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A “shallow pool”: Women still vastly underrepresented at the executive level

The results of the Chief Executive Women (CEW) ASX200 Senior Executive Census 2018 show gender balance is slowly heading in the right direction, but the raw numbers indicate the proportion of female to male chief executive officers is still ridiculously low.

Women in ASX200 companies hold only 7% of chief executive officer roles. That figure is up by 2% on last year, from 11 women chief executive officers in 2017 to 14 in 2018. The number of women in ASX200 executive leadership teams has also risen in the past year, from 381 to 430. The number of men in executive leadership teams also rose slightly, from 1423 to 1428.

One of the more remarkable statistics is there is only one company out of 200 that has a predominantly female executive team. Estia Health Limited has six women on its nine-person executive. There are 10 companies with 50% female representation on their executive teams.

In the introduction to the report, Kathryn Fagg, president of CEW, and Jenny Boddington, chair of the business engagement committee of CEW, said the news was not all bad: “There are some significant improvements to recognise in 2018. The number of companies with no women in the executive leadership team has almost halved in the last year, and there are increases in the number of women in chief executive officer, chief financial officer, group executive and functional roles.

“In addition, 17% of the 23 new chief executive officers now heading up ASX200 companies are women.”

However, there are still some significant problem areas.

“There are areas with little or no improvement, including female representation in line roles. More than half the ASX200 companies still have no women in line roles in their executive leadership team.”

One of the major issues outlined by the report is that fewer women are getting a shot at the line roles recognised as pathways to the top job. The dial was mostly stuck for line role representation, going from 12% last year to 12.3% this year.

Women are doing better in functional executive roles but are still finding it hard to advance outside of areas such as legal, compliance and human resources.  

The shallow pool of leadership-ready women was discussed recently in the coverage surrounding the departure of PepsiCo chief executive officer Indra Nooyi, who left the top job after 12 years in charge at the beverage giant. 

Nooyi was among a select group of 25 women chief executive officers in Standard Poor’s 500 companies. That figure of 25 had moved from a paltry 11 out of 500 in 2006, which despite being a significant jump in percentage, is still only 5% of the total overall.

“In recent months, the list of departing female chief executives has included Denise Morrison at Campbell Soup, Margo Georgiadis at the toy company Mattel, Sherilyn McCoy at Avon, Irene Rosenfeld at Mondelez and Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard. All five have been replaced by men … The number of women in top jobs has, in fact, fallen sharply,” the New York Times noted.

Lareina Yee, a senior partner at McKinsey Company and co-author of the report Women in the Workplace, identified the pipeline obstruction to moving talented women from entry-level to lower-level management meant the gender imbalance at higher levels of management quickly became pronounced. The lack of women stepping into C-suite roles meant the pool of women who could then progress to CEO was smaller still.

“We have found that overall, we are stuck. We are seeing very little movement,” Yee told the New York Times. “We see that entry levels don’t look that bad, but women are not promoted at the same rates as men to the first manager role. We start to see the imbalance of opportunity early on.”

Nooyi’s comments on her leaving the PepsiCo role provided a sober reminder of how tough life is at the top for women. Her response, when asked if she was a good role model for women, was “probably not”. Nooyi was known for working incredibly long hours in her role.

“But you have to remember, when I started working in this corporate world, there were hardly any women in the jobs I was in. At that time, 30 or 40 years ago, expectations for women were unreasonable. We had to produce a better product and do everything much better than the men in order to move ahead,” Nooyi said.

Nooyi will continue at the company as its chairman, but wanted to step away from the day-to-day grind to spend time with her elderly mother.

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