Advancing women

Prior research by Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women identified that one of the top three actions required for women to achieve equal representation in senior leadership is removing bias from recruitment and promotion processes.

Removal of bias demands that organisations operate as meritocracies, where the basis of career progression is an individual’s contribution to their organisation’s endeavour. However, defining who has and who does not have merit without introducing subjectivity and bias remains challenging in practice.

In a perfect world, promotions should be based on an impartial assessment of both an individual’s past performance and their potential to meet current and future requirements. However, while past performance is often relatively easy to assess, evaluating potential is much more nuanced and this is where bias can cloud judgement.

Unfortunately, there is much work to do when it comes to Australian employees’ perception of their organisation’s meritocracy. In our survey of almost 5000 Australian executives, less than half of the female respondents perceived their own organisations to be meritocratic (see Figure 1). Men were somewhat more positive with 61% reporting that they feel their organisations are meritocratic.

Figure 1:

Gender Diversity

This is not a great place to start, particularly as the case for meritocracy is so compelling.

So where are Australian organisations falling short? Women point to three issues when describing the lack of meritocracy within their organisations –uneven access to sponsorship relative to men, the presence of inherent bias and a lack of robust processes.

Women are being told to display “more confidence”, get “more experience,” and asked to moderate “your style” at executive levels, but they are receiving less clear and actionable feedback than their male peers.

It remains an uncomfortable fact that men remain in the majority at the top of Australian organisations by a factor of six. Therefore, to see any meaningful change, decision makers, who are mostly men, need to make different choices, embrace new thinking and appoint qualified women into the C-suite. This often means selecting someone who is different from previous occupants. Frequently a female appointment still means putting a woman into a senior role for the first time within an organisation.

In this year’s research, we specifically sought to understand how this risk aversion might manifest in performance feedback, specifically in the lead-up to promotions. Not surprisingly, we found some substantial differences in the feedback women and men receive in three key areas (see Figure 2).

Figure 2:

Gender Diversity

Firstly, women are twice as likely as men to be told they need to display “more confidence” to be ready for promotion.

Secondly, women are a third more likely than men to be told they need “more experience” to be ready for promotion. However, only 50% of women report that they were given the opportunity to gain the required experience.

Thirdly, women are less likely than men to receive clear feedback on what they need to do to be ready for promotion. Neither women nor men gave a strong report on the clarity of feedback they receive, but women appear particularly disadvantaged.

So, the bottom line is that women are being told to display “more confidence”, get “more experience,” and asked to moderate “your style” at executive levels, but they are receiving less clear and actionable feedback than their male peers. These are likely to be significant factors in the growing disparity of the promotion of men versus women in senior ranks.

There are four actions leaders could consider to improve meritocracy in their organisations.

Firstly, start re-examining and challenging role requirements for positions, and ensure policies and processes are engineered to minimise bias in appointment and promotion decisions.

In any appointment, but particularly high stakes appointments, the least risky option can be appointing someone who “has done it before”. Yet in this fast-paced, digitising, globalising world, perhaps we need to stop and question that we are not trapped in outdated thinking on who has merit. We need to challenge ourselves to examine what capabilities are required to compete for the future in order to ensure we are not perpetuating ongoing biases. Secondly, train managers to provide employees with clear, useful and valuable feedback about what they need to do to move to the next level. Applying the SMART approach to feedback (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and timely) is very practical. Clear feedback is very important as it is correlated with accelerated promotion rates.

Thirdly, ensure that women and men have effective sponsors to support their career development. Women raised “having an effective sponsor whom I can rely on to advocate on my behalf” as essential to their progression. By its very nature, the process of advocating for someone and challenging organisational thinking can act as a form of bias interruption.

Lastly, ensure that women and men have access to career development opportunities and specific roles in which they can gain the skills and experiences necessary for promotion.


This is an edited extract from the AICD’s latest Gender Diversity Progress Report. For the full article and the report, click here.