AFR Talking Points: Inequality in executive ranks

As I read the Business Council of Australia's target in the paper last week, I knew I had a fair bit to say! Luckily, the Australian Financial Review was partial to giving those opinions a megaphone... Here is what I wrote.

There is little chance women will ever make up half of senior executives in engineering intensive industries, let alone in 10 years time, unless there is a real push for more women in these sectors in the first place.

Companies have to look beyond rapid promotion and mentoring plans to the impediments that exist for women at the beginning of the executive pipeline if any change is to occur.  s (BCA) bold target of increasing the number of women in senior roles is a promising development. However, the lack of diversity at the upper levels of management in companies is a symptom of a problem that begins much earlier. It is the product of a range of obstacles that prevent women from reaching positions in which they are visible options, and, taking a further step back, from even considering these industries at all.

When I graduated in 2011 with a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering I was one of seven females in a class of a few hundred. This ratio highlights a flaw in the way woman approach science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM) based disciplines.

Part of the problem is how STEM subjects are marketed to young women, or not marketed at all, from a young age. Far too many girls are studying maths in their final years of high school, effectively shutting down a whole lot of career options. This is reflected in university enrolments, graduations and industry employment patterns.

In oil and gas extraction in Australia, the percentage of females working in the industry is less than 12 per cent. As a fly-in, fly-out, high-visibility gear wearing field specialist, it is extremely rare to meet another female on any land rigs. Granted, the work is not glamorous and the environment is not suitable for everyone (male or female) but if, at the grassroots level in the field, there are very few females working, what is the chance of female talent making it to the top?

Field experience in engineering provides a level of depth and understanding of the industry that is critical to higher management roles. Recent counsel by a senior engineer at an oil and gas conference indicated that part of the reason females were not reaching upper management positions was due to the lack of field knowledge (and the networks and understanding of the culture that comes along with field experience) compared to their male counterparts.

The field environment is not nearly as hostile as people expect. With more women visibly taking on these roles, hopefully more will be encouraged; enough to achieve the critical mass required for real culture change. However, lack of field experience is not the only barrier.

Due to the low numbers of women in engineering, there is an extra layer of difficulty for women returning to the workforce after maternity leave.  In a field where experience on different projects is paramount and the work is extremely resource and time intensive, missing the months or years is more than just disadvantageous, it means that real opportunities for growth are missed. As a female just starting out in the industry, this is something that is always at the back of my mind. There is an opportunity for companies to play a much more significant role in this space, although ironically the understanding of the needs of female employees will be best addressed by female directors.

Women who study and work in engineering-based fields are not always comfortable discussing gender in the workplace either, due in part to the stigma associated with the discussion in such a blokey environment. In a world where women are outnumbered more than five to one, it is important that men are involved in this conversation. The report released by the Male Champions of Change is a symbolic move that should not be understated, as it signals that gender diversity is not simply a ploy by women to ‘move up the ranks faster’ and ‘be rewarded for gender not talent’, as some critics may choose to believe. It highlights the value of gender diversity to the business.

Cultural change is never an easy endeavour but it is worthwhile. The BCA’s move is timely and important. Working with industry to develop solutions that focus on the root of the problem can make audacious targets a reality.




So what do you think? Is the target a reality?  Would love to hear your thoughts!



Yassmin Abdel-Magied