Women still locked out of management roles at work

AUSTRALIA'S top companies are still failing to promote women to senior leadership positions with hardly any progress recorded in recent years, a report says.

Women held only 8.4 per cent of board positions, or 123 seats out of 1467, when a census was conducted this year. As well, women held only 8 per cent of key executive management positions and an "alarming" 4.1 per cent of line manager roles which are considered feeders to the top echelons.

But the report may not reflect the significant change in some businesses to gender equity over the last 12 months, prompted by threats of quotas and new disclosure requirements by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

The census of Australia's top 200 listed companies is conducted every two years by Macquarie University for the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency. It is based on the latest company annual reports available in April.

To be released today, the 2010 Australian Census of Women in Leadership shows that compared with the US, New Zealand, Britain, Canada and South Africa, Australia has the lowest percentage of women in senior positions.

"We're particularly concerned about the 4.1 per cent of women in line management positions such as chief financial officer or chief operating officer; it's shocking," Mairi Steele, acting director of the agency, said.

Since the census was taken, new data collected by the Australian Institute of Company Directors shows the numbers of women board directors has improved and now reaches 10.1 per cent, up from 8.4 per cent. As well, the institute says the proportion of companies with no women on their boards has fallen from the 54 per cent recorded in the agency's census to 46.5 per cent in September.

The surge in appointments – 40 women directors have joined boards this year compared to 10 for the whole of last year – has been prompted, in part, by new ASX reporting rules. They require the top 200 listed companies to disclose gender objectives and achievements in their annual reports.

The reporting rules will apply next year but some companies are "early adopters", including the Commonwealth Bank, which aims to increase representation of women in senior management to 35 per cent by December 2014 up from 26 per cent.

Ms Steele said the agency welcomed the action taken by business in response to the ASX rules.

"But there is still a long way to go before there is anything resembling equality," she said. "The 2010 census draws a line in the sand and we will be measuring the continuing success of recent initiatives against it."

Claire Braund, executive director of Women on Boards, said it was unclear if companies were seeking out new women to put on boards or "loading up with more gigs women who already served on an ASX 200 boards".

As well, it was of concern that the proportion of support roles, such as those in human resources, held by women had increased since 2008 while women in line management roles had stayed the same.

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