While women hope they will succeed in the workplace on merit, workforce statistics show women continue to face structural barriers, a Women in Leadership forum hosted by CEDA in Adelaide has heard.
Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Senator Penny Wong, told the forum that the Federal Government would launch a Women on Boards Network this year to identify candidates for government board positions.
Government and business struggled to find sufficient women to fill board positions - not because they did not exist in the workplace, but because they were hidden behind structural barriers to promotion.
The Women on Boards Network, to be supported by the Department of Finance and Deregulation and the Office for Women, would focus on providing women with their first board position, removing the requirement for past board experience.
Ms Wong said the network would enable the Federal Government to achieve its target of having 40 per cent of its board positions occupied by women by 2015 and would provide a springboard for women onto corporate boards.
"Unfortunately the arguments for equality have not sufficiently influenced the composition of our boardrooms. Currently just 14.4 per cent of board positions in the ASX top 200 companies are held by women," she said.
"We shouldn't discount that this in an improvement from the 8.4 per cent in 2010. But clearly what the figures show is that something is still hindering the involvement of women on boards."
The panel, which included the Deputy Editor of the Australian Financial Review Boss magazine, Catherine Fox, and advertising industry commentator, Jane Caro, said it was unrealistic to rely on the idea that gender equality in the workplace would occur naturally.
The panel identified the following key policy issues for government and business to promote real workplace equality for women:
"We must remember that the momentum for change is not automatic. And just because we witness change from our parents' generation to this generation doesn't mean progress will continue to the next," Ms Wong said.
"It (gender equality) must always be spurred on by committed individuals. .... It always requires constant attention not only to make progress but also to ensure that progress is not unwound.
"Real equality requires addressing many factors of disadvantage."
In discussing her new book, The Seven Myths of Women and Work, Catherine Fox said myths such as, "the workplace is a meritocracy", "that women don't want the top jobs" and that "the gender pay gap is exaggerated", continued to hold women back.
Ms Fox said it was a myth to believe that if you work hard you will get ahead.
"The reason that (this) is particularly difficult for women is that when they look up, what do they see? Most of the senior jobs are held by men and if it's a meritocracy, what does that say to them?", she said.
"We continue to frame this problem up as if there's something wrong with women. It's the remedial approach - there's something wrong with us: we are not feisty enough or we are too feisty.
"We don't speak up in meetings or we don't wear the right clothes. It's the deficit model and I think we need to move it into another space. We've got to start looking at the organisations that we are operating in and the systems, policies; the way those things operate," Ms Fox said.
She said there was no evidence that gender equality in the workplace would occur naturally. Ms Caro said Australia was ranked 50th in the OECD for female workforce participation and achievement despite having the best educated women in the world because, as a population, we refuse to take women's ambition and contribution seriously.
This was particularly evidenced by the gender pay gap which remains at nearly 30 per cent for female executives at the national level, she said.
"We need quotas. One of the things I know from my advertising background is that people don't change until it gets too uncomfortable to stay the same," Ms Caro said.
"You can change attitudes quite easily and I think we have done a very good job of changing the attitudes of people towards the right for women to work, but if we are going to get more behavioural change in terms of getting more women into leadership positions including on boards, we are going to have some consequences."
As men have enjoyed a 100 per cent quota for almost 2000 years on issues such as the right to work and earn money, education and the right to vote, asking for three women on a 10-12 person board seemed a reasonable way of re-dressing past inequality, she said.
"We keep talking about women having to be good enough. Sod that. Women don't have to be good enough - they just have to be themselves. Why do women have to make a business case for getting ahead? Surely men have to make a business case for keeping them out and I haven't heard that yet," she said.