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Women are under-represented in many senior leadership roles. This is true across sectors, industries, and countries. This is the case in university leadership roles, and also true of critical disciplines, such as science, engineering, and mathematics. 


But why does this matter? At first glance, this seems like a strange question to ask. Many people may think it's a fundamental issue of fairness. 


However, without providing a reason for change, getting buy-in from decision-makers can be difficult. In order to make change happen, we need to be able to persuade others that change is necessary. 

Women's workforce participation 


Since the introduction of equal employment opportunity legislation in the 1980s, female workforce representation has increased, with women now representing 46.9% of the workforce [1]. Workforce participation rate statistics paint a similar story: women's participation rate is at 60.7%, compared to 70.8% for men [2]. The participation rate is the sum of employed and unemployed individuals divided by total population aged 15 and up, and indicates how many individuals within a particular demographic (e.g., women) are actually in the workforce. In other words, the current participation rate shows that 6 out of 10 women, and 7 out of 10 men, are in the workforce. Women's participation rate has doubled, from 3 in 10 women in the workforce fifty years ago [3]


Female workforce representation and participation rate are important because they show that women are present in the workforce already, in approximately equal numbers to men, suggesting that the lack of senior women isn’t simply a “supply” issue. 

So why aren’t women and men equally represented across all organisational levels? And why are women less likely to be working in some industries and occupations?


People often (incorrectly) believe that women's under-representation in particular disciplines or in higher-level roles stems from women "opting out", not being assertive enough, or lacking commitment to their career [6]. Others (also incorrectly) believe it is "just a matter of time" for women to move up in the ranks, and that we need to wait for the current generation of junior women to be promoted into senior roles, or flood into male-dominated fields.


However, there are other processes at play.

The role of bias 

So if not those explanations, then why are women under-represented?


One key answer lies in 1st and 2nd generation gender biases. Most people will be aware of 1st generation gender bias, which refers to difficulties that women experience when trying to build the skills, knowledge, and networks that are needed to progress through an organisation [4]. This form of gender bias exists because people assume that men and women move through organisations in the same way. However, women face barriers to advancement that men do not. For example, women are less likely than men to have access to the networks needed for career advancement [5]. Similarly, because women are much more likely than men to take a career break when they start a family, it is more difficult for women to demonstrate the years industry experience that is often seen as required for certain roles, even if that level of experience is not actually necessary. These types of barriers make it more difficult for women to compete for roles. 


In addition to 1st generation gender bias, there is another, much more subtle form of bias: 2nd generation gender bias. This bias results from unintentional structural barriers created in a time when men dominated the design of organisations [6]. 2nd generation gender bias leads to structural barriers, such as who is thought of as an "ideal worker". The “ideal worker” is often conceptualized as someone working full-time, without any career interruptions, and who is available to work longer hours [7]. In other words, the ideal worker is a traditional male worker. This notion of the "ideal worker" then informs the idea of "merit" at senior levels, resulting in men being preferred compared to women [8].

With only a surface level understanding of gender issues in the workplace, it is easy to claim that gender bias does not actually exist [8]. People who hold this view often take the approach of suggesting that having an equal amount of women in the pipeline for leadership or male-dominated industries means that those who are meritorious enough will move up in their chosen career [9]. But this view fails to recognize the different trajectories that men and women take when moving up through an organisation into senior roles.  


You will often hear people say that female representation is improving, and that we only need to exercise patience and wait for equality to be achieved naturally. Although this might be true, waiting patiently for change will take, according to World Economic Forum, until the year 2095 [1]


Many organisations do recognize the barriers to advancement that women face. However, they tend to address 1st generation gender bias, with policies and practices such as mentoring and leadership training. These help women build the skills, knowledge, and networks that they need to advance. But they often fail to address 2nd generation gender bias. This means that although women will be able to develop the necessary skills for career advancement, unless they can work full time, avoid career interruptions, and focus solely on work, they will still not be able to compete with men for plum roles. 


Unfortunately, once 1st generation gender bias is addressed, it is often not apparent that the "gender issue" has not actually been fully tackled [1]. In order to fully address gender inequality at work, we also need to think about the concept of merit. 

The case for change

Having established both gender differences in representation at senior levels, and the reasons for this situation existing despite women's equal representations at lower levels of seniority, we now move to exploring some of the reasons to care about gender diversity across entire organisations. What are the advantages for organisations that are gender diverse, especially in senior management? 


First, homogeneous groups contain members with similar demographic characteristics (e.g. gender, educational background, socio-economic status). As a result, these group members often have similar backgrounds, experiences, and values. Group similarity can cause organisations due to the possibility of groupthink [15], where the goal is consensus, without dissent. Groups that are high in cohesiveness, prone to self-censoring, and who share an illusion of unanimity are more likely to fall victim to groupthink [15]. Having diverse team members may therefore be protective against this phenomenon. 


Groupthink decisions are generally quickly made and outcomes limited to the experiences of group members. This can often be a good outcome when problems are relatively straightforward to solve. But problems requiring creative or innovative solutions may be more difficult for homogeneous groups. In homogeneous groups, members are reticent to introduce new ideas or challenge established group norms. Think about the forward-looking focus of senior management. This senior group needs to be creative and come up with innovative solutions to help an organisation take advantage of opportunities, mitigate threats, and progress into the future. 


Compared to homogeneous groups, heterogeneous groups draw on a wider range of experiences and opinions. Women in gender diverse groups challenge the status quo [16], provide new opinions and debate long-held views. This leads to more in depth and wider ranging discussions [17]. Gender diverse groups are more likely to engage in exploration of various options. The robust conversations that occur in heterogeneous groups, lead to “creative conflict” [18], which in turn results in improved innovation [19]


But does this translate to a business case? 


The research suggests that gender diversity brings beneficial attributes to organisations. But does this translate to a business case? This answer is more complex. The research on this topic has been equivocal, because gender diverse teams generally only see economic benefits when diversity has been managed well. Organisations that fail to do so risk missing out on the benefits that gender diversity, especially in senior management, can bring. 


A gender diverse management group has the potential to outperform a male-dominated management group. Organisations that can successfully manage gender diversity are predicted to gain competitive advantage over others [20]. Therefore, gender diversity management is important for organisations [21]. However, the key is to effectively manage gender diverse groups. Many organisations are part way towards effective diversity management, but there is a tendency to view flexible work arrangements as the main focus of diversity management policies or to see diversity management as achieving compliance [22].

What can organisations do? 

There are many policies and practices that organisations can draw on to overcome both 1st and 2nd generation gender bias. There is no one size fits all solution and organisations need to consider their specific context. The following suggestions have been adapted from Ibarra et al. [6] and Kramar [22]

Does your organisation have a diversity policy? If not, why not? If there is a policy, review it to make sure it’s more than just compliance; is the content just about harassment and flexible work arrangements? Managing diversity is so much more than this. Do you have a policy about recruitment that requires at least 3 qualified women in the interview pool? Or that there must be women involved in the recruitment and selection process? Is there a quota for women? Should there be? 

Educate men and women about 2nd generation gender bias. Women who recognise subtle 2nd generation gender bias feel more empowered because they understand that it’s not about them. They can take actions to challenge this bias, such as putting themselves forward for leadership roles. Since the 2nd generation form of gender bias is so subtle, it is also important for men to be aware of its existence. 


Help women transition to senior roles. This can involve giving them better experience, such as rotating them through core business and operational roles. Research suggests such experience is important for achieving leadership roles, but that women are less likely to have experience in these areas. 


Are your job descriptions gendered? Do senior role job descriptions have wording that suggest the “ideal worker”? The content of these descriptions is important because gendered wording can discourage women from applying [6] and being selected [23] roles. Consider re-writing these if they have the potential to stop qualified women applying, or recruiters hiring good candidates who don’t match the description.  


Tap women on the shoulder and ask them to apply for a vacant position or career-enhancing work experience. Women are less likely than men to apply for a vacant position, because they tend to focus on the job criteria they are unable to meet, rather than what they can do. They are also less likely to be asked to temporarily fill a role, or be offered sales and operation roles that are important for building the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for progression. 


Cast the recruitment net beyond the usual suspects. What about requiring three suitably qualified women in the interview pool? Don’t accept the “but there aren’t any qualified women out there” argument. Setting a standard expectation of diversity in the interview pool can encourage recruiters and promoters to cast their nets more broadly to find suitable applicants. 


Make sure perceptions are managed. When women are successful, they often experience a drop in their perceived likeability. They are considered competent, but not nice to work with. In contrast, men don't have their likeability and competence traded off in the same way.  This leads to a social backlash where successful women are seen as competent, but aren't likely to be hired because nobody wants to work with them. Challenge this perception by making it clear that female leaders are both competent at their roles, but also are strong team players.  


What can individuals do? 


Does your organisation have a diversity policy? Find out. Most organisations have one [22]


Find supporters and peers. This might include a sponsor, who will champion you, but should at least include a mentor. Find supportive networks of female peers. Women who can discuss their experiences in a safe space gain emotional support for dealing with bias. Women can even use these spaces to practice potential discussions that they’d like to have with a supervisor or senior organisational member. Peers may have had experienced similar issues and can provide advice on how to raise these issues with senior staff. 


Find a role model. All aspiring leaders need role models, but there are fewer female role models around. If you’re a senior woman, look for a talented woman and make contact. 


Put yourself forward for leadership roles and the necessary experience needed for such roles (e.g. sales and operational roles). 


Think like a man when applying for positions. That is a controversial statement, but what it means is that when men look at a job description, they will apply even when they don’t have all the necessary skills and experience. Women tend to apply, only when they believe they can do everything listed in the job description.  


Overwhelmed? Don’t be. There isn’t a one size fits all fix here. Look at your organisation and decide what is appropriate. Take a small wins approach and celebrate when things go well. You don’t have to introduce everything at once. Believe it or not, this list isn’t exhaustive at all!


Additional links and resources 


  • Ibarra, H., Ely, R. J., & Kolb, D. M. (2013). Women rising: The unseen barriers. Harvard Business Review, 91(9), 62-66. This is a particularly useful paper in terms of providing practical recommendations for addressing gender inequality at senior levels. There is a nice summary of 2nd generation gender bias. 

  • Kramar, R. (2012). Diversity management in Australia: A mosaic of concepts, practice and rhetoric. Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, 50, 245–261. This paper provides a nice review of diversity management with a focus on Australia.


ResearchCrowd. (2021). Indigenous Women in Research.


Run by Indigenous women, ResearchCrowd is an independent agency advancing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women across all levels of research, and specialising in culturally informed, evidence-based research and evaluation in Australia.   

Suggested videos

See full reference list
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  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics, (2018) Labour force, Australia. Labour force, Australia, Feb 2018, Cat. no. 6202.0. Retrieved from 

  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2012). 2012 Labour force, Australia. Labour force, Australia, Dec 2012, Cat. no. 6202.0. Retrieved from 

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  5. Kanter, R. (1977). Some effects of proportions on group life: Skewed sex ratios and responses to token women. American Journal of Sociology, 82, 965–990. 

  6. Ibarra, H., Ely, R. J., & Kolb, D. M. (2013). Women rising: The unseen barriers. Harvard Business Review, 91(9), 62-66. 

  7. Mainiero, L. A., & Sullivan, S. E. (2005). Kaleidoscope careers: An alternate explanation for the “opt-out” revolution. The Academy of Management Executive, 19, 106–123. 

  8. Metz, I., & Kulik, C. T. (2014). The rocky climb: Women’s advancement in management. In S. Kumra, R. Simpson, & R. Burke (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Gender in Organizations, (pp. 175–199). Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

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  10. Davidson, L. (2014). Gender equality will happen, but not until 2095. 

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  12. Tharenou, P. (2005). Does mentor support increase women’s career advancement more than men’s? The differential effects of career and psychosocial support. Australian Journal of Management, 30, 77–110. 

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  14. Hewlett, S. A., Peraino, K., Sherbin, L., & Sumberg, K. (2010). The sponsor effect: Breaking through the last glass ceiling. Harvard Business Review. December. 

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  16. Rost, K., & Osterloh, M. (2010). Opening the black box of upper echelons: Drivers of poor information processing during the financial crisis. Corporate Governance: An International Review, 18, 212–233. 

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  23. Gorman, E. H. (2005). Gender stereotypes, same-gender preferences, and organizational variation in the hiring of women: Evidence from law firms. American Sociological Review, 70, 702-728.

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