Female leadership: The state of play in Australia

Organisations across the world continue to strive for equality, recognising that diversity helps create a happy, productive workplace.

The gender divide is often a main priority for businesses attempting to encourage more diversity, with female leadership development particularly important.

In Australia, the gender gap is already beginning to shorten. Corporate governance code amendments were implemented in 2012, which resulted in significant increases in women securing positions on company boards.

A year before the regulations were changed, only 8.3 per cent of ASX 200 board members were female. Earlier this year, Australian Institute of Company Directors data confirmed the figure had climbed to 18.2 per cent.

The organisation also noted that 31 per cent of new appointments in 2014 so far have been female, with 24 women taking up spots on ASX 200 boards in the year to May 28.

However, the percentage of female board members is still below one-fifth the proportion of men, indicating businesses still have some way to go before maximising diversity.

Female leadership perceptions 'changing'

Recent research has revealed that perceptions of women leaders are beginning to shift, as many stereotypical 'female' leadership traits begin to gain favour in businesses.

Dr Paustian-Underdahl PhD, lead researcher at Florida International University, said women are typically expected to be more communal, nurturing and relations-oriented than men. Conversely, males are stereotypically assertive and independent.

However, whereas male traits have been favoured in the past, there is a much better understanding of the benefits of both sets of characteristics.

“As organisations have become fast-paced, globalised environments, some organisational scholars have proposed that a more feminine style of leadership is needed to emphasise the participative and open communication needed for success,” she explained.

The university's study, published by the American Psychological Association, claimed that colleagues consider women equally as effective leaders as their male peers.

Ms Paustian-Underdahl said globalisation in businesses is paving the way for a more positive view of female leaders.

“As more women have entered into and succeeded in leadership positions, it is likely that people's stereotypes associating leadership with masculinity have been dissolving slowly over time,” she explained.

Improved gender diversity initiatives 'needed'

Despite a positive shift in female leadership perception, many Australian and New Zealand businesses appear to be falling short when it comes to successfully implementing gender diversity policies.

In April 2014, recruitment specialist Hudson said over 56 per cent of hiring managers across the two countries highlighted diversity as a key initiative. However, only around one-third of these had a specific scheme in place to boost female participation.

Of the companies with a policy in place, only 36.3 per cent reported it was meeting or exceeding set targets.

Simon Moylan, executive general manager of talent management Asia Pacific at Hudson, said the figures are “no surprise”.

“Rather than aligning to the company strategy and supporting long-term outcomes, initiatives are often run in isolation with vague targets and little measurement,” he explained.

Mr Moylan said any organisations failing to optimise the talent pool by recruiting highly talented women will quickly lose out to competitors.

Reasons to invest in female leadership

Clearly, organisations can make a number of improvements to boost their female leadership development practices – and there are plenty of reasons to do so.

The peterberry_author whitepaper 'Female Leadership in Australia' highlighted a number of areas where women showed excellent potential for executive environments.

For example, the research showed females scored higher than males on the core issue of strategic drive in Ambition, Imaginative, Bold and Mischievous. According to the paper, this could suggest they will be more confident, visionary, competitive and have a stronger presence. 

Women also attained higher scores than men in the people skills and innovation categories, while achieving similar scores for emotional stability.