Breaking down the glass ceiling on senior roles for women in Brisbane

Gender equality is still a big issue in the workplace, particularly for women seeking out higher level executive or CEO positions.

As a recruiter, with 20 years’ experience in this industry, I’ve seen it all.

Through my networks I’ve also heard many horror stories from women that aren’t being considered for the top job, are being undermined, or don’t even get a seat at the table for an interview - despite their credentials and glowing reputation that precedes them.

The numbers don’t lie either. There is an alarmingly small percentage of female CEOs and executives, not only in Brisbane but Australia-wide.

So why is this the case? In a world that has become so conscious of equality and workplace diversity, why is there a lingering cultural issue at play that doesn’t seem to be improving?

The issue made headlines in September, when the latest Chief Executive Women census of women in senior executive roles announced just 6% of the top ASX300 companies have women CEOs, and only one out of 23 CEO appointments in the ASX300 in the 2021 reporting period was a woman.

Furthermore, it said modelling posited it will take 65 years before women make up 40 per cent of line roles in executive leadership teams.

65 years. That’s not until 2086. As a father of a 17 year old daughter about to complete year 12 and start her career, something needs to drastically change here.

In the Australian Financial Review article titled ‘Corporate Australia needs to get serious about diversity’, it also explored these findings, citing 60 per cent of university graduates in 2019 were women - yet this wasn’t being reflected in the number of female corporate appointments.

It’s an issue that does not sit well with me at all. As an executive recruiter, my job is to always find the most suitable candidate for the role, whoever that might be.

I want to raise awareness within my network that this is still happening, so we can all do our part to move the needle in this space and create more opportunities.

Female executive speaks out

To put this all into context, I spoke with a Brisbane-based female executive who reinforced this was a systemic issue.

She agreed there were very limited senior opportunities for men and women in Brisbane – making it harder for women to land these roles when male CEOs were habitually favoured.

There were also internal issues at play for females that did in fact land senior positions, where they may have the title but still experience levels of sexism via colleagues, clients or stakeholders.

“We’re going backwards here in Australia in terms of females in senior roles and certainly CEO roles. I’ve noticed Brisbane is a really closed market and there is a very strong element of the ‘boys club’. It’s really backwards,” she said.

“This is all linked to a broader cultural discussion around women in business and attitudes.

“Male CEOs are a lot smarter in recent years. They know what to do or say to sound like they’re very equality-focused so they will surround themselves with the right number of females in their executive team. But it’s not properly functioning because they’re still playing that control game.

“They might surround themselves with females but not necessarily create the opportunity for them to grow, as they should grow, and certainly not have people around them that challenge them. It’s a really weird dynamic as they certainly package themselves up much better. In Australia, the gender bias is very deep.”

COVID-19 impact

My female executive source also said COVID-19 exacerbated this issue, causing a deeper divide and limited opportunities.

“I think in the last 18 months during COVID, it has got worse. There are two issues going on here; one that is culture in business, and the second thing is there’s not many good roles going in Brisbane.

“With the borders shut, there’s not as much migration across the border with roles, so you’d think that would create more opportunity, but because the number of roles is smaller it’s not creating that interstate play that used to happen where women would move to Sydney or Melbourne for a position if there wasn’t one suitable in Brisbane.”

Parental leave

Biases towards maternity leave and women taking time away from the workforce to raise their young children was also an ongoing cultural issue that needs to be addressed.

However, since COVID-19 remote work, Zoom meetings and unusual hours have become far more common.

It has forced many organisations – that once were against their staff working from home – to embrace this way of work in order to keep operating during lockdowns and border closures.

My female executive source said flexible work arrangements should be available to women and men, to get their job done when juggling parenting responsibilities.

“If you are limited by your capacity to work, a lot of businesses don’t like that,” she said.

“However, I’ve seen the flipside where you can create enough flexibility for people to get the job done, however they need to get it done – working from home, late nights etc.

“I’ve had people that are very effective working from home and then others that have done nothing. There’s not one solution – it’s finding the right combination and having enough process and structure so you can track people’s productivity and accountability as well.”

The path forward

It is clear, this is a big issue that still needs to be improved.

And at Genuine Executive Engagements, I am doing my part to ensure the right people are recommended for high-level positions and CEO roles when they become available – based on their experience – not their gender.

I also endeavour to do my part in placing women in more and more CEO positions to narrow the gap.

Ultimately, we all need to be doing our part, however we can, to drive this cultural shift and create more balanced workplaces and opportunities for women.

My female executive source said while she didn’t have any answers right now, she recommended all women build a really strong network.

“Typically, roles come from your immediate network. My advice is always use your network and keep connecting with people across a broad range of networks as well,” she said.

“Unfortunately, the higher up the level of your experience, the fewer roles are available. You do have to be willing to wait to find the right one.”

Over to you

I’d love to know your thoughts and personal experience regarding this issue. I encourage you to send me a message on LinkedIn or email and see how my recruitment firm can help.

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