“The theme of International Women’s Day is ‘be bold for change’,” Associate Professor Wilkinson said. “But we need to be bold and change.”
Wilkinson pointed to research showing that despite enormous interest in women and leadership in recent decades, women are still significantly under-represented in education, government and business leadership positions and board directorships.
She said that in the higher education sector, for example, there was a myth that “the feminisation of higher education” had secured a level of advantage for women.
However, recent research showed that women were still segregated against both in terms of the fields in which they sought leadership positions (health and medicine as compared to science and engineering, for example) and in their representation at the highest levels of university leadership.
“One of the reasons is that in our society we think change will happen and things will improve without much action being necessary,” she said.
“But if we keep going as we are, we won’t see significant change for 100 years. We must eliminate entrenched practices that prevent women reaching positions they are qualified to fill.
“It’s about deciding the kind of society we want to be and making it happen. And to bring change, women and men have to live it in their actions as leaders.”
Wilkinson suggested simple actions to boost the chances of women taking earned leadership positions in the education and other sectors:
- Ban breakfast and evening meetings – they assume we all have the luxury to be free of the responsibility of caring for others such as children and aged parents
- Acknowledge all achievements and the people who contribute to a healthy, productive workplace – cleaners and administrative staff as well as more “senior” people
- Identify whose voices are not usually heard and use panels and other platforms to include them
- Congratulate women on their successes in emails or in person
- If someone has a great idea in a meeting, record it in the minutes – that will mean women’s ideas are acknowledged.
- Call out sexism and racism
- If you’re a female leader, don’t try and “do it all” – including being the office caregiver.
- Establish clear expectations around tasks such as responding to emails outside work hours – you want “a life” and you’ll demonstrate that you expect your colleagues to, as well.
- Share leadership roles and responsibilities – introduce “collective leadership” models of leading and managing such as job rotation, part-time and shared leadership, and decision-making involving diverse stakeholders such as students and equity group members instead of centralising power in the hands of a few.
- Rethink caring responsibilities – government policies are critical. Nations such as Norway and Sweden have 12 months’ family leave but insist that fathers must take a minimum of three months of that leave or the family accesses only nine months’ leave. This encourages caring as a joint responsibility and shakes the traditional model of the male breadwinner which still underpins organisational structures and thinking.
“High-performing leaders know leadership is about working with people rather than over them,” Wilkinson said.
“Organisations that share modes of leadership find they perform better on productivity, recruitment and retention, and other targets.”
In looking to increase their own chances of earning leadership roles Wilkinson suggested women should:
- Become aware of how they may be unconsciously putting themselves down – speak directly, rather than using diminutives such as “I just wanted to ask you if …”
- Check how often they say “sorry” in their verbal interactions – has this become a bad habit?
- Avoid using sexist language such as “you guys”
- Stop belittling their achievements
- Go to senior managers with solutions – not just problems
- Discuss their aspirations and seek advice from those in power – don’t expect that achievements alone will be noticed or rewarded
- Build diverse networks and relationships
- Seek feedback from trusted colleagues about their leadership aspirations and how to achieve them.