You’re on our Australian website

How Can People and Culture Nurture More Women Into Leadership Roles?

A complex situation like this can be difficult to approach. We've provided a few ideas below to help your business foster a consciously inclusive culture.  
Published 7 Mar 2022
Updated 5 Jul 2024
7min read
How Can People and Culture Nurture More Women Into Leadership Roles?

While Australian women today make more than 50% of the workforce, only less than 20% of them are in CEO roles.

Despite an emphasis on closing the gender equality gap across the C-suite, women in leadership remain largely underrepresented. This disparity does not stem from women’s inability to perform essential leadership tasks. Instead, research suggests the problem stems from a lack of inclusivity.

Deloitte argues the majority of organisations provide inadequate support for diverse leaders and career progression. The most impactful change an organisation can make to nurture more women into leadership positions is to foster a culture of ‘conscious inclusion’. What is this?

Conscious inclusion means leading and acting with the intent of providing equal opportunity. Gender equality doesn’t mean men and women performing in the same way. Each gender holds unique qualities that provide value to your business.

And the fact is, having well-rounded teams with women in senior leadership positions can be highly beneficial to your bottom-line results.

In June 2020, the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre (BCEC) and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) released a report on the business case for women in leadership.

The study found female top-tier managers add a whopping 6.6% to the market value of ASX companies, equating to AUD$104.7 million!

While Australia continues to make progress on gender equality, in 2021 we’ve seen the highest number of women (2 in 5) in managerial roles in the WGEA’s data set history, female representation in leadership roles is still an area which needs immediate attention.

What are the common hurdles women face?

Unconscious bias

Unfortunately, for many women, bias in the workplace is an ongoing reality. Although it mightn’t be intentional, which is what we refer to as ‘unconscious bias‘, these micro-behaviours can hugely impact a woman’s ability to further her career.

Unconscious bias can occur at all levels of the recruiting, hiring and retaining processes. Women are often subjected to this attitude at the recruitment level, making job-hunting challenging.

An example of this could be where a prospective employer perceives a family man as committed, but a married woman as a potential liability if she were to have children.

Male-dominated work cultures

Workplace culture plays a huge role in a woman’s experience at work. Many businesses, particularly in STEM-related fields, boast a male-dominated work culture through their use of exclusive language in job descriptions right through to their brand identity.

This can be unintentionally exclusive of women and you could be missing out on star talent because of this.

For workplace meetings or discussions, culture plays a significant role in the level of contribution by women. Many fear being labelled ‘bossy’ for providing direction or ‘high maintenance’ when challenging existing assumptions.

Studies also suggest women feel less seen and heard in meetings compared to their male counterparts.

How can we nurture more women into leadership positions?

women-and-man-on-sofa Recognising and preventing bias or male-dominated cultures moves beyond the traditional HR process and starts with senior leadership.

Leaders need to demonstrate their dedication to nurturing women through the talent pipeline.

“Today’s HR plays a vastly different role than the traditional HR role of yesteryear. Driving equality from the top down is not easy and that can only come from a strategic HR function vs an operational one where risk and compliance are the main drivers” – Emma Jones, Founder and CEO of ProjectF.

Businesses must make an ongoing commitment to breaking down gendered career paths that have traditionally left women stuck in supportive roles and unable to break through the glass ceiling.

Attracting, retaining and developing women in leadership positions demands a company-wide approach that is driven from the top.

Accelerating women into leadership means to walk the walk, with diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives backed and supported at the executive level. A complex situation like this can be difficult to approach.

We’ve provided a few ideas below to help your business foster a consciously inclusive culture.

Educate employees about D&I, positive conflict and bias

For any organisation wishing to enact change, it starts with education. Ensure there are training initiatives to educate employees on D&I, positive conflict and unconscious bias topics.

Opening up a discussion around these topics can generate greater awareness and understanding of discrimination within the workplace. Providing employees across all levels of the organisation with the skills and resources to facilitate change will encourage a greater shift towards an inclusive culture.

Educating teams on the dangers of subliminal messaging and stereotyping, such as assumptions made about a person’s gender, can help women overcome barriers to leadership positions. However, it’s important to note that D&I, conflict and bias training is only the starting point in changing workplace culture.

Actively listen to the needs and concerns of your team

Strong workplace cultures are built on listening to how your employees are feeling. Create an open dialogue for all employees to freely and safely express their career goals or challenges. The information provided can be invaluable in tailoring your business’ pathways to leadership.

By encouraging women to speak up about their future goals, you can create a culture where challenges are overcome through a unified approach.

Mentor and sponsorship programs

Conscious inclusion emphasises the importance of a connected and collaborative environment where everyone works together to reach their full potential.

One of the most effective ways to support female growth within an organisation is through mentor and sponsorship programs. Mentorship is vital in helping talent grow. By sharing skills and knowledge, it will not only help others climb the ladder but also lead to a more skilled and efficient workforce.

Not to mention teaching women necessary leadership qualities will encourage them to pursue executive job roles.

Deloitte argues companies with strong leadership L&D growth also holds the highest percentage of gender diversity. Mentors must dedicate some time to analysing the key strengths and weaknesses their employees possess. Providing roles which utilise their skills will allow them to excel within the business.

Helping women overcome their weakness will also enhance their overall confidence.

Implement and measure D&I goals

McKinsey research recently discovered the majority of companies tend to focus their efforts on tracking female representation in the workplace. However, only 44% form clear pipeline targets for gender diversity and the number continues to decline for promotions.

By designing measurable D&I goals, your business is better equipped to track D&I initiatives to see whether they are having an impact on diversity numbers. It’s also a great way to see if your hard work and commitment to creating an inclusive culture is proving successful.

It’s important to keep in mind that there is no one set approach to D&I goal setting; the process is all about finding what works best for you and your employees.

Articulate the need for change

What do you do when senior leadership doesn’t think there’s a problem? Gather data – those at the executive level often don’t realise that they’re falling short of potential opportunities. There needs to be a strong case for change.

Like when building any business case, use data and clear language. Start by conducting a workforce audit and compare this to industry benchmarks. You should also communicate how gender-balanced teams can directly improve the company’s performance.

For an inclusive culture to work, people need to feel personally committed. They need to understand why the change is important and how it will benefit not only their work but the organisation as a whole.

This shared belief in the case for change will help women feel more supported and confident in applying for leadership positions.

Offer flexible working arrangements

Statistics show women still hold the majority of family roles at home, despite this number continuing to decrease in the last decade. For this reason, offering flexible working arrangements is a valuable step employers can take to create a more consciously inclusive culture.

Ensuring fair parental leave policies, equal pay and flexible work for mothers and fathers can help your business support and retain female talent.

High-performing businesses are those that recognise the importance of supporting employees through parenthood and the return to work, particularly women. Normalising flexible work is critical in breaking the negative perceptions attached to such arrangements. These include a lack of commitment to work or productivity.

Companies who strive for inclusivity are those that view flexible work as a way for employees to thrive both in their personal and working lives.

Create a safe space for open dialogue

Consciously inclusive work cultures encourage women to express their ideas and thoughts freely during meetings and in forums. In this kind of environment, everyone (regardless of their gender or background) feels motivated and engaged.

By adopting an inclusive model in meetings and team discussions, you’re more likely to design products or services that cater to the needs of a broader range of customers. Helping your business sustain a competitive advantage in the long run.

The wrap up

Today, the majority of businesses are focused on implementing a variety of strategies to address the gender disparity in female leadership roles and career development. These include balancing personal and work life, quashing bias and breaking down barriers to entry.

Despite the scope of approaches committed to bridging the gap, progress is still lacking. While men and women today tend to enter the workforce in relatively equal numbers, women immediately fall short in managerial promotions.

Strategic HR and People and Culture have a vital role to play in bringing workplace disparity to the attention of those in charge.

In saying that, ultimately, true equality needs to be encouraged and supported top-down. Improving these numbers rests in the hands of senior leaders – both male and female.

It’s time we stop simply paying the idea lip service and instead make actionable changes towards more consciously inclusive workplace cultures.

For a diversity and inclusion refresher, read these:

Download now

Diversity and inclusion handbook

The Team
Employment Hero -
Download now
Diversity and inclusion handbook
Explore by industry