At the turn of the millennium Megan Baldwin, high flying CEO of ophthalmology biotech Opthea (ASX:OPT), had a decision to make: did she take a promising job in Australian academia or leap into the hotbed of innovation, San Francisco, for the dream gig at Genentech?

She turned to her PhD supervisor for advice, who asked why she would turn down the dream just because it was a “big deal” to go to the hottest biotech of the day.

“Don’t let your doubts dictate what choice, that’s the one you want, that’s the one you should do,” Baldwin recalls him saying.

“It’s so obvious to me now, but at the time I thought ‘I can’t do that’.”

Having a mentor or backer who set their careers on the corner office or boardroom trajectory is a common thread amongst women in the upper echelons of Australian business.

Sam Cobb, former CEO of biotech Adalta (ASX:AD1), says she’d never have applied for the job had a friend not asked why she wasn’t.

“It’s that fundamental ‘must tick every box’, not cheering yourself on as much as you should,” she said.

“When I look back on my career it’s because… one person recognised that I should have my hat in the ring. Maybe women aren’t good at doing that.”

But even with a champion it’s still hard for women to get up there, as evidenced by the fact that ASX200 boards only just hit 30 per cent female representation in January.

Yet no one really knows why women, who start so strongly out of university, disappear before securing a corner office.

Some point to women dropping out of the workforce to have babies, others say the effort of smashing the glass ceiling leads to burn out too early in promising careers, and some claim women are the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, hired as a last resort after a company or board has already hit the rocks.

Almost all research, from government sponsored reports to academia, points to structural causes for the shortage of women in executive and boardroom suites.


No boss ladies here, please

Women are socialised out of being boss ladies and men simply like hanging out with other men, says Carol Gill, associate professor of organisational behaviour at Melbourne Business School.

“Women in general may be socialised to be more collective and less assertive but of course individual women may not always fit this generalisation,” she told Stockhead.

“We do know that there is unconscious bias where the same behaviours are perceived differently for men and women, with men often being perceived more favourably… [and] leadership behaviour in women is rated less favourably.”

Gill says “similarity liking biases”, where people prefer to hire people similar to themselves, mean that men will often select men or exclude women from networks, and once at the top women can find themselves isolated because of those networks.

Promotions are tricky too.

The term “the glass cliff” was coined by Michelle Ryan, professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter, in 2005, when she found that women were more likely to be promoted into roles where there was significant risk of failure and criticism.

Her later research showed that women’s ambition decreased over time — not because of a desire to have babies but due to the lack of support for that ambition, the lack of role models, and subtle biases.

Women get tired of the fight and having to do all of the ‘leaning in’ without any help, and then leave to start their own businesses or new careers thus taking them out of the pool of potential executive talent, she told The Guardian in 2015.

In Australian boardrooms, particularly at small companies, issues like bias in promotion, recruitment and selection, and a failure to appreciate the broader business case for prioritising diversity are delaying women from reaching directorships, says Australian Institute of Company Director’s advocacy general manager Louise Petschler.


Imposter syndrome

The structural becomes personal once you’re in the heat of the job, say executives spoken to by Stockhead.

Good Design Australia general manager Rachel Wye says self-belief has been her biggest hurdle: she worried whether she was good enough.

“There’s been a lot in the media about imposter syndrome and I think for a very good reason,” she said.

“It would seem we all feel somewhat inadequate in some way. Whilst I’m not sure how to fix that epidemic, I think just knowing that most of us feel that way at some point helps to relieve the pressure of having to know everything about everything to be able to do a good job.”

Dealing with structural issues such as perception in a male-dominated workplace requires soul searching, says Lumi COO Anna Hawter.

“Having spent most of my career in traditionally male workplaces, finding the confidence to balance personal strength, typically a more masculine attribute, with traditionally held ideas of femininity can be difficult,” she said.

She needed to work around traditional gender stereotypes as well as push past her own internal unconscious bias of what being a female in the workplace means.


Making your own success

Coviu CEO Dr Silvia Pfeiffer and Springday CEO Georgina Drury both left corporate jobs to start their own businesses.

“In general I have always taken the road least travelled — the choice that I found more challenging and that would help me grow more as a human being. Hopefully also the road where I would create more impact in the world,” Pfeiffer said.

“It hasn’t always worked out, but I have found that if I’m persistent and work very hard at it, while having my family back me up, I get a good chance to achieve what I’m imagining.”

Meanwhile, Drury said her biggest challenge had been staying mentally and physically resilient through the ups and downs of founding her startup company Springday.

“I survive by being authentic,” she said.

“I believe in what I do, and try to be the change I seek in the larger world. Springday’s about wellbeing and so I practice it myself.”

Caroline Bowler, CEO at BTC Markets, said her biggest challenge had been dealing with and overcoming failure.

“At age 17, I went to university full of excitement and optimism,” she explained. “Instead of crushing it like I’d hoped, by age 21 I had completely floundered.

“It was like everything blew up in my face. While all my friends were starting shiny new jobs, mostly in the tech scene, I went back to university as a night time student, while working as a secretary during the day.”

Bowler said the feelings she experienced during that time influenced her entire business career.

“It took me a long time to get past it. However, it was also a great motivator, and has helped shape me into the person I am today.”


Babies and burnout

Baldwin believes there’s some natural attrition of women in the workplace due to those taking time out to have babies, but there are a lot more mechanisms now allowing them to do that alongside a career.

“I believe in a balance and I believe that you should be able to have your family life. I have two children and a fantastic husband who’s incredibly supportive, and I think that’s a really important component. You need to have that framework around you to facilitate you being able to travel, and have irregular hours,” she says.

“I think it would be really challenging if you didn’t have that support network, or a partner or a husband or a wife who allowed you to actually grow in your role, take on all of the opportunities. It’s give and take.”

That is not the picture of most Australian households.

The Housing Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey (HILDA) last year showed on average men did five hours less housework and eight hours less childcare in households where women were the primary earner.

Female breadwinners with kids did 43.3 hours of unpaid weekly work while male breadwinners did 26.2 hours.

Psychologist Ellen Jackson says in Australia women still feel more responsible for the day-to-day management of homes and families — as backed by research by Annabel Crabb in her Quarterly Essay Men At Work — and this is likely to play a part in their decision making about whether to seek a more senior role.

“‘Can I really do it all?’ becomes the question. Men may not be asking themselves this question and may therefore more readily put their hand up for the senior exec role but I don’t know that this works in their favour either,” Jackson says.

“I suspect many more men would like to spend more time with their family and have a better work/life balance but they don’t feel that this is ‘allowed’ yet. I do believe this is changing.”