Tough road to the top

Women still face bar­ri­ers on their jour­ney to the top, but de­ter­mi­na­tion is the key, writes He­len Ben­nett

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Career one -

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.’’

Pic­ture: Bob Fin­layson

Con­fi­dence: Jen­nifer Alexan­der says be­lief in one’s abil­i­ties makes a dif­fer­ence

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