The face of leadership is changing in Australia with a strong cohort of women leading the charge, but there is still work to be done. 

The leadership landscape needs to be disrupted, and with women accounting for only 16.5% of CEO roles according to the Federal Government Workplace Gender Equality Agency report, Australia’s gender equality scorecard 2016-17 – and just 26.2% of representation on ASX 200 boards as of December 2017, according to Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) statistics – it begs the question: what can be done to increase women's representation in leadership?

At the root of the issue is gender equality, and as Cathy O'Connor, Chief Executive Officer of Nova Entertainment, explains, “Proactive structures need to be in place in business for gender equality.”

Cathy Burke, author of Unlikely Leaders: Lessons in Leadership from the village Classroom and former Global Vice President of The Hunger Project (THP), has seen firsthand the impact of empowering and educating women. Reflecting on her previous work with THP empowering women to lift themselves and their villages out of poverty, the influential global thinker concludes that leadership can come from anywhere and that to lead, it is not always necessary to have a leadership role. Women often believe they are incapable of creating change or leading, but Cathy is passionate about changing that perception. "We are never too inexperienced to make change," says Cathy.

When Wendy McCarthy was approached to sit on her first board, she felt underqualified and underprepared, but with a lot of passion and someone behind her who believed her voice would be valued, she took the opportunity and has never looked back. Wendy’s advice for women is to leap first and figure out how to do the rest along the way, learning from those around you. “You say ‘yes’ first, and learn how to do it later. There will be an army of good women and men there to help you. If someone asks you [to do something], it’s because they think you can,” emphasised Wendy.

Wendy’s journey to her first board position was punctuated by the experiences behind her and a burning desire to create change. Early in her career as a teacher, she discovered that there was a discrepancy in the potential for career progression between men and women, and when she wanted to return from maternity leave she realised there was a systemic problem that needed to be addressed. “I realised they were preparing men for careers and women for jobs,” says Wendy, something she would dedicate her life to changing.

And Wendy has certainly created a huge impact. “I always saw myself as a beneficiary of the hard work Wendy and her cohort had done in smoothing the pathways for women to achieve a level of seniority in corporate roles,” says Carol Schwartz, Founding Chair, Women's Leadership Institute Australia.

Cathy O’Connor had what may be considered by some an unusual career path for a woman CEO. As Cathy puts it, it was ‘the same path the blokes took’ – she climbed the corporate ladder, beginning as a junior employee at a radio station in Sydney, and is now the CEO of NOVA Entertainment. 

Cathy is a sincere believer that one of the keys to changing the staggering gender inequity in business is to enforce strong representation of women in a diverse range of leadership roles. She encourages people to call out both positive and negative behaviours, as well as celebrate stories of success. “It’s about calling out those behaviours when you see them, and it’s about telling the stories of women in industries.”

Launa Inman, former Non Executive Director of Commonwealth Bank, considers one of her key responsibilities as a leader as being the ultimate customer advocate. “I am the voice of the customer," Launa says. “It is a voice leaders should always be advocating and although some sectors talk about being customer centric, that is not always the case. This focus is required.”  

Without high levels of representation of women both on boards and in government, the rate of change will not quicken, therefore it is essential for women to be involved in a leadership capacity, explained Carol. “Diverse groups create the best outcomes and we need debate and diversity for good outcomes as a nation,” says Carol. 

So what can each woman do to create ripples of change that will turn into a surge that can no longer be ignored? "We have to continue to challenge our cultural systems and behaviour,” says Wendy. Cathy O'Connor believes the key is in reminding ourselves that we have a voice and can contribute to the conversation and change, "It all starts with me; how I show up, what I can do." And Beata Koropatwa, Founder and Executive Chairman at The Confidante, says that complacency is not an option, it’s up to all of us to be catalysts. “I believe the greatest failure is to do nothing,” says Beata.

What are you doing to support women in leadership?

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This information is intended to provide general information of an educational nature only. As this information has been prepared without considering your objectives, financial situation or needs, you should, before acting on this information, consider its appropriateness to your circumstances. Any opinions, views of contributors, conclusions or recommendations are reasonably held or made, based on the information available of compilation, but no representation or warranty, either expressed or implied, is made or provided as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of any statement made in this information. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (Agency) is an Australian Government statutory agency charged with promoting and improving gender equality in Australian workplaces in accordance with the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 (the Act). The Australia’s gender equality scorecard 2016-17 dataset is based on 4,621 reports submitted on behalf of over 11,000 employers in accordance with the Act for the reporting period 1 April 2016 to 31 March 2017. Australian Institute of Company Directors is a trademark registered by Australian Institute of Company Directors in Australia. Research for Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) statistics conducted by the Australian Institute of Company Directors. If you have a complaint in respect of this information, the Commonwealth Bank’s dispute resolution service can be accessed on 13 22 21. Commonwealth Bank of Australia ABN 48 123 123 124 AFSL and Australian credit licence 234945.