Tough road to the top
Women still face barriers on their journey to the top, but determination is the key, writes Helen Bennett
SOUNDS like a dream choice: four jobs for every candidate. Demand for high-level candidates in the business world is outstripping supply. During the last downturn seven or eight years ago there was a severe underhiring of graduates and this has had a knock-on effect now.
According to recruiter Michael Markiewicz of Carmichael Fisher, there are fewer people coming through the ranks for top jobs in the higher echelons of business, but to find a female candidate is even more difficult. Despite increased numbers of women developing through middle management, the number of women on shortlists for top jobs is small in comparison.
The situation, Markiewicz says, is better in legal and sales and marketing but poorer in IT and accounting/finance.‘‘Almost always employers will specify diversity and in many cases demand at least one female on the shortlist. But specifying a woman on the shortlist doesn’t always guarantee the best person for the job.’’
Women would baulk at this sort of tokenism, and it could be seen as prejudicial to other male applicants. Often, however, the best person is a woman but Markiewicz says fewer women are pursuing a career at all costs and this is reflected in the number of applicants for high-level positions. Women want to spend time with their family and have greater balance and quality of life. There was a strong female candidate on a recent shortlist but she declined due to the travel commitments of the job and having a young family.’’
A notable exception to this is where females hold the top jobs — the wife has the better career — and the husband stays at home and looks after the children. But for those women who are not in that enviable position it can be difficult managing the work/life balance.
If a CFO position requires seven or so trips overseas a year that translates into 14 weekends lost.’’ Increasingly, Markiewicz says, it’s not just women but men too who are choosing to take a step back and reassess their work commitment. And organisations will need to change, to embrace the requirements of these candidates if they want to fill top positions.‘‘If a person needs to work from home one day a week organisations may need to look at that option.’’
Jennifer Alexander, chief executive of Australian Health Management NSW and ACT, believes the work/life balance impacts on women far more than men. If women have been out of the workforce for a period of time there are issues of re-entry, they may lack confidence, things may have moved on, and then there is the question of referees.’’
However, women, and men too, are often concerned that by taking on further responsibility at work they won’t be able to effectively fulfil their parenting responsibilities, for example sports day or tuckshop. Business needs to be flexible and understand that people have needs, and that affects men too,’’ Alexander says.
If people are opting for a better balance between work and home, and if companies don’t change their expectations and become more sensitive to their employees’ personal needs, does that mean the only people in top jobs will be driven workaholics who are prepared to spend 18 hours a day at the office? Markiewicz says there will always be people prepared to work like that but less likely that they will be women.
Cultural barriers can also prevent women from rising to the top. Golf days, unspoken messages re work hours (disapproval of time off for parenting responsibilities), there are a host of barriers but we mustn’t look at this at a superficial level: the way we look at work structures needs reassessment,’’ Alexander says.
As for gender bias, Alexander says that when she was younger she didn’t think it existed but as she has become older and more experienced it has become clear that it is very real. I’ll be interested to see how Generation Y handles this — I see confident young women and I ask myself how will they handle it?
Personally I haven’t experienced it, my career hasn’t been impeded but it is also often the case that women don’t see it, they don’t attribute their lack of promotion to gender bias.’’
However, Alexander also believes there are two sides to the gender bias debate. Are others biased or do we really limit ourselves by not believing in our abilities?’’
Markiewicz speaks from a different perspective: I don’t see any prejudice or gender bias,’’ he says. If the right person for the job comes along then it doesn’t matter whether they are male or female.’’
Alexander believes life
skills are crucial for those aspiring to the top job. She says her early education, in a Catholic school, equipped her with some valuable life skills that have stood her in good stead. The nuns instilled in me a strong belief system. They taught me that you can do anything you want.’’ Another crucial factor is to be prepared to have a go’’.
Put your hand up. My advice to young women is to never pass up an opportunity. You will always find a way to get things done - women are very good at multi-tasking and organising.’’
Alexander says it pays to consider your skills and experience, not just your job title. Don’t tell yourself I can only do this, this is my field’. That limits you. Look at other fields where your experience can be utilised — you might surprise yourself.’’
Confidence: Jennifer Alexander says belief in one’s abilities makes a difference