Corporate Australia has been discussing the poor representation of women in management ranks for a decade. G20 leaders have put lifting the number of women in the workforce on the global agenda. Yet, the inaugural release of comprehensive data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency this week shows employers are largely failing to act and instead are window-dressing their approach under the cover of “policies”.

Close to half of employers in this world-leading dataset have policies for gender equality, flexible working, supporting employees with family and caring responsibilities and those experiencing family or domestic violence. But as anyone who has worked in the real world of corporate Australia knows, policies count for very little.

What drives action in any organisation is a well-articulated strategy that is clearly connected to corporate imperatives, vision and values. Strategies with clearly defined performance metrics that are regularly communicated internally and to which management are held accountable drive action and ultimately results.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that only one in four of the top three layers of management are women. It should also be no surprise that the leadership pipeline is jammed for women at every layer of management, or that the women in the agency’s reporting population (which comprises a third of the Australian workforce and represents over 11,000 employers and about 4 million employees) earn around 20 per cent less than men – a number that blows out to almost 25 per cent when bonuses and other discretionary elements are factored in.

Why is this not surprising? Because fewer than one in five employers have a gender equality strategy, and less than 15 per cent have strategies for flexible working or supporting their employees with family and caring responsibilities (which of course relate to both genders).

So, what does an effective gender equality strategy look like? It will be different for every organisation. However, it must first articulate the need to overhaul the systems, processes and culture that have created an uneven playing field that advantages men and disadvantages women to the detriment of shareholders who simply don’t have a diverse group of the most talented people making decisions in their companies.

It’s changing the structure that says you can either be a mother or a worker, and shifting the norms that define management success with typically masculine characteristics.

Achieving that overhaul is a big job, but it is doable and the rewards are great.

It starts with a root and branch review of the systems, process and signals that dictate how work is done and rewarded. That requires engaging all stakeholders, internally and externally, so their views and concerns are heard and addressed. Leadership accountability, preferably through a balanced scorecard approach where diversity outcomes are tied to remuneration, is also required.

A crisp business case, specific to your organisation and based on corporate data that can be used to measure progress over time, is also essential but rarely done well. This business case, and regular progress assessments against it, ensures the focus and momentum that’s essential to achieving lasting change.

Reviewing all policies and processes – how teams are structured, work is divided, performance is measured, remuneration is set and suppliers are chosen – is essential to ensure they are inclusive of both genders. Reviewing should be done in consultation with employees, who are best placed to tell employers what perverse, unintended consequences certain policies may have. Less than half of employers in our reporting population consult with employees on gender equality issues.

Underpinning these efforts is embedding flexible working, and critical to achieving flexible work is managing people to outcomes, not inputs, which are usually measured by time at the desk.

Of course, what I’m defining here is a brave new world that ensures every person in an organisation, regardless of gender or caring responsibilities, is able to realise their full potential. And that starts with a deep appreciation of the fact that women’s potential in the workplace is limited by both the perceptions of feminine traits as being not aligned to leadership strength and their disproportionate caring burden. If we were to achieve this outcome, imagine the talent we would be nurturing and the impact that would have on business.

When we consider that Australian women are among the most educated in the world, yet are also among the most underutilised in the workforce, surely it’s time we made it a corporate imperative to build the management capability across Australian organisations to ensure we reap the promised benefits of true meritocracy. That requires bold leadership. I hope Australian business leaders, who are mostly men, rise to the challenge.

This op-ed was originally published at


Sectors: Business