How can women address the challenges facing Australia’s female leaders?

If you’re a female leader (or aspiring leader) in Australia, you face quite a few challenges. The number of women in key leadership positions in 2017 has actually fallen. There are only nine women CEOs and 10 women chairing boards in the ASX 200. In fact, fewer women run top Australian companies than men named John (or Peter, or David).

The latest Australian Public Service Remuneration Report shows that women in the public service are paid on average 8.6 per cent less than their male colleagues. Think that’s bad? If you’re in the private sector, that gender pay gap rises to 19.6 per cent. Across the entire workforce, the average base salary for women is $84,104. For men it’s $92,036.

In government, the representation of women went backwards after the 2016 election, and is now as its lowest level since Paul Keating was prime minister in 1993.

Overt sexism is on the decrease. However, the figures above demonstrate that gender bias is still very much with us. Stereotypes are so deeply embedded in our culture that we are often unaware of how these affect our behaviour. As a women leader, there are steps you can take to change the way others perceive you.

I have coached hundreds and hundreds of women managers and leaders over the past 25 years. There are some things I’ve found that women can do to really make a difference to their career progression. I’d like to share a few of these insights with you. If you have a coach of your own, these are all helpful points to explore during coaching conversations.

What got you here won’t necessarily take you forward. You may have achieved a management or leadership position because of your expertise in a specific area such as finance or marketing. That’s great. However, to become a great people leader, take every opportunity you can to develop ‘soft’ skills such as motivation, persuasion and communication. Success correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. And confidence can be learned.

Position yourself with clarity. Prepare for every meeting. Make your business case, check your facts and figures, and plan what you’re going to say. You’re much less likely to be knocked off course if you’ve thought hard about what you want to achieve – and how you’d like to achieve it.

Anticipate what responses you might get. Observe how colleagues behave towards you and aim to recognise any patterns. By anticipating how others may respond to you, you can think of alternative ways of raising issues in order to break patterns of behaviour.

Say ‘I’ not ‘we’. There is evidence that leaders who talk about ‘we’ and ‘us’ rather than ‘I’ and ‘me’ demonstrate consideration and an outward focus. However, I hear a lot of women using ‘we’ more than they really need to. If you’re presenting your own point of view, let others know that ‘I’ think this.

Be authentic. Few things are more stressful than feeling you have to behave in a certain way. Be yourself and trust your instincts. You do not have to know all the answers. Ultimately, this will win you respect.

Be different. Challenge the status quo – especially if you’re the only woman in the room. Aim to look at every challenge from a fresh perspective and provide a unique opinion.

Don’t worry about being liked. Aim to build positive, professional relationships. Focus on business goals and on creating a constructive workplace culture in order to achieve those goals.

Speak up. Research shows that men speak more than women do in meetings. Be aware of this and consciously contribute. If someone interrupts you, call it out. You may be perceived as pushy (research demonstrates this too), but if more women don’t speak up, we’ll never smash that glass ceiling.

You deserve to be here. Many women with notable achievements have high levels of self-doubt. Overcome imposter syndrome by exploring your own definitions of success and failure. Be objective and separate the irrational from the logical.

Call it out. Many people will say to you that gender bias doesn’t exist in today’s workplaces. Plenty of research demonstrates that it does. Most of this bias is subtle rather than overt. All of us – women and men – need to become more aware of gender bias. When you see it, highlight it. And as a leader, do something about it.


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