Difficult childhoods prepare female CEOs for life at the top.
Which woman is most likely to become a chief executive? The one who survives a significant trauma in childhood and comes from small business stock.
And what if you're a man who dreams of rising to the top? Best to grow up in a stable household with a stay-at-home mum and a dad who has a professional career. It also helps to captain the school football team.
These are the findings of Terrance Fitzsimmons, from the University of Queensland business school. For his thesis Navigating CEO Appointments: Do Australia's Top Male and Female CEOs Differ in How They Made It to the Top?, Dr Fitzsimmons interviewed chief executives of some of Australia's biggest companies. He also interviewed the people who hired them.
While 55 per cent of university graduates now are women, only six of Australia's top 200 publicly listed companies are run a woman. Workplace discrimination and family demands are commonly blamed for the paucity of women chief executives, but Dr Fitzsimmons's research revealed childhood experiences were pivotal in determining who ultimately rose to the top.
''Life doesn't start at 21, it starts at zero. You're the sum of those experiences,'' he said.
Nearly all the 31 female chief executives Dr Fitzsimmons interviewed, who spoke to him on the condition of anonymity, experienced significant childhood upheaval, such as a seriously ill parent, a close relative's suicide, domestic violence, or frequent moves, which forced them to take on an adult role at a young age. Their parents were usually self-employed.
In the business world, the recruitment doyenne Julia Ross stands out as a self-made success story. The youngest of eight children, Ross has recounted how she grew up in poverty and how her eldest brother drowned when she was 10 years old.
Another high-profile businesswoman, the Harvey Norman boss Katie Page, moved all over rural Queensland as a child because her father was a bank manager. Therese Rein, the wife of former prime minister Kevin Rudd who last week joined the exclusive club of Business Review Weekly's Rich 200 list, was inspired to start her training business Ingeus after growing up with a father who was left a paraplegic when injured in World War II.
Each of the 30 male CEOs interviewed by Dr Fitzsimmons had a ''happy'' settled childhood, brought up by a stay-at home-mother and a professionally employed father. All but two captained their school football team.
Such a boast could be made by the Infrastructure NSW boss, Paul Broad, who captained the first XIII rugby league team at Hamilton Marist Brothers in Newcastle. Other well-known businessmen who have football pedigrees include the NAB chief, Cameron Clyne, and former Fairfax Media chief executive David Kirk, who now chairs the New Zealand auction website Trade Me (owned by Fairfax).
Dr Fitzsimmons believes the traumatic childhoods suffered by female CEOs he researched engendered in them resilience and self-confidence, traits which later enabled them to succeed in the corporate workplace.
''They had to be almost superhuman to get to the role, that's the sad thing,'' he said. ''These women had a major trauma they had to try and overcome. That gave them self-confidence to get through things, and because they were self-confident they had a voice, which meant they came to the attention of mentors early [in their careers].''
Men were more likely to learn the necessary leadership skills and self-confidence through innocent ''boyish'' childhood pastimes such as adventuring, risk-taking and playing team sports. ''Some quite overtly said [playing football] is where I learnt leadership, teamwork, discipline,'' Dr Fitzsimmons said.
His findings had been validated, he said, by many other female chief executives he had met when presenting his research.
Belinda Hutchinson, chairman of QBE Insurance and president of the Chief Executive Women group, agreed that childhood experiences often influenced women's career moves, but she told The Sun-Herald: ''In my experience, it is not necessarily a trauma that has driven me or my female colleagues to take on leadership positions.''
Ms Hutchinson, the daughter of a self-made businessman, said it was her father's exhortation to "just" get married and have babies which motivated her to succeed in business. "I was going to show my dad
I could do it just as well as he could."
As the eldest daughter, Ms Hutchinson often had to run the house when her mother was away for months at a time, travelling with her father for business. "I think if you give kids responsibility, they learn to cope," she said.
Dr Fitzsimmons also discovered that while his male chief executive interviewees had wives who had stayed at home to care for their children, the female leaders all had working husbands and the two-thirds who had children considered themselves the primary carer.
Family responsibilities, however, are still seen as an impediment to a woman's progress up the career ladder. From Dr Fitzsimmons's research, women are less able to take roles which prepare them for a CEO appointment, and recruiters he interviewed saw any part-time roles on a woman's CV as ''the kiss of death'', because it showed a lack of commitment to career, or it meant the candidate had spent less time in the field.
Many of the female CEOs interviewed had avoided the ''mummy track'' by having their children in their late teens or early 20s, and they spent very little time out of the workforce.
But the Westpac boss, Gail Kelly, at 34, was appointed head of human resources at a South African bank just five months after giving birth to triplets.