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Career management is a masculine term

Last year, it was clear that the financial crisis would reshape the world of work forever. With the recovery now coming through, many careers are looking very different from three years ago, particularly for women. Evidence from outplacement specialists shows that men and women are choosing radically different career paths. That will reshape management, business and, ultimately, society. It also tells us what’s wrong with the retention and career-management strategies of companies and individuals.

The latest data on the number of women in leading corporate roles shows that policies such as family-friendly workplaces, maternity leave and flexible work arrangements are not working and that traditional career management policies have failed.

The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) census shows us that women hold only 8.4 per cent of board directorships, compared with 8.3 per cent in 2008, 8 per cent of key executive roles in the ASX 200, and a low of 4.1 per cent of line executive positions that are important career rungs for aspirants climbing the corporate ladder. The number of companies with male-only boards has increased from 51 per cent in 2008 to 54 per cent in 2010, suggesting we might be going backwards.

The EOWA figures are historic. They are based on numbers from 2009 annual reports and the Australian Institute of Company Directors has more up-to-date figures showing that women now make up 10.1 per cent of ASX 200 boards, not 8.4 per cent, that 40 women were appointed this year compared with 10 last year, and 27 per cent of directors appointed this year have been female, compared with just those 10 for all of last year.

Much of this change has been attributed to the Australian Securities Exchange’s Corporate Governance Council principles requiring companies to disclose the proportion of women on boards. There might well have been a rush of companies keen to avoid bad publicity for gender imbalance.

But still, only one in 10 directors at Australia’s top companies is female. It will take nearly two decades before men and women reach equality in the boardroom at the current rate and that will affect business opportunities. Do the numbers: women are usually chief purchasing officers for families, making key decisions for vacations, cars, consumer electronics, clothing, food and home renovations. Boards without women are not thinking about the market they are supposed to be serving.

Research by the Victorian office of outplacement firm Directioneering reveals a more subtle change afoot. During the financial crisis, Directioneering’s big clients included banks, professional services firms and consumer goods companies, all cutting their staff numbers right back. Directioneering found that over the past two years, 90 per cent of all senior men who had been made redundant went to an identical executive position at another workplace. But with women, only 50 per cent went to an executive role. Indeed, 25 per cent moved into genuine self-employment, setting up portfolio careers combining lots of different jobs. These businesses were one-person brands; there were no plans to employ.

Significantly, 25 per cent of these women ended up on company boards as part of their work portfolio, suggesting we may soon see more female directors, giving weight to the AICD figures showing the marked increase in the number of female directors. Those women perhaps had had enough of the corporate world after being locked out of major roles. Now they realised they had more choice and could be more creative out on their own. In a sense, their greater flexibility than men has an advantage. Men move into the same sort of job because they are caught in the straight and narrow. As Virginia Woolf reminded us, it’s unpleasant to be locked out until you realise it is worse to be locked in.

These findings should alarm companies because they suggest a depletion of executive talent. They are creating sameness, groupthink and innovation-free zones. They suggest that many policies aimed at keeping women are failing. Many companies measure the number of women coming back after maternity leave but fail to take into account the many who leave after returning because they feel marginalised.

They also tell us that it’s not only organisations that need to do more to develop careers. Individuals need to start managing their brand strategically; in a fluid market with a growing skills shortage, they have to take responsibility for their own development. The financial crisis and patchy recovery have turned the traditional career path into something akin to surfing, but only women seem to have taken advantage of this. The changes in career management may go a long way to fixing Australia’s shameful corporate gender imbalance issues.

Leon Gettler

This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald

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