Excelling, not advancing: Why aren't more women in the corner office?

06 March 2015

Building greater gender diversity in the workplace isn't just about women's rights and equality - it's also at the core of a successful enterprise. 

Organisations benefit by meaningfully incorporating more viewpoints, perspectives, management styles and talents into their teams and operations. Women have also proven themselves to be extremely competent leaders, bringing approaches that are particularly well-suited to today's evolving workplaces and frequently outperforming their male counterparts in terms of driving profits, according to prominent social scientist Alice Eagly.

Why, then, aren't boardrooms, corner offices and the professional landscape in general filled with more women in leadership positions? 

An uphill battle 

Women make up only 38.9 per cent of managers, 26.6 per cent of decision makers and 17 per cent of CEOs, Kathleen Bailey-Ford noted at a breakfast BDO hosted on March 4. The figures are particularly poignant in light of the upcoming International Women's Day.

Progress for women in leadership positions over the past two decades has been ‘glacial’, Ms Bailey-Ford, a member of Chief Executive Women, said. Importantly, women still face a host of obstacles, including prejudice from men and women alike in the workplace. Studies have shown that people espouse different attitudes toward leaders and their actions based purely on gender.

Furthermore, women encounter additional pressures, such as scrutiny towards how they dress rather than simply how well they do their job. Although men are increasingly taking on more family responsibilities, mothers are often judged when their careers cut into time spent in their role as carers. 

Nonetheless, respecting and leveraging the skills women contribute to a workplace will be critical to remain competitive.

"We need to better utilise the female half of our population if we are to compete in the Asian century," said Ms Bailey-Ford. "There has been a collective wake-up call and the business case [for gender equality at the executive level] is irrefutable."

...but a battle worth fighting 

Despite the ongoing challenges women encounter in their careers, enterprises can take steps to set clear expectations, goals and efforts to improve gender diversity - and ultimately benefit the whole workforce and company.

"Organisations thrive when men and women alike have a voice at the table and can make the most of their individual talents," said BDO Chairman Helen Argiris

"In recognition of this, BDO maintains a firm commitment to create an environment that values the diversity of our employees. By empowering women and people of all backgrounds to thrive in our company, we can better serve the unique needs of our clients."

It's not just about numbers and quotas - these changes have to hit deeper to transform underlying assumptions. Doing so requires enterprises and entire industries to have clear objectives, including efforts to build a more diverse workforce as well as programs to empower women and break down prejudices. 

Research from McKinsey&Company found CEOs have a seminal role in driving sustainable change, with the most successful initiatives built on a framework of clear goals and agendas. However, embracing greater diversity is a task for everyone, at every level of an organisation. Only by making the most of the unique talents of each team member can companies rise to their full potential.