Glass ceiling firmly in place

The handful of organisations making a serious attempt to encourage women into management are often wasting their time, a report has found.

The mental model of male leadership was still deeply embedded in business and this meant formal policies to increase the number of women in management were failing, said researcher and consultant Hannah Piterman, author of The Leadership Challenge: Women in Management. "The move by women into leadership has been sluggish to say the least. There's a moral dimension that cannot be ignored. Entrenched beliefs regarding the role of men and women in society continue to be played out in organisational life," she said at the launch, organised by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) in Sydney.

The study included interviews with more than 100 managers and senior executives at companies including Commonwealth Bank of Australia, AMP, Coles, Deloittes, Freehills and Macquarie Group.

"If business wants to attract and retain talent then diversity must be key on the agenda and driven by senior leaders and incorporated into the main business priorities. It's about naming the problem that has no name," Dr Piterman said. "We must recognise the task requires ongoing vigilance in order not to be thwarted."

Policies to address these problems were not sufficiently integrated into business, and were often put on hold while attention was given to "core" business issues.

Meanwhile, women were struggling to gain recognition and reward in the current organisational climate and it undermined their confidence and experience of working life.

Transparency in recruitment and promotion, flexibility measures and mentors for women were all needed for success, as well as linking diversity with business outcomes and setting realistic targets for flexible work. Companies needed to recognise that culture change programs in this area were often resisted by men and women.

Board director and member of networking group Chief Executive Women, Diane Grady, said the report's findings highlighted some well known barriers for women.

"It's been a long time coming, this realisation that this is a big issue," she said. "It's a business issue, not just a feelgood issue, and that's the No. 1 point . . . and the real challenge is represented by this room. I guess most CEDA functions wouldn't have this gender mix of 70 to 80 per cent women. How do we get men to really engage with this issue? I'm not sure many CEOs have this as a KPI [key performance indicator]."

Peter Butler, managing partner of Freehills, stressed the need for more than lip service by men at the top.

Freehills's graduate intake was now 64 per cent women and the cost of losing a senior associate was enormous, he said. Commitment from the top, investment in flexibility, and auditing to monitor progress were all needed.

"I'm deeply puzzled why we haven't done better in this space than we have," he said. "We are nowhere near where we hope to be. Very few organisations can say they are doing well."

Giam Swiegers, CEO of Deloitte, said that anyone wasting female talent right now was stupid.

"We are proud of how far we have come but very disappointed about how far we have to go," Mr Swiegers said.

"At senior ranks we continue to fail to bring through female talent."

Sidebar: Sexism in the city

"They don't see me as a competitor. I could never be a CEO because I am a woman."

Female senior manager

"I'm never wrong. Or perhaps I'm often wrong but never uncertain. It's a masculine thing not to acknowledge you are wrong. It's not always conscious either. Attack is the most common form of defence."

Male senior manager

"A lot of the old sexism has gone or it may have gone underground. There are things people know they cannot say anymore but they may be thinking it . . . Scratch the surface."

Female senior manager

"The senior females are there, I'll be blunt, because of how they look not because of the way they behave or the way they work."

Female senior manager

"When I employ someone, it's got to be someone I trust. That's why I might employ men. Blokes trust blokes. It's a point of reference, we are consciously connected. You're like me, you look like me, our values are aligned. It's Darwinian, we move in packs and that's why we survive."

Male senior manager

Source: Executives interviewed by Hannah Piterman for Women in Management

Fairfax Business Media