Female leadership roles are declining. Here’s why

Female leadership roles are declining. Here’s why

Since breaking through barriers and entering the workforce, women have faced resistance to equal and equitable employment. Progress for fairer access to opportunity has always been hard-won by activists fearlessly fighting for people’s right to pursue meaningful work regardless of gender.

While women’s employment rates, promotion opportunities, and the gender pay gap have fluctuated, many indicators have generally trended in the right direction.

Unfortunately, we are now seeing a concerning sociopolitical backlash against advancements toward gender equity, coupled with complacency and unfounded confidence that things are better than ever for women.

In 2021, only six per cent of ASX300 CEOs and 26 per cent of executive leadership roles were held by women in Australia. These and other statistics directly contradict the myth that women no longer face barriers to positions of power and influence.

Some even go as far as to say gender inequality no longer exists and that women who don’t achieve their professional goals have only themselves and their lack of tenacity to blame. In reality, gender bias in the workplace remains pervasive, and the fight for equality is far from over.

The Global Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum reported that no country has yet achieved full gender parity, with women’s labour force participation rates at their second lowest point since 2006. Women also continue to face more job insecurity, poorer working conditions, and lower pay than men and are poorly represented in executive leadership positions.

Declining leadership roles for women are especially apparent in what is known as ‘industries of the future,’ such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This field includes rapidly exploding talent opportunities within Artificial Intelligence (AI) development. If not addressed early, the swiftly transforming work landscape may only widen gender inequities.

The rate of women hired for senior leadership roles significantly dropped in the first quarter of 2023 after a few years of gradual improvements. While some industries remain outliers in their successful promotion of women as leaders, others continue to lag behind or even move backward in their gender equity performance.

Why has progress toward equal leadership opportunities stalled?

Progress toward women’s access to professional leadership has always been far from linear.

Disruptions to society often hit women hardest, such as the impact of COVID-19 on women’s employment or the disproportionate impact of conflict and political unrest on the wellbeing and participation rights of women and girls globally.

In times of uncertainty, there can be a subconscious human instinct to revert to what feels safe and familiar, which can further entrench gender biases and assumptions about what makes a good leader. This can mean an unconscious preference for a ‘traditional leader,’ which, unfortunately, often means a man.

Self-reported data indicates that people’s trust in a female CEO dropped markedly during 2022, with men holding more critical attitudes towards women in leadership positions. This figure seems to support the idea that there is an unconscious societal resistance to progress and a reversion to what is familiar and traditional in times of unrest and uncertainty.

Aside from dwindling opportunities, women who already held leadership roles are now switching jobs or quitting at higher rates than ever and much higher rates than their male counterparts.

Reasons for this trend may include the continued failure to address the systemic barriers and myriad pressures at work, home, and society that make women leaders more prone to burnout.

Many of these pressures amplified during the pandemic, with women taking on more than their fair share of homeschooling and parenting despite working the same hours for similar wages to their male partners.

It is not enough to simply hire or promote a woman into a leadership position when the company and broader culture are designed for them to fail.

Only when broader systemic change occurs at a societal level will women be genuinely empowered to pursue leadership while maintaining a semblance of quality of life.

Why having fewer women in leadership harms everyone

Everyone suffers when women are overlooked or prevented from stepping into positions of power. Women in leadership have more transformational leadership styles and inspire more significant positive change throughout organisations than their male counterparts.

Company and team diversity is a superpower; it enhances resilience and adaptability to change and increases collaboration. One study found that the proportion of women in a team strongly correlated with better collective intelligence and problem-solving abilities.

With so many challenges facing individual businesses, entire industries, and the world at large, diverse, creative, and innovative teams have never been more critical.

Indeed, without more women steering the big conversations around universal threats like climate change, little to no progress can occur in dismantling oppressive systems that threaten the planet and all who call it home.

How women can overcome barriers to leadership

If you aspire to a position of influence, here are some strategies to pursue leadership and mitigate the impacts of gender bias.

Encourage and support entrepreneurship

Fewer women than men start their own businesses, with access to start-up capital a common barrier.

Seeking support and connecting with other aspiring business owners can help locate resources, meet potential funders, and increase awareness of funding opportunities like grants and other development tools like mentorship.

Connecting with established leaders, both male and female, can provide valuable guidance, advice, and networking opportunities that can help women navigate the challenges they may encounter in their leadership journey.

Connect with like-minded aspiring leaders

Joining professional organisations, attending conferences, and participating in women’s leadership initiatives can create spaces for women to exchange experiences, share resources, and collaborate on initiatives that promote gender diversity in leadership roles.

Advocate and raise awareness

Advocacy for continued gender diversity improvements within organisations is crucial. Women can actively engage in conversations about diversity and inclusion, raising awareness about the importance of equal representation in leadership positions.

By collaborating with colleagues and human resources departments, women can push for inclusive policies, flexible work arrangements, and mentorship programs that can help break down barriers and create more opportunities for women in leadership.

Foster a sense of inner strength and confidence

While easier said than done, developing a strong belief in one’s abilities and strengths is an essential counter to a world that constantly tries to convince women they are insufficient.

Building a solid personal brand, honing communication skills, and seizing opportunities to showcase expertise and leadership potential can help overcome gender biases and demonstrate competence and capability.

The recent drop in women in leadership roles in Australia, exacerbated by the disruptive impact of the pandemic, highlights the pressing need to address the underlying causes of gender inequality in the workplace.

Women leaders are essential for a thriving and inclusive society, as their unique perspectives and experiences bring diversity of thought, empathy, and collaborative decision-making.

While the current backslide in gender equity may feel discouraging, it is crucial not to lose hope. Recognise that progress is often non-linear and that setbacks can remind us of the importance of actively uniting to fight for change.

The journey toward breaking barriers and achieving gender parity requires persistence, resilience, and solidarity. Embrace mentorship opportunities, build supportive networks, and engage in advocacy efforts to challenge traditional structures and biases. Celebrate the achievements of women leaders and amplify their voices to inspire others.

Ultimately, the path to a more equitable and inclusive future lies in our collective commitment to dismantling barriers, fostering empowerment, and championing women’s leadership.

Together, we can create a society where women’s talents are fully recognised, and leadership opportunities are accessible to all, regardless of gender.

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.