Why aren't there more women in our boardrooms?

02.02.10 | Posted in Women & Business Women In Business

Sexual discrimination is rife in the corporate world. Trouble is, half the time we’re not even aware of it.I had lunch with a friend last week. She’s a highly successful businesswoman (and multi-millionaire) and got to where she is of her own volition. As a result of her success she only flies first class or business class whenever she travels. She’ll regularly find herself as one of the only females in the cabin.

Enter sexual discrimination example number one.

My friend says that almost every time she’s on a flight, the attendant will ask all the men in the rows around her “Would you care for a paper, sir?” When they approach her, the question usually changes. “Madam, can I get a magazine for you?” incorrectly assuming that she wouldn’t be interested in the Financial Review.

Last time this happened my friend cordially approached one of the attendants when the flight took off to have a chat about what she’d said. Genuinely surprised, the female attendant apologised and was able to admit she’d been doing that for a long time, and it had never even occurred to her to keep the question the same for her female passengers. In fact, she said, she thought she was giving a higher level of service by offering something different. The attendant also admitted, after my friend probed some more, that she had just assumed my friend was a wife of a businessman.

Once she was aware of her thinking and conditioning, she vowed to be more diligent and thoughtful in the future.

A similar thing happened today. I was in a course and the trainer was talking about his consulting work at the C-level of some company. A discussion followed about this and one of the participants commented about the C-level subject, “Oh, he shouldn’t have done that”. Now who’s to assume that the CEO or CFO or whoever the trainer was talking about was a male?

The problem lies in the covert. It’s the language we use and the assumptions we make that are holding us back.

Female representation on ASX 200 boards in Australia dropped from 8.7% in 2006 to 8.3% in 2008. It’s hard to believe that the rate declined in this period, despite the fact that Australia shares first place in terms of education levels (according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report).

I reckon a lot of it can be attributed to the clandestine discrimination that exists everywhere. And it’s not only men playing this game. Women unconsciously do it too.

Another friend of mine works for a major bank and is based in WA. She told me how it’s part of her role to organise the annual ‘team building’ activity for her management team. They all happen to be men. For the past three years her manager has insisted that they go rally car driving as the team building activity, and of course my friend has obliged in organising this.

It only occurred to her to question the choice of activity after we chatted about it. It was like a light had been switched on. “It’s not about the activity that now upsets me”, she said, “it’s more that because it’s such a male oriented thing, it sort of makes it hard for any of the females in the department to aspire to their level. It’s like this invisible person saying ‘well this job is only for men’. It’s not that they come out and say it like that, nor do they even probably realise it, but that’s the underlying message it sends”.

Have you had any similar experiences? What can we do to make sure we’re lifting this situation?


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  1. Steve

    First and foremost I believe there’s less women in the board room simply because less women want to be there. I know more than a few who only want to work up until they can marry a man who will support them, and this includes university educated women with PhD’s.

    My boss is a woman, and if I ever say something about my boss, any replies always assume my boss is male, even women do this. My mother was a strong role model for me growing up, so it surprised me in a way, I always saw women as being just as capable in any role.

    I’m also picking up on a bit of well… is it sexism in your blog? It’s bad that it is assumed a woman will want a magazine, yet you assume only men will want to go rally driving? Personally I’m a man with no interest in cars, and I also know more than a few women who would love to go rally driving.

  2. koo

    I work in a male-dominated field and your post squares with my own observations.

    I always liked to suggest horse riding as a team activity, instead of kart racing/paintball/laser games/golf/… and always got a clear no from the men. Even though it’s probably more exciting and dangerous, women seem to be more comfortable with the idea and men aren’t willing to try something new. It would be funny if it wasn’t so constant.

  3. Baeu Medina

    How insightful are you!

    I manage my own business in a saturated market full of mainly men, I supply corporate displays to lge-med sized companies and deal with burly blokes who build them.
    However, by chance I was given (by birth) a name that is common for males ‘Baeu pronouned Beau’. I am constantly leaving messages with receptionists and also receive refferals; to many of my clients suprise… I am female! I sometimes question, would they have called me back, if they knew my gender? On the flip side though, my target client is Events/Marketing Managers and there have been countless times I would assumed that the Event Manager would be female, as most of them are, but sometimes I am too am suprised by who I hear over at other end of the phone!

    Your blog is fantastic… I love reading them! Particularly your blog about child birth, you always send a powerful message and give me something to think about? This weeks mantra… I will make a conscience effort to try and change my social conditioning by not assuming gender in roles!! :)

  4. Robin

    I’ve worked in organisations with large populations of women and also one with an unusually high number of women in senior positions, including the CEO.

    I think many women eliminate themselves from board rooms and senior executive positions by trying to act like men (and thus get labelled butch or some other derogatory term).

    Other women take breaks from the workforce to raise children (some men do it too), and that doesn’t support continuity. Then there’s the women who don’t want to take on a top role because of their family commitments.

    We have women as an EEO target group which sends out a signal that women need help because they can’t do it alone; some governments fund books to tell women how to budget, which I think should be insulting to any woman. (My son couldn’t budget to save his life!)

    As with men, I’ve met many excellent female managers and they have a different way of thinking from we males that is often better in given situations.

    If you stopped putting yourselves down by always rabbiting on about the glass ceiling and lack of women on board rooms and just got out there and did the job, you’d probably do a lot better. I hope so.

  5. Elise

    Hi Emma,

    I just wanted to raise an interesting issue that I come across in my workplace fairly regularly. In this organisation, the higher management is definitely male dominated, and there is often a lack of understanding as to how females can get to their level as there aren’t too many footsteps to follow in. One motivated female staff member brought up that it was unfair for golf days to be organised, as this excluded women. My reaction to this was why can’t women play golf? If we want to be in the same management positions as men, why can’t we all participate in such activities? Going to sporting events can be fun, as I’ve recently discovered. I’ve realised it’s fantastic networking and a good way to be recognised as an equal.

    I’ve been invited to golf, cricket, quadbiking, and beers at the pub and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it, although it was all new to me. And I’m still very much a girly girl. I think I’ve earned the respect of a lot of male colleagues in the process.

    So my lesson learned – don’t feel excluded just because an event might be traditionally for ‘the boys’…go along, and chances are you will get to know people on a new level, earn their respect, and have lots of fun in the process. And retain every bit of fabulousness you have along the way!

  6. Emma

    Thanks Elise – you raise a valid point and I salute your ‘get up and get on with it’ attitude and reckon every woman should have the same thinking.

    I just wonder if the tables were turned and the majority of our corporate team building activities were in the day spa, would our men do the same and just come along without making a fuss? My guess is no. (Although my husband would disagree – he’s partial to a facial!)

    Good on you though for getting involved – I think your efforts will pay dividends for your career.