Females are enrolling in higher education courses more than their male counterparts but remain underrepresented in leadership roles in the workforce, so why is this? (Image source: Ji Sub Jeong/Huffpost)
By Helen Karakulak | @Helen_Karakulak
The idea that a lack of women in leadership roles is due to disinterest has been disproven by female graduates in recent years.
The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) higher education enrolments and graduate labour market statistics indicate that lack of interest is an invalid argument as women outnumber men in higher education completion rates.
The key findings from this data demonstrates the expansion of women’s participation in higher education as women represent 58.4% of enrolled domestic students across all institutions nationwide since 2017.
However, despite women obtaining more tertiary qualifications, senior roles across various fields are still held predominantly by men, even in industries that are considered female dominated.
The WGEA data, gathered by the Department of Education and Training, is presented to indicate the gender composition of domestic enrolments by field of study, outlining female dominated, mixed and male dominated industries.
One of the largest female-dominated fields of study is Health, with 73.6% of undergraduate enrolments being female and a mere 26.4% of enrolments being male as of 2017.
Following higher education completion comes entering the labour market, with the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) national graduate outcome survey finding that overall employment outcomes after undergraduate study, again, slightly favours women statistically.
As of 2018, an overall 88.2% of women with an undergraduate degree had found employment, as opposed to 84.8% of male graduates.
Despite this, according to the WGEA, 82.9% of senior leadership positions in the non-public sector are held by men.
Along with being one of the largest female-dominated fields of study, figures collected by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in 2019 indicate that women make up 53% of early-career practitioners yet are not progressing to senior positions.
According to the WGEA, the Healthcare industry has the highest representation of females in CEO roles, but this 39.8% can hardly be considered equitable.
So, while we can see that lack of participation in education and employment isn’t an issue for women, why is it that we see so few females in leadership roles?
Researcher from UniSA’s Centre for Workplace Excellence, Dr Jill Gould, says that there’s enough evidence indicating women are just as ambitious as men, yet a gender bias is still present in the workplace.
“I still hear that women don’t want those senior roles, but that’s an archaic approach that’s just plain wrong,” she said.
“Something is happening to graduates, something gendered, I don’t think anyone can argue that, the numbers are there.”
Dr Gould said that a second-generation gender bias contributes to a disproportionate number of women in leadership roles, which can often go unnoticed.
“Second-generation gender bias is much more subtle. Perpetrators may not even be aware of it or that they’re perpetuating it,” she said.
Second-generation gender bias in the workplace stems from the concept of an ideal worker which typically exhibits traditionally masculine qualities.
These qualities stem from widespread traditional gender roles, such as considering men more suited for confrontation than women.
Second-generation gender bias is often present in the wording of roles and basis of workplace activities that are biased against the inclusion of women, such as 7am meetings and after-work drinks, which typically would cut into out-of-hours family time.
“Workplaces and structures were created when men populated them and women were at home,” Dr Gould says.
“This idea of an ideal worker, someone who works 24/7 and focuses on work over family, is an issue … this has an effect on both men and women, because men enjoy the flexibility just as much.”
Part of Dr Gould’s research explores practices for increasing women’s representation in leadership roles, identifying the “trickle-down effect” which found companies appointing women to their corporate boards experienced a spike in women on their executive teams.
The research conducted regarding the trickle-down effect focused on large organisations listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX).
The outcome of the study specified that while these results were promising, it’s difficult to generalise to other sectors.
However, Dr Gould believes it would be beneficial for similar research to be conducted in other sectors to inform decision making at an executive level within other organisations.
“When researchers talk about generalising their findings, they need to conduct research across contexts,” she said.