Challenging Stereotypes

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The world of work has changed significantly for women since the 1970’s when EEO and affirmative action legislation was introduced. More flexible employment practices exist, women now outnumber men a university graduates, women in Australia are amongst the highest educated in the world and they are increasingly becoming the norm in a growing range of professions and industries that were once the sole domain of men.

Nevertheless, in the corporate world leadership still remains a largely masculine enterprise and the pay gap between men and women remains stubbornly high at 17.5%. The superannuation gap means the average Australian woman will need to work an extra 25 years to match men’s superannuation.

We need to build on the successes of the past, recognise the achievements of others, and also acknowledge there is still much hard work to be done. Progress seems to be stuck. To what extent have entrenched views, stereotypes and misconceptions about the role of women in the workplace held back progress?

Many of us have been guilty of making generalisations about male and female leadership styles, such as women possess inherently female leadership styles – we describe them as being more nurturing, better team players, more collaborative, have better social skills, whereas male leaders are described as competent, tough and commanding. Women offer so much more than just being a collaborative, supportive and cooperative team player. Also, there is a growing body of research debunking the myths that men and women do lead differently.

When we stereotype women we make assumptions about their abilities which can create significant roadblocks to their progress. Bias and stereotyping creates inequitable outcomes in hiring and promotional practices and entrenches discriminatory practices. Women tend to be preferred for support roles or roles requiring nurturing competencies and they are denied access to hard, business-focused operational roles, which are the pipeline to senior leadership roles. With the lack of role models at the top, women continue to be seen as a stereotype threat and have little sense of belonging at this level, further compounding the problem.

Quotas, if applied bluntly, can actually exacerbate this effect. To meet quotas, organisations can simply load up support roles with more women, thereby meeting targets but embedding into the corporate mindset that women are not suited to any other roles.

Careers are complex and there is no “one simple way” to succeed. However, here are three ways in which women can take charge of their career and significantly enhance their success.

  1. First, understand yourself . This includes reflecting on your successes and accomplishments, your failures and faults and what this says about you. Who am I and who do I want to be? How do I impact an organisation in an authentic way that resonates with others?
  2. Then forge your own path. Be clear about what you want, and develop a path to get there. Success comes when you know where to focus – which opportunities play to your strengths and generate success. Consider embracing a less-prescribed career path and be open to choosing different career paths. Choose sideways moves so you become a well-rounded senior leader. Seek out strategically critical roles that will be pipeline roles for senior C-Suite or CEO roles.
  3. Finally, choose your employer carefully.  Don’t make decisions based on raw numbers of women in senior positions. Instead consider the roles women hold in the organisation.  Are they all in support roles or also represented in operational roles, managing large budgets? Are they managing any key strategic priorities and projects? What is the CEO’s track record in diversity?

We need to move beyond viewing any one leadership style as the ideal and to strive to create organizational environments that will be receptive to many diverse types of leadership styles. Only then will women have equal access to roles that have traditionally been in the male domain.


Norah Breekveldt

Director – Ampersand Advisory


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