If there is a set of statistics that should send shivers down the collective spine of corporate Australia it is the latest census of women in leadership figures that show men hold 2148 line positions in the ASX500, versus 141 for women.
What is alarming about these figures is that they reveal for the first time the paucity of women in key management positions in Australia's top 500 listed companies.
But it doesn't stop there. Other figures show that while women represent 15.2 per cent of board positions on the ASX 200, they comprise 9.2 per cent of executives in the ASX 500 and in the ASX 200, women's representation in line management positions is 6 per cent, and 22 per cent in support positions.
They are difficult figures to digest because they show that while the representation of women on boards is heading in the right direction - almost doubling in the past few years to 15.2 per cent, according to the latest Australian Institute of Company Directors figures - the number of women in senior management ranks is anorexic and has hardly budged in the past decade.
The big concern is what will happen if female directors keep getting plucked from the already skinny management ranks. Where will that leave the pipeline and will it result in a vacuum of women at the top of the management pipeline?
Prue Gilbert Consulting's Prue Gilbert, who specialises in advising companies on strategies for retaining women, says the statistics don't surprise her. As for all the talk at the top about the financial benefits of gender balance, the gender equity drive has not focused organisations' attention on the women that are leaving.
"It's too easy for women in their 30s to leave. I coach women back to work after maternity leave and am all too familiar with the deeply entrenched cultures that have created layers of red tape for women to wade through in order to be a working mother," she says.
The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) census indicates that there are very few executive female role models. The Bureau of Statistics reported earlier this month that of the 357,500 women (33 per cent of whom were professionals) who had a job while pregnant last year, 19 per cent perceived some level of discrimination in the workplace, and 104,500 women permanently left the workplace. "It's a domino effect. If you can't see that someone else has navigated a pathway to success, you're going to look for another career path," Gilbert says.
Executives must challenge their own biases around career cycles and accept that men and women have different career cycles. Women don't need to do it all in their 30s. Most can't, and won't.
Of course, to truly effect change, government needs to provide greater leadership and practical support, by ensuring that every policy decision considers the impact it has on working women. This includes a complete overhaul of the childcare sector, which, together with school hours, ensures women remain entrenched as the primary carers. Investing now will certainly pave the way for fewer women relying on the pension in retirement.
Elise Margow, a director and consultant on diversity, said more effort was required to address gender imbalance at executive line management levels. "For example corporations should allow more flexible work practices at the highest levels, not just in words but in deeds. The prevalent 'old boys' manner of networking should be replaced by more inclusive networking practices more suited to women and those from diverse backgrounds," she said.
EOWA has gone a step further and called for organisations to set numerical targets for women at leadership and management levels.
Companies such as ANZ have embarked on this. It has set a medium term target of at least 40 per cent female representation in management positions. To date, three women sit on its management board, 38 per cent of all management roles and 24 per cent of ANZ's most senior executive roles are held by women.
But it is a complex issue that doesn't have simple answers. The issues are packed with emotion and demand debate. Most women have points in their career when they have to make decisions that are not as obvious for males. The biggest is diverting their career path to have children. As Gilbert says, this takes them off the main career highway in many cases and often they decide they don't want to return.
"Diversity programs need to invest in retention: supporting women back to work after maternity leave, and in the years that follow. It takes more than 14 weeks' paid maternity leave and a flexible work policy to achieve this. Set targets for balanced leadership teams, and hold executives accountable. Stop making assumptions about what working mothers really want, and find out how you can help them to do the great job we all know they can do," she says.
The question is whether using quotas to force equality of numbers puts an unacceptable pressure on those involved and goes against the concept that boards should be comprised of the most capable people. It's a tough question because there are boards filled with old members of the male privilege club who are past their use-by dates and should be replaced, so why not with women.
Maybe a better solution is attacking the problem head on by learning how to retain women as well as how to promote them.