This article originally appeared on HRD Australia. Written by Sharon Ardley.

Sharon Ardley looks at how HR leaders can help address the gender imbalance in higher levels of management by working with women – and organisations – to help them secure these roles.

It is clear there is a gender imbalance in executive level positions across Australia, however, an increasing drive among employers and organisations to redress this to ensure women are equally represented in higher level positions is certainly encouraging.

Data from Victoria’s Public Sector Commission (VPSC) reveals that in 2017, a full 48 per cent of executive positions in state government departments were filled by women; a promising increase from just 39 per cent in 2011.

However, there continues to be structural barriers, inherent bias in hiring and a lack of self-belief in women conspiring to keep a disproportionately higher number of men in senior level leadership positions.

Earlier this year, the company I work for, Australia’s leading recruitment and HR consulting company, Davidson, launched the inaugural Top 50 Public Sector Women (Victoria) List to recognise the achievements of women in senior positions with the Victorian Public Sector.

The women named on the list serve as flag-bearers for other women who aspire to senior level positions and they now receive ongoing networking, career-building support and leadership development opportunities.

We felt there was a need to recognise and support women who have achieved professional success by securing executive level positions and given the outstanding work being done by the Victorian Public Sector, it was an obvious place to start.

One of the women named on the list, Louise Meadows, General Manager People & Capability, City West Water says there are three key areas of focus needed to help redress the gender imbalance in senior-level positions.

These are:

  •  Encourage women to return to work with flexible working conditions and possibly sponsorship
  • Addressing unconscious/ inherent bias which favours the employment/promotion of men to leadership roles
  • Encourage women to apply for senior-level positions

Encouraging women back into the workforce
“I believe that showing examples of how you can have a rewarding career in both the public and private sectors is key to encouraging more women to enter into the public sector,” Ms Meadows said.

“If more women had the opportunity to hear about, and understand the challenges and opportunities both public and private sectors present, they would be better informed when making decisions about their career.”

Ms Meadows said the issue of gender equality in senior positions is a “complex and challenging problem that all organisations face.”

“I think the reasons are many, but one key reason is that women are often not properly supported when returning to work and not encouraged by those around them to apply for leadership roles or set up for success when they do,” she said.

“Women must be properly supported when returning to work and this involves advocating for them to not only return, but to sponsor them in rising to executive levels if they so wish.

“To facilitate this, business should be encouraged to look at how executive roles can be flexibly managed and encouraging other male executives to work in the same way is key.”

Addressing inherent bias
Inherent bias is an issue which cannot be addressed until unconscious hiring and promoting practices which favour men over women for senior positions, is laid bare.

While this requires a level of self-reflection, it also requires a level of honesty about the factors informing why certain people (or genders) are being hired and promoted while others are not.

“The issue of inherent bias about what good leadership looks like must be directly tackled,” Ms Meadows said.

“It is not about, as Catherine Fox calls out in her book, Stop Fixing the Women, rewarding or encouraging women to act more like their male colleagues in the boardroom in order to succeed, but instead is about encouraging,  valuing and rewarding women to be their authentic selves.”

Ms Meadows said there are many instances where women will attempt to compete in a man’s world by taking on male qualities only to be disparaged for doing so. An often quoted example of this is assertiveness. On a man, it looks good (positive); on a woman, it can be dismissed as “bossy” behaviour (negative).

“Inclusive leadership, or unconscious bias training, can be helpful here,” she said. “People don’t set out to be biased. We all are, but in the fight for gender equity it is one of the biggest issues we need to tackle.”

Women need to back themselves – and each other

Ms Meadows said the third key area of focus to achieve gender equality in leadership positions is the attitude of women themselves.

“The final roadblock can often be women themselves,” she said. “I often find women not applying for positions simply because they feel that they have to be able to achieve all aspects of the role to a very high level before they apply.

“As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see. This still holds true for women in leadership. It is also important to understand that you can’t be if you don’t know how.

“All roles involve learning and growth, and having the confidence to ‘back yourself’ in these areas is crucial.”

In short, if you don’t back yourself or the other women around you, chances are others won’t either.

As for her own journey to executive leadership, Ms Meadows said she took plenty of risks and was lucky to have the support of other women around her.
“I pride myself in putting my hand up for roles that are just outside of my comfort zone, where learning and further development of my skills is part of the process – this is what growth is all about,” she said.

“There is always a degree of risk involved in taking these leaps, so it is so important to not only find confidence within yourself, but to also surround yourself with the best team possible.  We all need support networks, and it is because of this that I make sure I have the right support around me  – both at work and personally – to help guide me along the journey.”

Ms Meadows said “space and freedom” to learn and grow in a new role was important to her personally and this is something she has always looked for when choosing a new role.

“If flexibility is needed to allow me to take on an executive role, it is also important for me to include this early on in role negotiations,” she said. “I talk about exactly what that looks like, but use the framework of KPIs, outcomes and value creation rather than hours and days.

“It is very important for me to keep the conversation alive about the importance of women in leadership, and how as a sector we can challenge the current reality that there are simply, far too few women holding executive positions.”

Ms Meadows said initiatives such as the Top 50 Public Sector Women (Victoria), was a proactive step towards encouraging women to aspire to executive level positions.

“If we can make visible the work of all 50 women and show others how we have faced and overcome a variety of challenges, we will be essentially providing others with a ‘toolkit’ to successfully navigate their own journeys,” she said. “This program will have then made an important difference.

“Already, this program has started conversations within my own organisation, and has brought a sense of pride to our people as a business that is prepared to stand up and celebrate successful women in leadership.”

Ms Meadows said the shift towards more women holding senior level positions had been exemplified by City West Water, not least of all because of an organisational target of having full gender equality.

“When I joined we had only 28 percent of women in leadership roles,” she explained. “As of September this year, that had increased to 40 percent which meets our 2018 target and is getting us very close to us meeting our target of 50 percent by June 2020.

“We have done this through strong leadership from the MD and total commitment to achieving 50/50 by 2020 by all of us on the Executive and a belief that it is up to us to make this happen, no excuses.”

As Ms Meadows shows and from my own experience within HR, there is no quick fix when it comes to gender equality in senior roles within both the public and private sectors.

To achieve this, we need to make a conscious effort to applaud the achievements of women who have succeeded in senior positions, challenge unconscious bias in hiring and promoting and ensure there are systems in place which empower and enable women to return to the workforce – and aim for senior positions.

It starts with awareness and grows from there.