Gender targets miss the mark for women in leadership

March 12, 2023

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Gender targets miss the mark for women in leadership

Australian gender diversity experts are urging governments to rethink their approach to gender targets as new research shows that they do not lead to expected improvements in gender equity for women in leadership.

Examining the effects of gender targets in the Australian public service, researchers found that when gender targets were imposed, they didn’t always achieve their intended outcomes.

In Australia, women make up only 19 per cent of CEOs, and less than a third of key management positions (32 per cent). In the Australian public sector, women represent 60 per cent of the workforce, yet hold less than half of the most senior roles.

The study’s lead researcher says that it will take far more than just having gender targets to boost women’s equity in senior roles in Australia.

What the researchers say: “Women constitute the majority of the Australian public sector workforce, but their representation in senior roles is not proportional,” she explains. “Research shows that if we boost the number of women at executive levels, we increase the number of women in the ‘executive feeder’ levels below. We often refer to this as the ‘trickle-down effect.’” This has been noted in many other countries, not just Australia.

“It seems logical that gender targets would increase this positive effect, yet when we explored this across multiple public service departments, we found that trickle-down effects were inconsistent across departments,” she concluded.

The researchers said that while gender targets may be well-intended, without the right combination of evidence-based practices that can support a ‘trickle-down effect’ and, importantly, a Chief Executive who can visibly drive change, targets may be ignored or ineffectively implemented.

“The Chief Executive must be on board to champion gender targets. Strong support from the top, a ‘loud’ voice that supports change, and an open approach to addressing resistance to change, are vital,” they added.

“Gender parity also relies on having the right practices in place – at least two women on shortlists helps increase female representation in senior roles, and leadership training supports women progress through organizations. Some of these important practices were not in place in the departments where targets were not working,” the lead author commented. “Targets must be supported by both the right practices and a Chief Executive who is an internal gender champion. When leaders demonstrate support of women in leadership, they create the right environment for change. But, even with the right mix of practices, if these are not consistently supported across all levels of the organization, gender targets will fail.”

“Any commitment to gender equity requires focus, but when gender targets are lost in government strategic plans that include up to 100 targets – including multiple gender targets – it will be hard to achieve consensus about which target to prioritize,” the researchers said. “Accountability is needed for achieving gender targets – real accountability, with teeth.”

So, what? Alicia and I have had doubts about gender targets for some years. For one thing, gender differences at the executive level—and at crucial levels below that where change, adaption and creativity are essential—do not necessarily lead to cognitive differences—differences in outlook, assumptions and mindset.

Having more women—and minorities—at decision-making levels in organizations is a social benefit. Their being there has a multitude of advantages. But it is equally important that they come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences and that they’re given the safety needed to challenge the status-quo.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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