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Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Want more women in leadership roles? Focus on the top of the pipeline first

Nov 4, 2019 | News

Written by Carol T Kulik

Women are graduating from university in record numbers and in greater numbers than men. Yet the representation of women falls by approximately 10 percentage points at each successive step on the management ladder. Organisations are under pressure to increase gender diversity in their leadership, but they may need to rethink their strategies. Most organisations focus exclusively on the bottom of the pipeline, trying to remove obstacles that limit women’s progress toward the top.

At the Centre for Workplace Excellence, we’ve been investigating strategies that organisations adopt to increase gender diversity in leadership roles. We started with a hard look at workplace flexibility, because managers, union representatives, and policymakers often describe flexibility as key to ensuring that women reach the top of organisations.

…the representation of women in management roles in organisations investing in flexibility was about 3% higher than in organisations that hadn’t made those investments. But those benefits were only realised 12 years after flexibility practices were adopted

We used the annual reports that organisations submit to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to examine the long-run impact of flexibility practices adopted by more than 600 Australian organisations, and found that the representation of women in management roles in organisations investing in flexibility was about 3% higher than in organisations that hadn’t made those investments. But those benefits were only realised 12 years after flexibility practices were adopted.

What if there was a faster way to increase women’s representation in leadership roles?

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There is! In other research, we examined the impact of appointing women directly into senior roles. We found a trickle-down effect operating in a sample of 1,387 ASX-listed organisations over a 10-year period. Companies that appointed women to their corporate board experienced subsequent growth in women on the executive team. The growth was substantial and fast: a company that appointed three women to a 10-person board experienced a 16% increase in women in the executive team the following year.

The growth was substantial and fast: a company that appointed three women to a 10-person board experienced a 16% increase in women in the executive team the following year

This trickle-down effect operates in private and public sector organisations, and it works between any two levels. In a parallel study in the Australian public sector, we found that public sector departments that made more female executive appointments experienced an increase in women’s representation in the executive feeder group the following year.

The findings demonstrate the powerful signal that organisations send to the market when they appoint women to the corporate suite. These visible appointments encourage women, both inside the organisation and in the external market, to apply for leadership roles. A bigger applicant pool gives the organisation more opportunity to select the best talent from a gender-diverse shortlist.

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Appointing women to the corporate suite encourages other women to apply for leadership roles

So…is it better to get a small increase in leadership gender diversity after 12 years, or a big increase after a single year? Seems like a no brainer, right?

The good news is that organisations don’t have to choose one strategy over the other, because their effects are complementary. Flexibility practices are more effective in advancing women to leadership roles in organisations that have gender-diverse workforces.

Flexibility practices are more effective in advancing women to leadership roles in organisations that have gender-diverse workforces

In these gender-diverse organisations, organisational members get used to seeing women (and men) working part-time, job sharing, or working virtually. As a result, more women feel comfortable taking advantage of the flexibility practices their organisations offer, and fewer women opt out of the organisation on their way up the corporate ladder.

Smart organisations will speed up the pipeline to gender diverse leadership by supplementing their flexibility practices with female appointments to senior roles.

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Carol T. Kulik is a Bradley Distinguished Professor at the University of South Australia, UniSA Business, Centre for Workplace Excellence.  She is the co-author of Human Resources for the Non-HR Manager (2023, Routledge), a book that makes the latest research on people management accessible to managers with no formal training in human resources.

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