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Women in Leadership: Breaking Invisible Barriers

Despite making up half of Australian employees, women's representation in leadership positions significantly lags, with only 19.4% as CEOs, 32.5% in key management positions, 33% as board members, and 18% as board chairs.


  • Women hold only a small fraction of leadership roles in Australia, indicating a significant gender gap.
  • Gender diversity in leadership is linked to a 6.6% increase in market value for companies.
  • Women leaders face "double binds" of conflicting expectations on leadership and femininity.
  • They are also subject to double standards, such as undue focus on appearance rather than capabilities.
  • Addressing gender stereotypes in feedback and evaluation is crucial for supporting women in leadership.

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Why Women in Leadership Increases Revenue

A groundbreaking study released by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre (BCEC) and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) underscores the tangible financial benefits of gender diversity in leadership.

The research demonstrates that a 10 percentage point rise in female representation among 'top-tier' managers correlates with a significant 6.6% boost in market value for Australian ASX-listed companies, translating to an impressive AUD$104.7 million increase.

This finding establishes a compelling causal link between higher numbers of women in pivotal decision-making roles and enhanced company performance, offering a robust economic argument for pursuing gender equity in corporate leadership.

“Double Binds” in Leadership

As women ascend the corporate ladder, they encounter a complex web of expectations and stereotypes that often place them in a no-win situation, known as double binds. These double binds emerge from conflicting messages about how women should behave and lead.

On one hand, women are expected to display traditional leadership qualities such as decisiveness and assertiveness. On the other, they are also expected to embody traits traditionally associated with femininity, such as empathy and collaboration.

This dichotomy can create an environment where women leaders feel they must navigate a narrow path between being perceived as too soft or too aggressive, risking their likability and effectiveness in leadership roles.

The visibility and scrutiny of being one of the few women in upper management can exacerbate these challenges. Women may become overly cautious, focusing too much on details at the expense of their broader leadership vision. This heightened visibility makes it crucial to create safe spaces for women to explore and develop their leadership identities without fear of judgment or failure.

The Double Standards Women Face

As the first female Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard certainly encountered the subtle encroachments of discrimination through the lens of appearance standards, a challenge her male predecessors never faced.

Consider this example:

Julia Gillard: "In a pivotal meeting with NATO's leader to strategise on the Afghanistan war—a situation where the stakes included the lives of our troops—the media chose to focus not on the content of our discussions but on my attire, reporting: ‘Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in her debut on the international stage, met with NATO's head Anders Rasmussen in Brussels. Clad in a white jacket, she was greeted by Mr Rasmussen, the former Danish Prime Minister and NATO Secretary-General, at the organisation's headquarters shortly after 9am European time.'" Of course, there’s no mention of what the former Danish Prime Minister wore.

Gillard commended German Chancellor Angela Merkel for ingeniously sidestepping such distractions by adopting a consistent wardrobe, thereby minimising commentary on her appearance.

"You'll notice Chancellor Merkel often in black trousers and a colored jacket. This deliberate choice to maintain a uniform appearance was a strategic move to extract her wardrobe from the conversation, allowing the focus to remain on her policies and leadership," Ms Gillard observed.

The experiences shared by leaders like Julia Gillard and Angela Merkel illuminate a broader challenge women face in leadership positions, both in the corporate realm and the public sector.

It's a stark reminder that women are often subjected to dual scrutiny — not only of their professional capabilities and decisions but also of their personal appearance and style. This undue focus can distract from their contributions, achievements, and the critical issues at hand.

Navigating Feedback Successfully

Performance feedback, a key component of professional growth, often becomes a minefield for women due to these double binds. Stereotypes and gender biases can influence how women's leadership abilities are perceived and evaluated.

For example, women who demonstrate competence and ambition may be criticised for not being likable or for being too assertive, while men with similar qualities are praised.

For a woman, the feedback might say, "You're really assertive and get things done, which is great. But you might want to soften your approach to be more likable among the team."

Feedback given to women can sometimes be contradictory, urging them to be more decisive and collaborative or to set high expectations but not too high. This conflicting advice makes it challenging for women to navigate their professional development effectively.

For a man in a similar position, it might be, "You set high expectations, which is key to our success. It's impressive how you manage to keep the team motivated and focused on our goals."

A Systemic Approach to Change

Addressing these double binds requires more than individual resilience. It necessitates a systemic approach by organisations to recognise and mitigate the impact of gender stereotypes on feedback and evaluation processes.

By fostering open discussions about gender bias and encouraging supportive networks, companies can help women leaders navigate these double binds. This support enables women to develop coherent leadership identities that align with their values and aspirations, free from the constraints of outdated stereotypes.

The journey of women in leadership is fraught with double binds that stem from deeply ingrained gender stereotypes and expectations.

Overcoming these challenges requires a concerted effort from individuals and organisations to create an environment where women can thrive as leaders.

Acknowledging and addressing these unseen barriers can pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable leadership landscape.

Next Steps

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