Navigating Barriers

100 Women Leaders

Women navigate three dominant barriers in the Australian workforce.  As a result choices have to be made; leave Australia, find employers who support flexible work, don’t have children or don’t have them unless you can afford or have home support.  Our daughters should not have to face the same challenges in the future, so we need to learn and change from these learnings and insights.

100 Women Leaders is a national study by the Reibey Institute, aiming to identify the pathways and key success factors for women leaders in corporate Australia. Navigating Barriers is one of eight themes identified in the series.


Introducing the Barriers

We spoke with 100 female leaders and asked them about the barriers to women reaching leadership positions in Australia.

  1. Australia’s culture
  2. Childcare affordability and accessibility
  3. Organisational inflexibility

The three most commonly discussed topics are no surprise but many of the stories and experiences were quite surprising and demoralising but also many were inspirational and  motivating.  There are clear problems but it is also great to see that some things are moving in the right direction.  Their stories are not to be debated, but used to reflect on how we want our country and our workplaces to be in the future.

Promoted Overseas

42% were promoted to senior positions overseas

I feel lucky I got promoted overseas, I am not sure it would have happened here.

Had Flexible Employers

36% worked for companies that embraced flexible work conditions for a period of their career

– My company was really supportive in my first 12 months back.  I was able to take my children with me travelling so I could continue to breastfeed.

13% of those women still work part-time or flexibly in senior leadership roles.

Wait to have children until you can afford a nanny

70% of women with children had in home care.

Don’t have Children

26% have no children

And of course there are women who worked their careers entirely in Australia.  We talk about the barriers they face and some tools they had to get ahead in this report and in further reports in the series.


Barrier 1: Culture

A common frustration that with out a wider change in society some doubted that any policies at the organisational level would make a lasting impact.  The reason most often given for women not reaching leadership positions was Australia’s culture. This included comments on the “blokey and sports obsessed” culture as well as the traditional view of women and their role in the family.

64% had experienced some form of sexism / discrimination or harrassment in their career , 8% felt they had never experienced any with the remaining 28% were unsure or felt there was nothing significant. 

The message women are getting and some are giving now as mentors is that as a woman you must spend a good proportion of your career overseas.  There are 2 reasons for this.  The first is that there is a difference in culture and less judgement when they go back to work and the second is the infrastructure and support around childcare.

42% were promoted overseas / international experience

Women who had lived and worked and often made it to senior leadership positions overseas all noted that they were surprised when they got back at the difference in culture.  Here is what they said about their experiences;

“Australia is slow in so many ways, its about time we accept that you can work and have kids.”

“The scale of Australia means there is a lot of cliques, which exacerbates the problem.”

“We have a very patriarchal culture.”

It is also families and their own internal stereotypes and beliefs that contradict their current feelings.

“Where I grew up, Mums run the family and are looked up to the most. Here it seems women just serve the blokes food during the football.”

“Women who have children are under huge pressure and expectations, and it takes effort to fight against that.”

“I feel more judged in Australia.”

“A lot of women want to look toward someone else to follow in their footsteps.  No one wants to go down an untrodden path.  We need more women celebrated and to talk about what they have done.”

Stefanie Loader, General Manager Northparkes Mines, Rio Tinto


Barrier 2:  Childcare accessibility and affordability

The second most cited reason was the cost and inflexibility of childcare is an impediment to careers.  There was only one example of a female managing her career relying only on daycare. Home support is critical. Childcare is not enough by itself. One woman said she initially tried to do all the drop offs and pick up herself, and commented, “Sometimes I was probably a danger (on the road) due to the stress of all the drop offs.” The conclusion is that you have to be able to afford additional help and or have a partner/spouse or family members who will assist/contribute to childcaring. The facts:

  • Only one woman managed her career using childcare alone.
  • Half of women with children had a partner/spouse who played a significant in child caring either being a full time stay at home dad, taking significant time off work, worked in flexible and part time roles and helped with pick ups and drop offs.
  • More than half had nannies /au pairs.
  • A quarter had nannies AND contributing partners/spouses.
  • Grandparents were the other significant help in managing children 
  • More than a quarter did not have children

Their stories:

“The social infrastructure is not keeping up with modern work.”

“You need immense support outside the workplace that is with a nanny and also other help.”

“Some women try to get back in and it’s so hard and we make it difficult for them, so of course they choose their own blood.”

“Overseas the live in help is fabulous.  They become part of the family.  It would be great to have that here.”

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The women who had live in au pairs found the cost and convenience was perfect however the six monthly change over was somewhat disruptive.  We suggest relaxing the visa restriction for au-pairs for working holidays from a maximum of six to 12 months. The call for tax deductibility for all childcare was also high on the list.

“Paying for home help should not be seen as expense but as an investment.”

COO Australian Company


Barrier 3 : Organisational inflexibility

Flexible or part-time work does not imply a lack ambition, capability or the aspiration to return to full-time work in the future.  Part time and flexible work hours are often frowned at or treated as a “holding pattern” in careers.  This does not need to be and should not be the case.  The days of being connected to a desk are a thing of the past for all employees.  These women are examples that is can and does work and that smart companies reap the rewards.

  • 36 of the women worked part time or flexibly at some stage in their career
  • 13 of them still work flexibly or part-time currently

Flexible work can improve your business performance and attract better staff.  Some advice and observations from these women include:

“We do not need one desk for every person.  70% of desks for the number of people and 30% people somewhere else.  Cost will drive it.”

“If you are aiming to have the best person, be willing to look at different things to get that person.”

“Trust that your people will get the work done.  Be clear and then leave them to it.”

“It’s not just about time at desk, flexibility pays back many fold.  Best results I get are from job share people – they are so focused and proactive.”

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Their experiences;

“It’s hard to see my friends who work hard 4 days of the week and never get promoted.  And it’s very difficult to move as a part-time.”

“There is something that people think if you are part-time then you have stepped off career track in Australia.  I am lucky I was in New York  for that.”

“I am lucky I got a part-time role and it works.  But very few are able to negotiate it.’

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Flexible work can improve your business performance and attract better staff.  It requires capable management and uptake of technology.  If organisations want the best people, and believe in merit then join the companies benefiting from productive work practices.

We need solid minds doing this they are good at.  I would rather a super competent person flexibly or part-time than a missing out on that person for second best. If your goal is to have the best person be willing to look at different things to get that person.”

Suzana Ritevski, Chief Marketing Officer, GE Australia and New Zealand

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