Australia Women CEOs Speak: More Work to be Done

The Land Down Under may need to devote more resources to get more women into the leadership pipeline; a Korn Ferry report.

Australia’s top women leaders share many traits with their American counterparts: they’re adaptable, tolerant of ambiguity, team-oriented, and are few and far between. A new report argues that, much like the in the U.S., there needs to be more resources devoted to identifying high-potential women and giving them challenging roles, training and mentors.

“The dearth of women in executive roles—particularly line-management roles—means the pipeline to CEO and director roles is too narrow,” says Katie Lahey, a Korn Ferry executive chairman based in Sydney.

Lahey shepherded, “Australian CEO Women Speak,” a landmark report by Korn Ferry, in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Company Directors. For the report, twenty one current and former female top executives in Australia were interviewed. It follows up on the firm’s groundbreaking 2017 study, Women CEOs Speak, which spoke with 57 of the 94 women who have led large U.S. firms. Australia has a similar track record of women leading big firms. Among the 200 largest publicly-traded Australian corporations, only 14 are currently led by women (only 24 of the largest 500 U.S. publicly-traded firms are led by women).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the women leading in the Land of Oz share many of the traits and skills as their American counterparts. Both groups are highly agile and are drawn to a CEO role for the opportunity improve the organization rather than for its status. Many of the Australian women never thought of a CEO role as a career possibility or never wanted the job, a finding also in line with the American study.  

But the Australian leaders had surprisingly low levels of confidence. The doesn’t necessarily mean that the leaders lack self-belief, Lahey says, but that they recognize that there are multiple outside factors that will shape their future. That may represent a clear-eyed view of reality for female leaders in Australia, Lahey says. “Corporate Australia hasn’t been an easy environment for women.”

Another finding: only about half of the women surveyed said they got mentoring relationships, and less than half said they got help from a sponsor. In contrast, the American women leaders often said mentors and sponsors were invaluable in their career development. This discrepancy points out how Australian organizations need more leadership programs and more inclusion of women in them, Lahey says. “Both men and women in a position to mentor up-and-coming women can make a profound difference to early-career women,” she says.

The report gives several recommendations for women of any career level, including volunteering for challenging jobs (even before they may feel ready), staying persistent, and network strategically. 

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