Women at the top - new research into female CEOs gaining worldwide recognition

24 Oct 2013

Only three per cent of CEOs of top Australian companies are women, making it one of the lowest rates in the Western world. But surprising data uncovered by UQ Business School’s Dr Terrance Fitzsimmons about what it really takes for a woman to become a CEO, offer clues as to what needs to be done to raise the numbers of women at the top.

The research which has since been quote in the reading of 'Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Bill 2012’ and has opened up international speaking opportunities for Dr Fitzsimmons, was conducted using a particular research method developed by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

Dr Fitzsimmons spent over three years interviewing male and female CEOs of Australian listed companies, as well as chairpersons – the people ultimately responsible for making CEO appointments – and executive recruiters experienced at working with company boards to develop candidate shortlists.

In a world first, he discovered what it was the corporate field valued in a CEO, and what had happened to men and women from birth to the time they were appointed in senior roles that allowed them to develop the right marketable qualities.

Incredible patterns

Dr Fitzsimmons found that the female CEOs he interviewed had strong similarities in their childhoods. First, nearly all the women had suffered some form of dramatic – even traumatic – childhood event, which interrupted the flow of family life.

“Dad died when I was ten”. Mum contracted TB and I had to put myself through school.”

“I ran away after my brother’s suicide and they couldn’t convince me to come back.”

“Dad was a diplomat and we had to travel a lot.”

The other compelling pattern was that the women were almost all from small business families, reared in a world of balancing the books, staffing issues and self-resilience.

“We grew up living on top of the shop and behind the shop. So my schooling was done against a background of working parents and they valued education.”

Dr Fitzsimmons then interviewed 30 male CEOs and discovered they too were part of a unique tribe: their fathers were professionals and their mothers stayed at home; at school, they were almost always the captains of their football teams.


With chairpersons and the broader indus try repeatedly stating that leadership, strategy, integrity and stewardship were the qualities needed in a CEO, Dr Fitzsimmons came to the conclusion that these sorts of skills weren’t learnt in the workplace – the process started in childhood.

“A lot of the chairmen were talking about women lacking confidence and I think the big difference with the female CEOs that I interviewed was that childhood trauma – while horrific sometimes, given some of the things they went through – gave them that self con fidence. They were able to process the trauma, deal with it and overcome it.” He believes their small business backgrounds gave them an innate understanding of business, and, combined with their confidence, they quickly obtained mentors in the workplace.

“A lot of the men CEOs attributed captain ing the football team as ‘skilling’ them up for the workforce – you’ve got a goal, strategy, leadership, teamwork – and they come into the workplace with an understanding of these things,” he says. Meanwhile, most women tended to be involved in the arts or non-team sports, and needed a mentor to teach them leadership in a workplace context.

Having children

It has long been understood that a number of talented women leave the corporate sector in their late 20s and 30s to have children – often just when their careers are about to take off. Studies show over 85 per cent of high-level managers and professional women cited long and inflexible working hours as significant factors in quitting.

Dr Fitzsimmons’ interviews again found a stark trend: two-thirds of the women CEOs had children either very early, at 18 to 23 or in their late 30s, and all had options, such as grandpar ents, who could watch the kids when they were at the office. All these women still identified themselves as being the primary caregiver.

“What it paints a picture of, is that these women are superwomen,” he says. “Super intelligent, gifted, born into the right small business family, they were challenged as children, and overcoming their challenges gave them confidence. They had supportive husbands, they had mentors, they had all those factors that enabled them to become CEOs.”

What next?

Dr Fitzsimmons says many of the CEOs interviewed were eager to hear his thoughts on how to increase female representation. He had the same answer for them all: there is no silver bullet.

“There is nothing you can do right now to fix the problem, no matter how much legisla tion you ram through, because you are talking about a deep-seated cultural issue.”

Since the publication of his thesis Dr Fitzsimmons research has been quoted in the reading of the 'Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Bill 2012’ by the Hon Shayne Neumann MP on the 29th May, 2012. He has been invited and sponsored by Professor Rosalind Searle of the British Psychological Society Division of Occupational Psychology to attend and speak at a special event titled “The Problems of Getting Women onto Boards – The Role of Head-hunters and Existing Leaders” in London on the 6th & 7th September, 2012. The proceedings are also being filmed by the BBC who are collaborating with the British Psychological Society in trying to create a more critical and evidence based insight into this topic. This will result in a 2 part BBC program to be aired in our Spring of 2012.

Dr Fitzsimmons has also received numerous invitations to address organisations representing women in various sectors of the Economy, such as Technology, Superannuation and Female Leadership groups more broadly.