International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate the achievements of women worldwide, who are breaking down barriers and building paths for others to follow but it also a time to reflect on what else needs to be done to ensure more glass ceilings are broken and true equality between the sexes is achieved.

Recent data suggests that being a women can be particularly problematic in the business and finance sectors. The 2021 Chief Executive Women Senior Executive Census (CEW Census) made for what they termed “dismal reading”. The CEW Census revealed 62% of Australia’s top 300 companies have failed to assign women to executive team line roles, positions from which they would most likely be promoted to CEO.

Australia trails significantly behind countries like the United States, Canada, Zimbabwe and Kazakhstan, despite Australian women experiencing the highest rates of education in the world.  Women in Australia have been graduating from university at higher levels than men for more than a decade (~60.4%) but still hold ~6% of CEO roles in the ASX 300 with small and mid-cap companies not faring much better.

With the theme for  IWD 2022 “Break the Bias”, Stockhead caught up with women leaders in Australia’s small and mid-cap  companies, who would like to see their group not become so elite and ensure women are not underrepresented in key decision-making roles.

Room for improvement 

Revasum (ASX:RVS) President and CEO Rebecca Shooter-Dodd believes gender diversity in senior management roles has plenty of room for improvement. Shooter-Dodd works in a traditionally male-dominated sector.

Revasum designs and manufactures capital equipment for substrate conditioning and device manufacturing in the global semiconductor industry with a strategic focus on the Silicon Carbide (SiC) market and wafer sizes ≤200mm.

“While corporate Australia is headed in the right direction, there is still more to be done before we see equal representation from women in leadership positions on ASX-listed companies,” Shooter-Dodd said.

“More can be done to empower women and ensure they have equal opportunities – starting with education – ensuring young girls are informed about potential career paths, and offered equal opportunities to enter STEM and leadership positions.”

“I also think boards and leadership teams can do more to create an environment where women are encouraged and able to advocate for themselves and have opportunities for progression in the workplace.”

Shooter-Dodd’s views are shared by Medical technology company Opyl (ASX: OPL) CEO Michelle Gallaher who believes Australia’s small cap sector could be doing much more to support gender diversity.

“I’m disappointed and frustrated at the lack of representation of women in emerging tech companies on the ASX particularly beyond the top 200,” Gallaher said.

“The small cap end of the ASX is heaving with all male boards and all male management teams – nothing has changed here, if anything we have gone backwards.

“I don’t see founders, investors or stakeholders pushing anywhere near hard enough to find talent beyond their personal networks and biased version of merit.

“I celebrate the women leading companies and chairing boards, but wish that these celebrations were not news and not so unique.”

The juggling act

Clinical stage biopharma Dimerix (ASX:DXB) CEO and Managing Director Dr Nina Webster said while times are changing it can still be a challenge for women in leadership positions juggling work and family life.

“Times are changing, but generally women still take on more caring responsibilities than men and they do more unpaid work than men,” she said.

“Women might care for our children or for our elderly family members, and women generally spend more time running the household.”

Webster said for many women with these responsibilities alongside their paid job it has meant they’ve had to pass up opportunities for additional paid work, for advancement or personal development.

However, she said many employees have continued to work from home after the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were lifted, with many employers continuing to being far more flexible on work arrangements.

“This may unlock more gender-equality and diversity in the boardroom in the future, as it enables both mums and dads to have a more equal opportunity to work, progress careers and care for children,” Webster said.

Her view is shared by CEO APAC Laura Lin, who has strong ideas about the leadership role that women can offer in finance and investment.

Lin’s personal journey as a mother,  investor and business leader were inspired by witnessing a Japanese housewife with a strong interest in investment and seeing her excitement when talking about her investments with her women trading friends.

Her mother also handled the household finances. She witnessed from a young age her mother’s financial literacy benefit the wealth of her family, and her fiscal discipline manage the finances of the family as it grew.

But she said it can be very hard for women trying to look after family and grow a career.

“More women are rising to the moment as senior leaders, but burnout is also on the rise especially for working moms,” she said.

Childcare model not working

NickelSearch (ASX:NIS) Managing Director Nicole Duncan said carer roles fall predominantly to women in Australia, with childcare duties number one and the current model is simply not working.

“Australia has built daily working life around having at least one of the carers needing to accommodate very strict childcare arrangements,”  Duncan said, who is one of few women leaders in the mining sector.

“It’s just assumed that if you have two working parents, you should be able to accommodate this strictness and a lot of families struggle to meet this assumption.”

She said she has seen  many women make the very sensible decision to exit the workplace when their children are young because they are so tired, they are so stretched and financially it just doesn’t make sense.

“They make the very responsible and rationale decision to exit, but once they’ve made that decision to exit it’s incredibly hard to get back in.”

She said the current set-up for childcare is just way too rigid.

“I think we need many more different forms of childcare that are adaptable and we need more flexibility for people who are using childcare so that they can structure their life more flexibly around having to interact with different childcare providers,” she said.

“I know a lot of women would relate to this as it’s absolutely driving us out of the workplace because not only do you feel like the rules are too rigid but at the same time there’s this underlying mentality that that’s how society has deemed it to be appropriate.”

Heading in the right direction

While progress may seem slower than many would like, Lin believes change is happening with more senior leaders talking about the benefits of gender balance openly.

“I’ve seen an increasing number of organisations in the APAC region with a stronger focus to embrace diversity and creating comfortable workspaces,” she said.

Lin said more companies embrace diversity in hiring, in thought and in approaches.

“More women are aware of the need to initiate the changes and put much effort into facilitating the process and this is an encouraging sign worth celebrating,” she said.

But she said we should still consider way to ensure more women are promoted to management positions at lower and middle management.

“We should also look at how we improve the first promotion to manager for women, as men still outnumber women significantly at that level,” she said.

Duncan also believes corporate Australia is heading in the right direction with a focus on getting more women on boards, in leadership positions and fostering a growing pipeline.

“So that’s women going into the right university degrees, women going into the right entry level jobs, and looking ahead with the right career planning,” she said.

“I think it’s critical to focus on why women are over 50 per cent of university graduates but that figure is not replicated at a senior level in the workforce.”

Duncan would also like to see other career opportunities open to women.

“Also having more women in roles that are ‘on the tools’, so having apprenticeships and other career pathways open for them,” she said.

“I do think corporate Australia is focusing on the right things but we just have to get a lot more energy behind things and a lot more progress still needs to be made.”

But as Webster points out the value of good mentorship must not be underestimated and said leadership diversity could be improved through more female mentors.

“Mentoring in the workplace can prove invaluable in helping an employee progress their career – I had one,” she said.

“The benefits of junior business women having a mentor to help break the barriers they face are well documented.”

So, as we celebrate International Women’s Day 2022 let’s continue to “break the bias”, embrace diversity and work towards getting more women on boards and leadership positions in Australia’s small and mid-cap companies.