Women in Leadership: Lessons from Australian companies leading the way

Women in leadership: Lessons from Australian companies leading the way

By Jenny Cermak, Rachel Howard, Jessica Jeeves, and Nina Ubaldi
Women in leadership: Lessons from Australian companies leading the way

Top Australian organizations are deploying a range of strategies to address the known issues affecting women’s advancement.

While Australian companies are increasingly active in their efforts to drive gender equality, women remain underrepresented at every stage of the career pipeline in Australia.

Women constitute 42 percent of all employees, yet make up just a quarter of executives and only 10 percent of CEOs for large, for-profit companies. The transition point from key management positions to CEO has the highest drop off (59 percent) in women’s representation of any in the pipeline.

Over the past three years, the average growth rate across all industries in women taking leadership roles1 stands at 2.8 percent, with public administration and with rental, hiring, and real-estate services leading the pack at 19.6 percent and 15.1 percent growth rates, respectively. Despite the positive trajectory, women’s representation in management, C-suite, and CEO roles continues to be a particular challenge.

Progress at the very top is expected to be slow

Beyond today’s pipeline numbers, the low numbers of women in key management roles presents a challenge for Australia that is difficult to change in the near term. Of the 24 percent of women in key management roles today, many of them are in support roles, such as head of human resources and general counsel. As recent research on workplace diversity reveals,2 around 90 percent of CEO appointments come from line roles such as chief operating officer or head of a business division. This means the near-term pipeline of women who are in line for CEO appointments is even smaller than it appears.

Efforts to achieve gender equality are apparent

The objective within corporate Australia to achieve gender equality and change these dynamics is evident. Since 2013, around 300 companies have implemented stand-alone gender-equity strategies. Recruitment policies are the most emphasized area.

However, while policies are a useful tool for progressing toward gender balance, they alone do not guarantee better outcomes. This is evidenced by Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s data that show, across the subset of companies with a wide range of gender-focused programs in place, that there is wide variability in outcomes.

In producing this report, analysis of both the quantitative and qualitative data revealed how gender equality is lived out day to day in corporate Australia. Common practices among the high-performing companies became evident, specifically the practice of normalizing flexible work. The team that produced the report distilled the insights down to ten practices that have proved to be effective in achieving greater gender equality.

These practices make up a recipe for success when it comes to getting higher numbers of women into senior roles:

  1. Build a strong case for change.
  2. Role-model a commitment to diversity, including with business partners.
  3. Redesign roles to enable flexible work, and normalize uptake across levels and genders.
  4. Actively sponsor rising women.
  5. Set a clear diversity aspiration, backed up by accountability.
  6. Support talent through life transitions.
  7. Ensure the infrastructure is in place to support a more inclusive and flexible workplace.
  8. Challenge traditional views of merit in recruitment and evaluation.
  9. Invest in frontline-leader capabilities to drive cultural change.
  10. Develop rising women and ensure experience in key roles.

The factor most correlated to higher ratios of women in top roles is the percentage of managers who are on part-time programs, a practice classified as “normalizing flexible work practices.” When it comes to executing the recipe, leaders at the high-performing companies show great skill and sophistication in their ability to tailor the ten practices for their workforce and a high willingness to break through barriers and address challenges.


There is growing recognition in Australia’s business community that increasing women’s representation in leadership and board positions is critical to having better-run, more-effective companies that can respond to the diverse demands of an ever-changing business environment. With these findings, organizations that want and need to drive change now have a blueprint for success that can be tailored and embedded throughout their culture and strategy.

Download Women in leadership: Lessons from Australian companies leading the way, the full report on which this article is based (PDF-1.42MB).

About the author(s)

Jenny Cermak is a partner in McKinsey’s Sydney office, Rachel Howard is a consultant in the Perth office, and Nina Ubaldi is a consultant on leave to complete a master’s degree. Jessica Jeeves is policy director at the Business Council of Australia.
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