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Women in business have made significant gains over the past decades. However, we’re still underrepresented at all levels of management, and it’s a problem we see across most industries.
While many companies declare a commitment to see women advance to leadership positions, they often lack the strategies to make it possible for women to climb the corporate ladder.
Research shows having more women in leadership is better for employees, better for business and better for society, but gender parity in leadership is still a long way off.
So, what’s going wrong, and what can we do about it?
Women leaders: where the bloody hell are you?
It makes excellent business sense to have more women in leadership positions, with proven benefits for company culture, employee satisfaction and profitability. But while women are increasingly moving up the ranks, progress is painstakingly slow.
According to research by the World Economic Forum (Global Gender Gap Report 2022), the number of women hired into leadership positions worldwide has increased from 33.3% in 2016 to 36.9% in 2022. It’s only a slight increase, but an increase nonetheless.
Female entrepreneurs and business leaders in Australia are underrepresented across almost all industries. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, while women comprised half of the employees in the 2020–21 WGEA dataset (51%), women make up only:
- 19.4% of CEOs
- 32.5% of key management positions
- 33% of board members
- 18% of board chairs
In the traditionally male-dominated marketing and advertising world, the number of female creative directors is just 3%. Incredibly, only 0.1% of creative agencies are founded by women [and we’re SO bloody proud to be in that 0.1%] .
Considering women are behind 70–80% of purchases, it makes sense for advertising and marketing agencies to have more female decision-makers on board.
When it comes to the crème de la crème of leadership — Fortune 500 CEOs — a 2021 report found just 8.2% of Fortune 500 company leaders are women. It’s a small percentage, but the good news is it has increased from 6.6% two years ago. The slow train is at least moving in the right direction, and with good reason.
Companies with more than 30% female executives have been found to outperform other companies, boasting higher profits and greater employee satisfaction.
Changing workplace culture to embrace female leadership
While we’re undoubtedly seeing more women elevated to C-suite and other leadership positions, it doesn’t necessarily mean company cultures have evolved to take the needs of women in the workplace into account.
Most women have to make enormous sacrifices to make their way up the corporate ladder, but why does it have to be this way? The short answer is, it doesn’t.
We’re proud to be one company leading the way for women in business, showing there’s a better way to work that means we can have it all.
Sarah Spence, our Founder and Strategic Director, knows from personal experience how rare it is for women to be mentored into leadership positions. When she began her career in marketing, there was a distinct lack of encouragement for her to advance.
“I had some fantastic jobs in my 20s, but it was very much an attitude of ‘don’t try and get ahead of yourself’. I don’t know if a young man who shows a lot of enthusiasm and drive is told, ‘No, bide your time, love,’ but that was definitely my experience. I was told, ‘Look, you’ve got potential, but you’re going to have to wait your turn.’”
One reason Sarah launched her SEO copywriting company was to create the kind of organisation she would have loved to have worked for when she cut her teeth in the industry. She had a clear vision to build a successful business that would champion female leadership and provide the support needed for women to rise to meet their full potential.
Sarah believes that in order for more women in business to take on leadership roles, we need:
- a shift in mindset around working conditions and expectations
- a redesign of the policies around leave and benefits so as not to penalise female leaders (or employees) for having children
- open dialogue around subjects like workplace flexibility and family-friendly hours
Research from Harvard Business School shows companies need to foster a culture where all employees are encouraged to share their ideas and opinions. They also need to create a clear path for women to advance to leadership roles.
Importantly, all women — leaders or otherwise — need to feel valued and heard in the workplace.
The unique value women bring to leadership roles
Not all women in business are suited to leadership roles, but many have attributes that can make them great leaders.
Research on leadership styles has found female leaders to be more collaborative, more democratic and more participative than men. They are more likely to be team players and they tend to ask for input from others and try to build consensus.
Women also show more empathy as leaders.
According to McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2021 report, female business leaders:
- not only take on the tasks expected of their position, but they also do more than men in similar positions to support the people on their teams
- put more effort into helping team members navigate work-life challenges
- are more likely to ensure employee workloads are manageable and check in on their overall wellbeing
Sarah says leaders who also happen to be mothers should be seen as an asset to the company culture rather than a liability, as they have even more to bring to the table.
“They have a different level of understanding of the challenges working mothers face,” Sarah says. “Even just giving permission for employees not to feel guilt around the needs of their families is a big thing.
“That idea that we’re meant to work like we’re not parents and parent like we don’t have to work — that’s just not possible.
“We want people to bring their whole selves to work — their whole messy, amazing selves — because it adds to the diversity. It allows people to just get on with their jobs and do something they enjoy, have a bit of a challenge, use their brain and do something that lights them up.”
Building a successful women-led business: what’s the secret?
We employ women in all of our senior leadership roles, a goal Sarah was conscious of as she built her business.
Having found the corporate world “inflexible, stifling and anxiety-inducing”, she was driven to create a company that honoured the needs of women. These needs would include everything from attending school events to having a boss that understood the challenges of women’s health issues.
A hallmark of the company culture here is flexibility, a vital factor in the achievement of gender parity in leadership. As we employ a fully remote team, our employees enjoy a flexible work schedule. In turn, the company benefits from the ability to recruit the right people, regardless of location.
“People talk about flexibility in the workplace, but what does that actually mean?” Sarah asks. “The benefits for me as a leader of a remote team are that I’m not geographically hamstrung. So if we find the right candidate and they happen to live 1000 km away from me, that would still work for us.
“The other benefit is that we all get to craft a working week that works best for us. That is particularly important for the creative brains in the business.
“We have hours in which everyone needs to be online. But if it’s Book Week and you want to go watch the parade, then you can. You can work for a few hours in the morning, head to school and watch the parade, and then work for the rest of the day. Or you can just smash it out and get everything that you need to get done in a shorter day.
“I don’t think flexibility is a word that encompasses that kind of sentiment in its entirety. It’s really about working by design. That is a real benefit. Having the freedom to design how you want to work while still being in a team and being able to collaborate and enjoy the team benefits.”
Mentoring women in business to become leaders
Mentoring women to become leaders is good for business. While there’s change in the air and a desire in many companies to elevate women to leadership positions, the strategy has been missing and real progress has been slow.
A 2019 study found that while 76% of Americans believe mentorship is important for career development, 82% of men have had male mentors, while only 69% of women have had female mentors.
For real change to happen, leaders need to view gender parity as an asset to company culture and the bottom line and subsequently invest time and effort into leadership training for women. They also need to implement strategies to ensure more women are mentored into leadership roles.
The Forbes Coaches Council encourages companies to interview qualified women for every leadership role and offer strengths-based professional development opportunities.
One of the challenges women in business face is they typically underestimate their strengths. Forward-thinking leaders look for ways to help women recognise and capitalise on their assets.
Something else companies can do to actively promote female leadership is to set measurable promotion goals and mentor women through the promotional pipeline. If there’s a clear path forward, more women will likely step up and take the reins.
Some experts in the field also suggest company leaders undertake unconscious bias training to help balance out male-centric cultures in the workplace. Now we’re talking!
Encouraging women in leadership: what can you do?
If you’re the owner or leader of a company, ask yourself what you could be doing in your organisation to promote inclusivity and create a company culture that advocates for women.
Sarah shares some ideas.
“We offer an open invitation to anyone who works with us to use the business as a place to gain more knowledge, to upskill, to get on top of some of the latest trends, work on big clients and increase their experience in a supportive and celebratory way,” she says.
Sarah says her team members enjoy celebrating each other regularly, as it builds confidence and resilience. This leads to better business outcomes, greater productivity and a happy team.
And as the boss, she not only provides mentorship and training opportunities for those who want to rise within her own company but actively encourages them to seek new roles in other organisations.
“I don’t expect anybody to be with Content Copywriting for life,” she says. “We offer opportunities for our employees to learn and grow and be able to move on to whatever the next thing is for them.
“I’ve said to a number of our team members that when this company no longer suits you, I will be the first person to champion you to go on to the next thing. I will be sad to see them go, but I’d also be so excited for them to start their next chapter.
“That’s just not something I was ever exposed to. It brings it back to my purpose and why I’m building this culture. It would have been really powerful for me, particularly in my younger career, to have had a boss who said to me, ‘Hey, I know you’re not going to be here forever; when you’re ready, let me help you make that next move.’”
How women in business can back themselves
While C-suite executives and management can take steps to support more women in leadership roles, it won’t happen if women don’t also back themselves.
Sheryl Sandberg was COO at Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook) from 2008 to August 2022 and was the first female on Facebook’s board of directors. In her famous TED talk, Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders, viewed more than 3.5 million times, she placed the responsibility on women to claim their power.
She said women need to be aware of how they talk about themselves and to other women — and also how they talk to their daughters — about what’s possible.
Sheryl made three important points:
- “Sit at the table” — meaning women often underestimate their abilities and shouldn’t shy away from grabbing their seats at the table with the bigwigs.
- “Make your partner a real partner” — for those with partners at home, equal sharing of childcare and household responsibilities is essential.
- “Don’t leave before you leave” — this means young women planning to have a family shouldn’t feel like they need to hold back.
Contrary to how many women in business feel when they harbour desires for a family, Sheryl says they should keep their foot on the accelerator until they go on maternity leave and not ‘lean out’ years too soon.
It’s time for more female business leaders in Australia to step up
Women comprise half of the population. To create the kind of world we all want to live in — a world that embraces diversity, equality and inclusivity — we need more women leaders.
Sure, change can be difficult. We are talking about no less than flipping the status quo on its head and ushering in a new era where women in business are seen as equals. It’s quite a shift, but when women are allowed and encouraged to be their best selves both at home and at work, we all win.