Women in leadership

While Australia is making progress on many aspects of gender equality, female representation in leadership continues to be a cause for concern. 

Image is decorative and depicts a male and female earning the same amount of money

The WGEA 2018–19 data shows that while women make up half (50.2%) of the private sector workforce, women make up only:

  • 31.5% of key management positions
  • 26.8% of directors
  • 17.1% of CEOs
  • 14.1% of board chairs. 

The business case for women in leadership

The Gender Equity Insights series, undertaken by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre in partnership with the Workplace Gender Equality Agency over five years has uncovered critical evidence of the importance of female representation in senior leadership roles—not only to reduce the gender pay gap but to improve company profitability and productivity.

In 2016 and 2017, the research shows that increasing the representation of women in executive leadership roles is associated with declining organisational gender pay gaps:

  • having equal representation of women on governing boards leads to a 6.3 percentage point reduction in the gender pay gap for full-time managers
  • organisations with balanced representation of women in executive leadership roles have pay gaps half the size of those with the least representation of women in leadership.  

Reports in 2018 and 2019 build on these findings, highlighting the critical role of leadership in decision-making and driving organisational change towards gender equity. Importantly, the 2019 report finds that:

  • women are now progressing into management roles at a faster rate than men. If this growth continues, it would take just two decades for women to have equal representation in full-time management positions
  • for the top spot of CEO, we will not see an equal share of women until the turn of the next century – some 80 years away.

Critically, in 2020, the series brought to bear a clear message: more women in key decision making positions delivers better company performance, greater productivity and greater profitability.

The research demonstrates that increasing the representation of women across each of the key leadership roles in an organisation added market value of between $52m and $70m per year for an average sized organisation. These findings are statistically significant, meaning the association between women in leadership and business performance is causal.

Lessons from Australian companies leading the way

The Business Council of Australia, McKinsey & Company and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency teamed up to undertake a study using three years of WGEA data and more than 40 interviews. The result, Women in Leadership: Lessons from Australian companies leading the way, provides an evidence-based recipe for dismantling barriers to women’s participation at senior levels and a correlation between representation of women in senior roles and the practice of normalising flexible work.

Based on the observations of leading practice made for the report, a 10-step recipe for getting more women into leadership was designed:

1 Build a strong case for change
2 Role-model a commitment to diversity, including with business partners
3 Redesign roles and work to enable flexible work and normalise uptake across levels and genders
4 Actively sponsor rising women
5 Set a clear diversity aspiration, backed up by accountability
6 Support talent through life transitions
7 Ensure the infrastructure is in place to support a more inclusive and flexible workplace
8 Challenge traditional views of merit in recruitment and evaluation
9 Invest in frontline leader capabilities to drive cultural change
10 Develop rising women and ensure experience in key roles


Access the resources below for more information about supporting women in the workplace: