The C-Suite: Where working women get stuck on the way to the top.

There are fewer women at the helm of large Australian companies than men named John. Or Peter. Or even David. In fact, our nation’s CEOs are a staggering 40 per cent more likely to be a ‘John’ than have an XX chromosome.

Why though?

It’s not like women are hugely underrepresented in the workforce: we make up 46.2 per cent of employees and 36.7 per cent of those who work full time, according to the federal government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

What’s especially curious is that a couple of rungs down the proverbial ladder things are different – not perfect by any means, but certainly better. More than one quarter of key management positions in WGEA-reporting organisations are held by women, and at executive level in the Commonwealth public service, it’s as high as 41 per cent.

In the business world, this slightly cushier place is known as the C-Suite; the senior executive level from which a board generally plucks its next CEO.

And directly above it is where the glass ceiling is at its thickest.

Claire Rogers made it through. After 16 years in banking including a successful stint as the head of digital for ANZ, the mother of two was last year named the first female CEO of World Vision Australia.

To achieve the same in the corporate world, she believes, will take a number of shifts in a number of areas for other women – sadly, especially mothers – to join her.

“When I first got an executive position, sometimes decisions would get made at 5:30 at night, which meant I’d come into the 8am meeting and everyone had read a paper and I had not, so I had no idea what they were talking about,” Rogers told Mamamia.


Yes, the fact that boards are overwhelmingly made up of men doesn’t and won’t help – across ASX 200 companies, they constitute 75 per cent. But also to blame, according to Rogers, is the way in which we regard the role of CEO; how the reverence that surrounds the title flows downward and makes the ladder beneath it that much slipperier.

“Hero leadership is still a thing,” Rogers said. “CEO is still seen as a coveted role, and to get that role is a coveted thing that may involve some fairly focused career management. Because of that you can end up with competitive leadership styles that aren’t as collaborative, that aren’t as open to different viewpoints.

“Obviously that’s a big generalisation, but the CEO is often seen as the hero and the archetypal hero is usually not a woman.”

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Claire Rogers is World Vision's first female CEO. Image: Mamamia.

Of course, it’s not just about who a CEO traditionally is, it’s about what they they traditionally do, Rogers argued.

"What's been seen as a leader in the past, hasn't really fit with the way women want to lead. So there's the challenge of demonstrating a different leadership style and seeing that recognised encouraged and supported,” she said. “The other thing is because that model is different to what women might want to do in leadership, they sometimes disqualify themselves and think that they are not eligible or don't have the skills required.”

Former C-Suite member turned executive coach, Gill McLaren, is trying to change that.

Before launching her strategy consultancy Syntegrate 15 months ago, the mother of two spent nearly three decades in the corporate world, including two with Coca-Cola. As the company’s General Manager for Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, she too favoured a collaborative leadership style, one in which diversity of thinking and therefore diversity within teams was built around it. But it took plenty of convincing.


“I actually spent a lot of time explaining that this is my method of getting the job done. Because until I did that, I was told, for example, that I wasn't aggressive enough, that I needed to be a bit tougher on my team,” she told Mamamia. “And I needed to explain to [those more senior] how this would get them the outcome we needed through engagement, through empowering people.”

It’s a style, she’s found through her new work, that many women in leadership positions tend follow, and one that she said has proven to be the most effective for high-performing teams.

"In a world where that style of leadership is the norm, women and men both thrive,” she said. “But it's not the pervasive norm. Yet. Honestly, the norm is still a more status-driven, top-down style of leadership, which women tend to exhibit less and therefore, in my opinion, get less of those jobs.”

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Gill McLaren. Image: Supplied.

So how can women bust beyond the C-Suite?

As McLaren argues in her book Think.Plan.Live, it’s about identifying your ‘unique fingerprint’ - that is, what’s uniquely you - and the impression you can leave with it.

"If you talk to women who have made it to the top, they’ve really become good at understanding what is ‘authentically me’,” she told Mamamia.

“It's about getting in touch with that and then amplifying it in your leadership style, rather than looking around you and trying to copy whatever the pervasive leadership style is. Because that may not be like you at all.”

Rogers agrees. And for her it’s a matter of demonstrating that early.

“Early on in my career when I thought things weren't progressing fast enough, a mentor said to me - and it's always stuck - 'Be the leader that you want to be appointed to be, before you're offered the job.' Because when people look around for capable leaders, you've already been demonstrating capability at that level and you're more likely to be considered,” she said.


She’s also an advocate for shirking the idea that the path to the top is a linear, status-driven one; that things like taking breaks to have children, making a role-change, taking a temporary job, are detrimental.

“There's nothing wrong with [stepping sideways]. The diversity of the experience that you've had is a great asset, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. If I look at the range of skills that I've developed throughout many diverse experiences, that's what enabled me to be a CEO. It's not because I went up some linear track,” she said.

Developing relationships is key to being able to follow the zig-zig path to leadership, Rogers said. As is taking “smart calculated risks”: That's what makes things happen in a successful business, so why wouldn't it make things happen in a career?”

Both Rogers and McLaren concede that those tropes about us women underselling ourselves, about discomfort with self-promotion, play a role in confining women to the C-suite. But both believe that those are among the easier barriers to overcome.

"A lot of women will come to me and say, 'Oh I've got this opportunity. Do you think I should do it?' Usually I start the conversation with, 'Why not?'” Rogers said.

"I've never been a CEO before, but there was only one way to find out [if I could do it]: jump in and have a go. That's what men have been doing for centuries, so women need to do that too."