship (which is associated with women’s advancement) rather than mentoring (which develops women but does not lead to their advancement)
  • Addressing bias of all kinds (conscious, unconscious, individual, organisational)
  • Targets and public accountability as well as a dedicated diversity function
  • Adopting a broader, more gender inclusive (and effective) definition of leadership capability.

First published: 4th August 2014

Source: ABC News