Women should be prepared to be the "token woman" in leadership positions - and then deliver on the job, a panel of female business leaders has told a Women in Leadership forum, hosted by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), in Adelaide.
The panel, which included National Australia Bank (NAB) senior executive, Joanna White, advertising executive and lecturer, Jane Caro, and Australian Financial Review (AFR) magazine deputy editor, Catherine Fox, told the forum that gender targets were still needed in big organisations.
"When I graduated from commerce...54 per cent were women. I had job offers as long as my arm ...and if you had asked me, I would have said quotas for women were not necessary. Twenty years on since I finished university, I have found that it does matter," Ms White said.
"Unless we know and agree on what we are trying to achieve we are not going to get there."
NAB has announced that by 2015 it would grow the proportion of women in the top three management layers from 23 per cent to 33 per cent, and elsewhere from 14 per cent to 30 per cent.
"Women have a responsibility to take leadership opportunities given to them - and to realise that they need to perform," Ms White said.
"Without the targets NAB has... when my boss was recruiting, he would have probably looked for someone like himself - a 20-years-plus banker to fill this role. Not many women fulfil that....but will I be able to keep this role just because I am a woman? Gratifyingly, I believe the answer is no."
Having women in senior leadership positions was good for companies and customers and flexible work arrangements and workplaces that valued and respected individual differences would be better for everyone, she said.
"It is clear that companies that have a greater proportion of women on their executive and at board level do better," Ms White said.
"The crux of it, though, is that it comes down to trust - trusting that (employees) want to do a job and how they do it is up to them."
Yet, Catherine Fox said there was no evidence of generational change on gender issues. "We've gone backwards. The tenacity of organisational structures, which is where we negotiate money and power and all those things, is significant," she said.
One of the problems for most executives, and particularly women in leadership roles, was the need to make tradeoffs with family obligations. Overwhelmingly, time and energy were the issues for people in leadership positions, Ms Fox said.
Women leaders also battled double standards when it came to judgements about their leadership style. Women could either be seen as incompetent and nice or competent and cold, she said, and this "dislikeability" drove penalties in the workplace.
"So, this led me to thinking... women who are directing and controlling teams are doing so without appearing to do so. They are leading through influence," she said.
Influence could be seen as a more accessible form of leadership for many women - and a possible alternative to the alpha male style of leadership that had been found wanting during the Global Financial Crisis, Ms Fox said.
"We are deeply uneasy about women in charge," she said. "We need to find a way to like women in power."
Jane Caro said while Australian women were, on average, some of the best educated in the world, they ranked somewhere near 50th in the world for workforce participation.
She said it was important to have female leaders because they provided an alternative perspective on issues, having had a different life experience from men. For example, superannuation design had not originally recognised that women periodically leave the workforce to care for family members and later re-join, which had left a generation of poor older women.
In the same vein, it took Queen Victoria - a birthing mother of nine - to make the use of pain relief in childbirth acceptable, Ms Caro said. She approached the issue from a different life experience.
Organisational structures needed to be modified to allow women to offer a dissenting view. "It can be particularly hard to be courageous when you are the only one of a kind in a room, in a conference or on a board," Ms Caro said.
Places such as Norway, which required four women on a board, helped to promote diversity in leadership positions. "You gain courage when you are not the only voice," she said.
"I've come up with my own definition of leadership, which is that it is the passing on of courage.... Leadership is having courage to say what you think about something - it's not a title."
Fathers of daughters had a particularly important role in encouraging girls to become leaders, by listening to what they had to say. This was "passing on courage", Ms Caro said.
"It's what they say and what they think that makes them who they are," and she said recognising this would help to encourage girls into public life.
Ms Caro warned against accepting the two main arguments used against feminism: 1) That feminism had been so successful that women achieve on their own merit. 2) Feminism had failed and women were much happier staying at home.
Ms Fox said that by objective measures, women were still behind in the workplace. "The pay gap is still 17 per cent - that's average weekly earnings for the same job of the same value - the same as 20 years ago," she said.
The panel agreed that leadership roles were easier for those not burdened by household chores.
"Let's face it, the housework burden is really awful," Ms Caro said.
"Women have been responsible for what goes on at home and men have been responsible for what goes on in the paid workforce.... It has to change... But when you have had 2000 years of people being disappointed when you are born, it's going to take a while."