The World Economic Forum released its latest gender-gap rankings this week, with Australia ranked 27th overall.  We have fallen from 17th in 2007, despite having a female PM, G-G and two premiers. Our performance is oddly varied: first in educational attainments but 24th for opportunity and employment participation and 37th on political empowerment.

These results suggest, at a minimum, that Australia does not make use of the education and skills of half our population. This set of comparative figures form an interesting backdrop to the current, if belated, debates we are having on why so few women are in senior management and on boards.

The recent EOWA review showed little progress. The figures are remarkably stable as is noted on the EOWA website.

In 2002, the inaugural census highlighted the under representation of women in Australian leadership and the subsequent under-utilisation of the talents of the vast female workforce. In 2003 and 2004 there had been little change and by 2006 and 2008 only glacial progress. By quantifying the deficiency, we hope to inspire business leaders to think differently when making decisions about the next executive appointment.

But 2010 didn’t show a significant rise, 8.3 to 8.4 but the ASX threat of reporting on gender balances pushed the rate quickly to 10% in the months since the census. This shows it can be done. Will the threat last long enough to make further changes? Or will sloth take over once the shouting dies. The public debate continues for now as shown in an AFR article on Tuesday, there is some support from the highest level as there should be, given she has benefited from earlier attitude changes in political parties.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday backed plans for corporate Australia to set quotas to increase the number of women in senior management jobs. Ms Gillard, Australia’s women first female Prime Minister, said formal targets were needed to help business women break the glass ceiling. The Prime Minister was commenting after Westpac Banking Corp, one of the country’s biggest employers, said it had set a goal to have women occupy four out of 10 positions within four years.

But as Elizabeth Knight wrote in the SMH on Wednesday “the problem for those recognising the imbalance is that it contains an implicit admission that either women have been discriminated against in the past or there will be positive discrimination in the  future”.

This comment raises the issue of why this lack of change has occurred. The excuse used to be it would take time to get enough women with experience into the feeder areas, but that is not happening.  So there must be other explanations if we assume women are equally capable of leadership. There are more women at the lower levels but they are not rising in proportion to their education and presumed skills.

I have some concerns about the main remedies being pushed, which is more mentors and training for women, the assumption being that we are the problem. I claim the problem is with the current selectors, criteria and processes. There is no proof that selected current senior leaders are doing such a good job that there is little space for improvement.

Why assume that managing finances is so much more important than human resources, where the women are clustered? Why not look at what more diverse life experiences can bring to board and other senior decision making groups?

Why not recognise the widely available data that says high level diversity increases profits, if nothing else counts?  France and Sweden have mandatory quotas. Maybe these are the only way to achieve merit where there is entrenched discrimination and biases.

Peter Fray

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