“Wake-up call”: Just six per cent of ASX300 companies employ female CEOs

“Wake-up call”: Just six per cent of ASX300 companies employ female CEOs

New data on the make-up of Australia’s top boards is a “wake-up call” for corporate Australia, finding that just 6 per cent of ASX300 companies employ women in top positions. 

In addition, as revealed in the 2021 Chief Executive Women Senior Executive Census (CEW Census), 62 per cent of Australia’s top 300 companies have failed to assign women to executive team line roles - the positions from which they would most likely be promoted to CEO. 

These figures mean Australia trails significantly behind countries like the United States, Canada, Kazakhstan and Zimbabwe, despite Australian women experiencing the highest rates of education in the world. 

The news comes in the face of growing gender inequality across several industries outside of finance, with a Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum estimating it will now take 135.6 years to close the gap worldwide. 

The Census says the data represents a backward slide, with the pandemic "amplifying the crisis asymmetrically between men and women, even as women have been at the frontlines of managing the crisis as essential workers”. 

CEW President Sam Mostyn says gender targets are desperately needed to rebuff these backwards shifts and to establish a more equitable balance within the corporate world. 

“These results are a wake-up call to Australia’s business leaders, political leaders and investors – now is the time for action,” says Mostyn. 

“Setting gender balance targets for executive leadership teams, with a specific focus on roles with profit and loss responsibilities together with a commitment to developing the pipeline for those roles, will ensure women are represented at critical decision-making tables. 

“We know gender-balanced organisations perform better. It is notable that the top-performing companies, the ASX50, have a greater representation of women in senior roles. They show us that gender balance is achievable. We must set ambitious targets that are accountable and can be tracked to build the pipeline for more women to lead businesses, which will benefit our economy.” 

This is especially pertinent given that things “have not changed” since the Census began five years ago. At the time, ASX200 data showed only 5 per cent of women in CEO positions. 

Other key findings of the 2021 CEW Census include: 

  • Only one out of 23 CEO appointments in the ASX300 in the 2021 reporting period was a woman. Only 18 women CEOs in the top 300 ASX-listed companies (6.2 per cent). 

  • Women make up a quarter (26 per cent) of roles on Executive Leadership Teams – a figure CEW Census data shows has stalled in recent years (25 per cent for ASX200 in 2019). 

  • Most CEOs (78 per cent) in 2021 were appointed from line roles with profit and loss accountability and women make up just 14 per cent of those line management roles across the ASX300. 

  • Women are more often employed in senior functional roles such as HR, Corporate Affairs, Marketing, Sales, Legal, Risk, Strategy or Technology which are not traditional CEO pathways. 

  • It will take 65 years or until 2086 before women make up 40 per cent of line roles in executive leadership teams, based on CEW Census trends from the last five years. 

  • The higher the organisation is on the ASX, the better the representation of women. The proportion of companies that have set targets of at least 40 per cent of each gender in senior roles is significantly higher in the ASX100 (50 per cent), compared to the ASX300 (29 per cent). 

  • ASX50 companies perform better for all metrics on women’s representation, particularly for CFOs – with women making up 38 per cent of CFO roles at ASX50 companies compared to 25 per cent for ASX100. 

Gender diversity leadership targets in ASX companies have previously not been factored into the statistics CEW gathered. 

The Census says companies with diverse workplaces regularly show higher levels of productivity, and lack of diversity within positions of power has material consequences. For example, a study by the Australia Human Rights Commission estimated that sexual harassment cost the economy $3.8 billion in 2018, affecting one in three Australian workers.  

Mostyn argues that “maximising how we make use of women in the workforce and in leadership positions is a lever we can pull right now to help Australia prosper post-COVID”. 

“We know gender-balanced organisations perform better. It is notable that the top-performing companies, the ASX50, have greater representation of women in senior roles,” Mostyn says. 

“They show us that gender balance is achievable. We must set ambitious targets that are accountable and can be tracked to build the pipeline for more women to lead businesses, which will benefit our economy.” 

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