Theme Management

Written by Amanda Sinclair, The University of Melbourne

In almost all countries of the world, women have been, and continue to be, poorly represented in the ranks of management, especially senior management. Australia is no exception. This entry begins with an overview of the current state of play. Several broad phases in Australian women's progress into management are then described, along with the obstacles women have faced and remedies that have been adopted. Women's participation in management has also been a topic of increasing research, and selected insights from this research are woven into this entry.

Since the 1980s, and associated with various Australian federal and state laws such as the 1986 Affirmative Act and the Sex Discrimination Act, women's participation in the workforce has steadily increased. During this period, women's representation in managerial roles has also increased. By 1991, 24 per cent of 'managers and administrators' were women, though, as this figure aggregates 'managerial' and 'administrative' roles, it masks a high level of gender segregation in the workforce (Sinclair and Ewing, 14).

By 2008, women were 45 per cent of 'management and professional positions' (in 2010 the proportion fell by 1 per cent). While these figures are encouraging, they again mask gender segregation in the types of managerial roles women occupy as well as in their likelihood of being promoted to senior roles and in the salaries they receive. At middle management, women earn 18 per cent less than male colleagues. They earn 25 per cent less in senior management; and, at the very top of organisations, women earn around 58 per cent less than men doing equivalent jobs.

Despite the increasing numbers of women entering middle management, the pace of change in the ranks of senior management has been 'glacial' according to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace (EOWA) annual Women in Leadership census. The slow pace of change is particularly marked in the private sector. In 2010, of the 174 participating companies in the census, women made up only 6.5 per cent of line executive positions and 3.1 per cent of 'highest title' positions (for example CEO). These statistics contrast with those of many other countries; for example, in Brazil, 14 per cent of the CEOs of large companies are female and, in India, the figure is 11 per cent. Further,

  • 62 per cent of ASX200 companies had no women among their corporate executives
  • women were only 8 per cent of key executives and, of the ASX 200 top companies, only 3 had 25 per cent or more women in key executive roles
  • women hold 12 per cent of executive manager and 7 per cent of line manager positions (no significant increase from 2008).

Looking more closely at the type of executive roles women occupied in the ASX200 listed companies, the EOWA census found there had been no improvement in numbers of women in key 'line' (or general management) positions since 2008. Much of the modest improvement was in women in support executive roles such as human resources. Adjusted accordingly, and with women in executive line manager positions at 6.6 per cent, Australia ranked lower than the US and Canada (both at 10.4 per cent), the UK (11.4 per cent) and South Africa (20.6 per cent).

The proportion of women managers is higher in the public sector where, for example, 37 per cent of those in the Australian government's senior executive service are women. This comparatively better progress in government is attributable to a stronger policy and regulatory commitment to equity, translated into greater transparency and observance of procedures such as ensuring women are represented on selection panels and on 'short lists' for managerial positions.

Government departments must report on and be accountable for their equity progress in a way that few private companies follow. This higher level of scrutiny and accountability has also meant far higher proportions of women on government boards than on corporate boards (around 33 per cent, compared to 8 per cent of corporate board members).

The proportions of women in management in the public, education and higher education sectors are substantially higher than in corporate environments and the professions such as law and consulting firms, where the statistics are dismal. However, even in the public sphere, the numbers can in no way be said to reflect the talent or merit that is demonstrably available. For example, even though the professional workforces in both school and university education institutions are female dominated, high levels of gender segregation remain, and management roles, especially senior roles, are likely to be occupied by men. In universities, women are now more than half of PhD graduates yet remain poorly represented in the professoriate and higher education management. For example, the numbers of women who were vice chancellors declined from 21 per cent in 2008 to 17 per cent in 2010.

Phases in Women in Management: Research, Obstacles and Approaches to Change

In this next section, I identify several phases in women's experiences in management in Australia, including the obstacles, and strategies advocated and used to overcome these obstacles. While I describe them as phases, the process has not been one of incremental or linear improvement. In fact, some facets of managerial life, such as expectations of working hours and options for balancing work-life responsibilities, seem to have got worse for women, not better. Also on some counts- not just in Australia but in other developed countries such as the US and Britain- the number of women in very senior management roles has plateaued or gone backwards. The explanations offered include a backlash against women gaining power and, relatedly, a view that 'the problem' has gone away: that there is now no real discrimination against women.

The phases I describe below have thus been influenced by broader social and economic trends and changing philosophies of equality and equity, including the role of the state versus the market and the scope for regulation. Throughout these phases, and despite the critical comments of many researchers, the remedies suggested typically target the individual woman and what she needs to do to 'measure up' to norms of the ideal manager that have been constructed with men in mind (Wajcman).

A range of formal and less overt barriers existed in post-World War II Australia to ensure few women gained the kind of training, continuity of tenure and range of experiences that would designate them as candidates for managerial work. For example, until the mid-1960s, women were required to resign their public-sector positions on marriage. While it is likely that some women were managing small and family businesses, statistics about their roles are scant. In larger organisations, such as those in the public sector, early legislation was aimed at removing direct discriminatory barriers in order to ensure, for example, that women could continue working after marriage.

Historically, women's lack of access to tertiary education and training in fields such as engineering, accounting and the law was seen to be the key impediment to women moving into management. This resulted in the commonly invoked 'pipeline' argument: that is, we just need to wait till substantial numbers of women graduate from commerce, law, accounting, engineering and science degrees, accumulate management experience and then numbers of women moving into management will dramatically increase. A related argument invoked for women's absence was that women were simply not interested in disciplines such as geology and industries such as mining.

However, and as a result of wider reforms in education including removal of barriers based on gender, from the 1980s onwards, larger numbers of women started entering universities and studying in those areas regarded as feeders for management, such as law, commerce, accounting and engineering. Subsequently, the pipeline argument, and the associated belief that the problem of women's absence from management would be fixed once enough of them graduated and gained appropriate organisational experience, has been shown to have been deeply flawed. For some years now, women have graduated from relevant undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in greater numbers and with better results than men. However, this has not translated into equal numbers of women in the ranks of management, especially senior management.

The late 1970s and 1980s saw a great flourishing of opportunities for women in Australia, coinciding with the second wave of the feminist movement, socially progressive governments and senior women in bureaucracies, known as femocrats, who successfully lobbied for changes not just in public policy but in education and corporate sectors. Australia was an international leader in this period and a number of its initiatives were emulated by other countries. Supported by a raft of anti-discrimination, equal opportunity and affirmative action legislation in federal and state jurisdictions, the focus started to shift from direct discrimination to indirect discrimination, that is, to redressing the more structural but less visible barriers to women in management. These barriers exist in beliefs about who is 'naturally suited' to management and are mobilised in contexts such as selection panels, commonly dominated by senior men who prefer and label as having managerial 'potential' or 'talent' those who look like them and work like them.

A growing body of EEO practice-based and more theorised feminist research supported the legislative reforms. This research emphasised the importance of dealing with structural obstacles through, for example, formal processes of EEO oversight and ensuring EEO officers had significant positional power. Cynthia Cockburn has characterised this as moving from the 'short agenda' of EEO reform- removing discriminatory bias and getting women selected and promoted into jobs- to the 'long agenda' of changing consciousness and reforming gendered power structures in the wider society.

The 1980s also saw the emergence of 'women in management' as an international research field (for example Adler and Izraeli, 1988; Powell, 1988; and, in Australia, Leonie Still, 1985). This research included several strands. From a social psychology perspective, one strand focused on sex differences and management. It aimed to test whether there were enduring differences in the way men and women managed. While the idea that women manage differently has had ongoing appeal, managerially oriented research generally finds little difference between the measured capabilities of men and women managers in mainstream organisations. Women learn quickly to adapt their styles and are as effective in key competencies such as their achievement motivation, risk-taking and task persistence. These findings persist in organisations where there are large numbers or a 'critical mass' of women in middle-management roles but where power remains centralised in a small number of men.

Other managerially oriented research through and beyond this period maintains that women bring additional qualities to management that should be welcomed: for example, emotional intelligence and transformational leadership. Judy Rosener, writing in the Harvard Business Review, argued that women managers encourage participation, share power and information, enhance other people's self-worth, and get others excited about their work (Rosener, 120). Such capabilities are advantageous and organisations should be open to recruiting and retaining women as a way of promoting positive and effective business cultures. While most researchers in the field of women and management are keen to promote the cause of women, many also warn about the risks of this approach in stereotyping and essentialising women as care-givers who are 'naturally' suited to doing the emotional labour of managerial work (see for example Blackmore and Wajcman). The approach of focusing on the attributes women managers bring also fails to acknowledge the diversity among women.

What has been unequivocally confirmed in research is that women managers are evaluated differently and generally more negatively than their male counterparts in management. Rather than just bumping up against a 'glass ceiling' or 'glass walls', women face a complex 'labyrinth' of obstacles, according to long-time scholars Alice Eagly and Linda Carli. These barriers occur because of widespread norms about feminine and masculine roles and the persisting belief that women make poorer managers because they are 'not tough enough'. Tendencies for women managers to be judged differently from their male counterparts, has been confirmed in a recent study of over 60,000 managers (Elsesser and Lever, 1555-78). While the study found that when people were evaluating their own bosses from experience there was relatively little gender bias, at a more general level, women were rated as having less potential for management and they were penalised more when they adopted a style that contrasted with the conventional feminine gender role. While 54 per cent of those surveyed claimed no gender preference in their managers, the remaining 46 per cent preferred male managers.

Two other strands of women in management research emerged from the 1980s onwards. One was focused on advice giving: offering tips about how to survive as a manager in a male world. This genre persists and thrives today. Kate Kenny and Emma Bell's survey of contemporary self-help books for women managers reveals no shortage of exacting advice about how women should dress and speak, through to how they should manage menstrual and menopausal symptoms to ensure they do not cause offence or disruption in doing the job (Kenny and Bell, 163-76).

At the same time, many rich and revealing analyses repudiate a focus on women as 'the problem' and women needing to adapt themselves as 'the solution'. Judi Marshall's pioneering book published in 1984, Women Managers: Travellers in a Male World, set a template for many more in-depth studies that looked at managerial culture and the way its saturation with masculine norms and assumptions created enduring challenges for women managers in both creating a viable, congruent self-identity and finding ways to exercise power and influence.

The 1990s saw a new emphasis in both research and practice on 'managing diversity'. Particularly under the influence of large multi-national US-based companies with highly developed human resource management practices, the arguments and rhetoric around women in management were superseded by what was seen as a broader push for 'diversity' (Sinclair 2000, 237-45). The language of Equal Employment Opportunity and women's rights was seen to be 'divisive', while diversity was 'inclusive'. Suddenly, EEO officers were out and diversity managers were in. Diversity management was a means of bundling together the interests of a range of 'minority groups' in organisations: black and Indigenous, people of non-English speaking backgrounds and those of homosexual orientation. This manoeuvre turned a human rights and equal opportunity issue into one of 'human resources': how to get the most out of the human capital of the organisation. It also furthered the shift of power and control over equity issues from external regulatory oversight to internal company control. In Australia and more broadly, this has been accompanied by a preference for deregulation and smaller government.

Strategies for managing diversity better were thus turned over to organisations, and the government's role became one of persuasion and encouragement. Complying with equity policies, such as annual reporting of numbers of women and policies to encourage them, was argued to impose too high a cost on business. Progressive companies instead focused on 'the business case for diversity', that is, the reduction of turnover, hiring and other employee costs, and the increased creativity and customer focus that would accrue from creating an organisational culture that was open to and encouraging of diversity.

The language of diversity is still widespread, particularly in corporate organisations. It remains more accepted in business circles to discuss the importance of diversity than it is to single out the particular obstacles confronting women or to turn the focus on the privileges of the dominant male culture. However, there is no evidence that women's interests naturally align with those of other minority groups, nor that generic diversity policies necessarily benefit them (Sinclair, 2000).

Women in Australian corporate management from the 1980s

In Australia, before the establishment of Chief Executive Women in 1985, the number of women managers at senior levels of corporations and on boards was negligible (Dame Leonie Kramer appointed to ANZ and Western Mining in the early 1980s was an exception) (Nugent 2010). However, the 1990s saw the emergence of senior women in corporations and on boards, many of whom came from professional and professional services backgrounds, such as law, accounting and management consulting. These included Margaret Jackson (who came from the accounting profession to hold multiple board positions, including as chairman of Qantas); Catherine Walter (managing partner of a law firm before moving into director roles); Helen Nugent and Diane Grady (both senior in management consulting firms); and Elizabeth Alexander (partner in a senior accounting practice).

Another route into senior management for women was through their own or a family business in which they assumed leadership, such as Rita Avdiev (running her own architectural and building firm), Noel Waite (Executive Search and Development) and Naomi Milgram (CEO of the Sussan Clothing Group). Women with university and research careers also moved into management and onto boards; they included Catherine Livingstone at Cochlear and Adrienne Clarke, a director of various ASX 200 companies. In a more unusual path, Ann Sherry went from roles in the union movement to senior government positions and, in 1994, joined Westpac. With assistance from CEO Bob Joss, an American who joined Westpac and was appalled by the clubby culture of Australian corporates, and pioneering woman board member Eve Mahlab, Sherry took on an increasing range of senior roles, first in human resources and later in line roles, including CEO of subsidiary Bank of Melbourne and Westpac NZ. However, Sherry is an exception and, during the period of the 1990s and early 2000s, successful women in small and professional firms struggled to attain line senior management roles (Cox; Summers).

Since around 2009, there has been a refocusing of energy in the public, political and corporate spheres on improving the numbers of women in management. High-profile CEOs and business leaders have joined government and professional bodies, such as the Australian Institute of Company Directors and the Australian Stock Exchange, in recognising that the strategy of waiting for women to emerge into senior management through the pipeline have failed. Senior leaders have gone on record to say that persuasion and relying on 'the business case for diversity' has failed to deliver any significant change-in numbers of women in senior management but also in the cultures in which they work.

The 'business case' remains clear (see Whelan and Wood). Women outnumber men in many relevant university undergraduate, masters and doctoral programs. If organisations such as law firms and engineering consultancies are intent on recruiting the 'best people', women will outnumber men in their intakes. The evidence is that these women play a central role in organisational success until they reach middle or upper middle management. Here, the statistics suggest, many women leave or get side-lined into support functions. Although this movement is often as ascribed to the individual woman's choice, perhaps due to pressure from juggling family and work or wanting 'quality of life', the reality is that many senior women do not have children and most do not leave the workforce but find alternative work (Metz). These departures cost organisations in terms of loss of talent, in the costs of recruiting and in training new people.

Accordingly, and under the banner of various initiatives, some large Australian companies such as banks, resource and professional service firms have set themselves new targets (not quotas) for numbers of women in senior management. Under the leadership of Gail Kelly, one of the few female CEOs, Westpac has aimed for 40 per cent and above women managers in senior roles. Kelly has had a stellar and impactful career; initially from South Africa, she assumed senior roles in the Commonwealth Bank before becoming CEO of St George Bank and, later, Westpac. Under the leadership of CEO Sue Morphett, Pacific Brands increased the number of women in the senior executive team and at board level. Some other large organisations, such as the Commonwealth Bank, have followed the Westpac lead and vowed to ensure that two out of every three senior appointments will be women.

These are, of course, very welcome steps. But they run the risk that the process of organisational change will become just a numbers game. The focus on adding and retaining women can leave the dominant underlying culture unchanged and the workplace environment just as hostile for women. The argument may be that, in a 'critical mass', women will be better placed to change the culture. However, we have little evidence to support this proposition to date.

More broadly, and again often at the instigation of key individuals, other reforms have been introduced to put pressure on companies to do better in recruiting and retaining women. For example, guidelines for reporting from organisations like the ASX and the Australian Institute of Company Directors have meant that new attention is being paid to the issue of women on boards. Many argue that these reforms have mobilised change because they have 'teeth', that is, a company can be refused listing on the ASX if its record on women is very poor (Whelan and Wood). Women comprised 26 per cent of all new board appointments in 2011 and were targeted to be 50 per cent of new appointments in 2012. Additional pressures- for example, to improve corporate governance through limiting the tenure of directors and greater transparency of processes of selecting and appraising the performance of directors- also works in favour of women and against the recycling of a handful of those from 'the old boys club'.

To date, these measures have had impact at a director level, changing the composition of boards. However, the same measures are not being applied at executive management levels. Several factors suggest it is unwise to be optimistic that women will soon take their place in equal numbers in management and especially senior management. First, there is the economic and policy climate in which initiatives are trying to take root. Business is anti-regulation and against government intervention of any kind, for example, in the area of equal employment opportunity or ensuring pay equity for women. The arguments put by business are not necessarily well based; for example, there is little evidence that reporting to government on the demographics of workforces imposes substantial additional costs. Nevertheless, it is very unlikely we will see in Australia the use of quotas such as have been introduced in some northern European nations.

The second factor is to do with the initiatives themselves, which generally continue to be focused on women and their need to be 'brought up to speed', rather than on the underlying barriers defined by the very way managerial performance is defined and assessed. Where there is attention to more systemic issues, it tends once again to be focused on individuals: for example, helping people identify when their 'unconscious bias' comes into play and to develop cognitive strategies to overcome such bias. These individual-level interventions continue to put the onus back on to women to argue there is a problem and to adjust themselves to fit the culture.

Following on from this, results from polling men and women executives on the obstacles and prospects for women in management are tellingly divergent. Men tend to respond that the problems women encounter have been much reduced and that women themselves need to be more committed to their work. Women, however, see that the obstacles are still there and that they lie in the culture, the way the work is done, the different ways women and their performances are evaluated, and the norms that demand a complete sacrifice of oneself to the job and that rule out anyone with family responsibilities or 'without a wife' (Piterman). Surveys consistently show that men and women assess the level of progress and opportunities differently. While three quarters of women believe that gender parity will result in financial and other benefits for organisations, only just over half of men agree (Bain and Co. And CEW, 2011). One found that, while 66 per cent of men believe women have an equal opportunity of being promoted to senior roles, only 33 per cent of women agreed. Another 2011 survey of 842 respondents largely in senior roles conducted by Chief Executive Women was even more discouraging; the number of women who believed they could be promoted in the same time frame as men dropped from 20 per cent in 2010 to 15 per cent in 2011 (Bain and Co and CEW, 2010; 2011). However, 53 per cent of men believed women had the same prospects for promotion to leadership as men (Fox).


Australia was an early leader in equal employment opportunity and anti-discrimination activism in the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, women in the federal bureaucracy were influential in shaping government policy and fostering awareness of the importance of ensuring women had access to managerial opportunities. These and other factors, such as increasing participation of women in the workforce and in tertiary education, meant that women made progress into lower level and middle management roles in substantial numbers, especially in government but also in other sectors. A substantial body of international and Australian research emerged through the late 1980s and 1990s devoted to 'women and management', including journals such as the Women in Management Review.

However, in the last two decades and associated with broader social and economic trends including political conservatism, reduced government regulation and a declining impact of feminism, the progress of women into senior management roles has stalled, leading commentators to speculate on the existence of 'glass ceilings' and 'glass walls' (invisible barriers preventing women from moving from support to line management roles). Although these trends are mirrored throughout many parts of the developed and industrialised world, Australia now lags behind other Western countries and many emerging economies in opportunities for, and representation of, women in management. Prominent feminist and activist Anne Summers titled her 2003 book The End of Equality to capture the dangers of complacency and, in her view, the setbacks that the new century brought for Australian women. From a management perspective, many of the visible discriminatory barriers to women have been removed. However, the less visible but equally important and intractable barriers, such as stereotyped perceptions of women's capacity to lead and level of commitment to work, continue to powerfully constrain women's opportunities at senior management levels.

Published Resources


  • Blackmore, Jill, Troubling Women: Feminism, Leadership and Educational Change, Open University Press, Buckingham, England, 1999. Details
  • Cockburn, Cynthia, In the Way of Women: Men's Resistance to Sex Equality in Organizations, Macmillan, London, England, 1991. Details
  • Marshall, Judi, Women Managers: Travellers in a Male World, Wiley, Chichester, United Kingdom and New York, United States of America, 1984. Details
  • Piterman, Hannah, Unlocking Gender Potential: A Leader's Handbook, Major Street Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011. Details
  • Powell, Gary, Women and Men in Management, Sage, California, United States of America, 1988. Details
  • Still, Leonie, Where to from Here? The Managerial Woman in Transition, Business and Professional Publishing, Sydney, New South Wales, 1993. Details
  • Summers, Anne, The End of Equality: Work, Babies and Women's Choices in 21st-Century Australia, Random House Australia, Sydney, New South Wales, 2003. Details
  • Wajcman, Judy, Managing Like a Man: Women and Men in Corporate Management, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1999. Details

Book Sections

  • Kenny, Kate and Bell, Emma, 'Representations of the Successful Managerial Body', in Jeanes, Emma; Knights, David and Martin, Patricia Yancey (eds), Handbook of Gender, Work and Organization, John Wiley and Sons, Chichester, United Kingdom, 2011, pp. 163 - 176. Details
  • Sinclair, Amanda, 'Critical Diversity Management Practice in Australia: Romanced or Co-opted?', in Konrad, Alison; Prasad, Pushkala and Pringle, Judith (eds), Handbook of Workplace Diversity, Sage, London, England, 2000, pp. 511 - 530. Details

Edited Books

  • Adler, Nancy and Izraeli, Dafne (eds), Women in Management Worldwide, M.E. Sharpe, New York, United States of America, 1988. Details

Journal Articles

  • Elsesser, K. and Lever, J, 'Does Gender Bias against Female Leaders Persist? Quantitative and Qualitative Data from a Large-scale Survey', Human Relations, vol. 64, no. 12, 2011, pp. 1555 - 1578. Details
  • Metz, Isabel, 'Women Leave Work because of Family Responsibilities. Fact or Fiction?', Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, vol. 49, no. 3, 2011, pp. 285 - 307. Details
  • Rosener, Judy, 'Ways Women Lead', Harvard Business Review, vol. 68, no. 6, November - December 1990, pp. 119 - 125. Details
  • Sinclair, Amanda, 'Women within Diversity: Risks and Possibilities', Women in Management Review, vol. 15, no. 5 / 6, 2000, pp. 237 - 245. Details
  • Sinclair, Amanda and Ewing, J, 'What Women Managers Want: Customising Human Resource Management Practices', Human Resource Management Journal, vol. 3, no. 2, 1992, p. 14. Details
  • Sinclair, Amanda and Marriott, Fern, 'Women in Management - Advantage through Adversity', Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, vol. 28, no. 2, 1990, pp. 14 - 25. Details

Magazine Articles

  • Eagly, Alice and Carli, Linda, Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership, Harvard Business Review, September 2007, 63 - 71 pp. Details
  • Nugent, Helen, Seize the Moment, AFR Boss Magazine, 11 November 2010. Details


  • Still, Leonie, The Status of Women Managers in Australian Business: An Exploratory Study, Women in Management Series Paper No. 2, University of Western Sydney: School of Business, Sydney, New South Wales, 1985. Details


Online Resources