What does the average CEO look like? We’ve been reading for years about women being underrepresented in senior positions, but surely this is changing? Not fast enough, it would seem. Industry research suggests that women hold less than 5% of CEO positions across the globe, requiring a much stronger effort towards achieving greater parity.

In Australia, the number of women in key leadership positions throughout our 200 largest publicly listed companies (ASX 200) has fallen. In fact, there are fewer women in top roles, like CEOs or Board Chairs (19) than there are men named John (32), Peter (32) or David (21). Research by Conrad Liveris also reveals that most of the CEOs and chairs on ASX boards are straight, white, able-bodied men aged 40–69 years, despite this group only accounting for 8.4% of the entire population.

These figures suggest that progress is slow. However, it’s not just the ASX 200 demonstrating a lack of female representation. Data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) shows that even with female representation growing across all management categories since 2014, the number of women declines as seniority increases.

While women account for 40.8% of ‘other managers’ this drops to 34.1% at ‘senior manager’ level; 30.1% at ‘other executives / general managers’ level, 28.5% at ‘key management personnel’ position, and 16.3% at ‘CEO / Head of Business in Australia’ level. In addition, women account for 24.7% of directors on governing bodies but only 12.9% of board chairs.

Women make up 51% of all non-manager roles and are concentrated in traditionally female occupations, including community and personal service, along with clerical and administrative positions. Coupled with the 18% gender pay gap that exists across Australia, for full-time workers, the data paints a bleak picture of gender equality, requiring rapid redress.

Why are we still seeing gender inequity in business?

Many factors contribute to the ongoing gender equity conversation. Personally, I see a key challenge being that women often only apply for promotions or positions in which they are 100% qualified or feel completely confident in fulfilling. Females are also less likely to ask for pay rises or do so less frequently than their male counterparts. Further, many women who possess the experience to fill CEO and Board positions often juggle the expectations and/or requirements of taking time off to have children.

Women returning to the workforce after having children also tend to face significant challenges in finding care for their kids, so many typically delay coming back to work until their children are in school. This makes returning to the workforce, and to senior roles, challenging. Flexible working conditions and work from home policies are increasingly being adopted but many companies are still behind the eight ball in implementing such programs to support caregivers, both men and women, involved in raising children or caring for sick or elderly family members.

Achieving greater gender equality requires businesses to commit time and resources, and to see it as a critical business issue at the highest level in each organisation. There are clear benefits for organisations that do adopt flexible work policies and support greater gender parity throughout their operations. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), closing gender gaps across the world by 25% by 2025 could add US$5.8 trillion to the global economy and boost tax revenues by US$1.5 trillion.

How can companies do better?

Employees are the most important asset in a company and every organisation has an obligation to treat their staff fairly, including promotion and pay processes. The wealth of staff information held within a company should be used to drive this change, accompanied by a top-down focus on gender equality. Heading up the ANZ operations of business analytics company Qlik, I know firsthand the value that can be derived from internal data.

Workforce data often sits within the HR team but can be effectively used by both HR and wider management to see associations and areas of improvement for employees across the business. Bringing together information on worker composition, home location (to map average commutes), attendance and absenteeism rates, promotion rates, feedback, training and employee satisfaction, and processing this through a business analytics solution, can help organisations with this.

This data can be used by HR and management to spot trends, create opportunities (i.e. promotions or new markets for the business to explore) and solve problems. It can also be used to future-proof operations, helping to identify potential skill gaps and areas needing significant training and investment. Analytics can enable businesses to better record, track and visualise this information to assess and draw out potential discrepancies or areas for improvement, particularly regarding gender.

Encouraging female mentorship

Data can show associations and areas to improve, but relationships and staff empowerment are also essential in this conversation. It’s therefore up to companies to develop and financially support women at work through mentor programs and regular events. These meetings encourage senior female staff and industry leaders to share their insights on career progression and how to overcome workplace gender challenges.

Across my 17 years in the IT industry, I’ve found that the most ‘successful’ women typically have a mentor or coach pushing them beyond their comfort zone. I personally count my mentor as one of the most pivotal influences in my professional life.

Providing opportunities for female staff to engage with industry leaders and peers, both internal and external, to develop these mentor–mentee relationships helps to build female employees’ confidence and assertiveness. Facilitating such mentor programs and events is not only beneficial for employee engagement but it also greatly enhances the company’s bottom line, with motivated employees more likely to go the extra mile, shifting corporate culture in a positive direction.

Businesses possess a wealth of employee data; presenting an invaluable opportunity to collate this information, form innate associations and visualise areas of improvement regarding gender parity. Coupled with a focus on female empowerment, both within the office and through industry mentor programs, organisations and individuals alike can actively contribute to achieving greater female representation in the workforce.