The project has been jointly funded by the Australian Institute for Business Economics, the University of Queensland Business Economics and Law Faculty and the UQ Business School.

The project involves an analysis of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s database of Workplace Employer of Choice Award applicants for the years 2014-2017, which is a rich source of data in relation to best practice interventions that produce tangible gender equality outcomes. WGEA has collected this data for the past four years for 106 firms. The data will be used longitudinally and cross-sectionally to potentially examine linkages between specific interventions and gender outcomes such as workforce participation and progression, recruitment and selection, pay and appraisal processes. WGEA also maintains a database of all reporting employers which comprises over 12,000 firms. The project will also examine which data may be applied to a better understanding of effective workplace interventions to progress the participation and progression of women in the workplace. The data is currently being analysed and preliminary findings will be made available in the first half of 2020.

National Significance of the Project

The inability of our society and businesses to progress more women into senior and executive roles is impacting negatively upon Australia’s productivity. The lack of senior representation of women in key industries is a significant economic issue for Australia, since the industries from which women are most absent are those that dominate our economy and make the largest contribution to GDP (ABS, 2014). Several recent studies (Goldman Sachs, 2009; OECD, 2012; World Economic Forum, 2013). have concluded that gender inequality in workforce participation, industry participation and progression into leadership roles results in the forfeiture of a 20% increase in GDP for every year that the problem goes unresolved. This figure represents a loss to the Australian economy of around $300 billion every year (ABS, 2014). The lack of female representation in leadership roles is also causes a drag on Australia’s international competitiveness, while at the organisation level attracting, retaining and promoting the best and brightest male and female talent is critical to sustained performance (WGEA, 2014b). Beyond economic arguments, gender inequality is a significant social issue in Australia, resulting in increased rates of poverty and insufficient retirement funds for women (ACOSS, 2012).

The link between gender representation at senior levels and GDP foregone relates to the inefficient use of human capital in the Australian workforce. Eagly and Carli (2007) point to numerous studies that show men and women to be equally intelligent, gifted, ambitious and driven. Nonetheless, while women in Australia comprise 45.9% of the full-time labor force (ABS, 2014), only 6.5% of CEOs of ASX200 companies, which represent our economic powerhouses, are women (ASX, 2017). This is not for the lack of women coming through the pipeline (Eagly & Carli, 2007). For instance, women have been graduating from universities at higher rates than men since 1985, a period of time significantly more than a generation ago. The proportion of female graduates has been gradually increasing since 1985 and has comprised over 55% of all graduates since 2000 (ABS, 2012). Additionally, mining and construction are among the better-paid industries in the Australian economy and yet women only occupy 15.7% and 16.1% respectively of all roles in these industries.

It is well-known that the current gender equality interventions used by organizations are generally failing to retain or advance more women, especially into executive and CEO roles (Valla & Ceci, 2014; World Economic Forum, 2015). Overall, the participation and progression rates for women in the workforce have stalled or even declined in recent years (Grant Thornton, 2015; Pedulla & Thebaud, 2015). Significantly, organizations that want to advance more women into senior roles report that they are confused about what to do next, given the mixed results to date from their various interventions (McKinsey, 2013). This is largely because many of their interventions have failed to make the differences they expected around advancing more women to senior management in particular.

As numerous reviews point out (Bowles, 2012; Cook & Glass, 2014), there are a large number of reasons behind this limited success to date of organizational interventions. Specifically, interventions are criticised for not appreciating the complexity of the factors acting upon women at work; failing to acknowledge the significant roles of management and human resource professionals in setting workplace conditions and expectations; distinguishing between factors that inhibit the accumulation of career capital and factors that cause its erosion for women; and the need to design organizational interventions that better appreciate the interplay between work, family and societal factors.

Firstly, the project has been undertaken since we support the views of researchers such as Cook and Glass (2014) who argue that organizations and researchers alike have failed to understand the complexity of the factors that shape women’s careers. In particular, too much emphasis has been placed on identifying the individual-level factors rather than organizational and societal-level effects which impede women’s progress in the workplace. In line with Grada and her colleagues (2015), in this study we take the position that interventions are undermined if developed and implemented in ignorance of the complex interplay between the individual, structural and cultural environments in which women operate.

Secondly, workplace gender inequality in corporations occurs in a field occupied by multiple actors. Significantly, there are key stakeholders and gatekeepers who shape the dominant views about the nature of work, careers, the ideal employee and the career capital needed for advancement. The current study responds to the shortcomings of past research through gaining the collective views of a broad range of organizations and organisational stakeholders about the factors impacting upon the career advancement of women, including their opinions about the utility of the workplace interventions they are currently undertaking and those strategies that might make the most difference in the future.

Thirdly, the few prior studies which have engaged with one or more of these stakeholder groups have not made the critical distinction between factors that slow or inhibit the accumulation of valuable career capital for women, and factors that cause its depreciation or erosion. Taking guidance from prior studies (Eagly & Carli, 2007; Hoobler, Lemmon & Wayne, 2014), the factors that slow the accumulation of career capital in women include a continued bias in recruitment and selection practices, gendered evaluations of leadership performance and gender role congeniality. Factors that cause the erosion of career capital include extended periods out of the paid workforce, especially for female middle managers who take time out to have and to raise children (Happel, Hill & Low, 1984; Fitzsimmons, Callan & Paulsen, 2014).


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Project members

Dr Terry Fitzsimmons

Senior Lecturer in Leadership