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Leadership | Diversity | Inclusion

Barriers to equality of opportunity

In 2013, CEDA surveyed the business community, primarily its members and past Women in Leadership event attendees, to help identify barriers to equality of opportunity.

Barriers to women's workplace equality

In CEDA's 2013 Women in Leadership survey, respondents were asked to rank in order of importance the following barriers to women's equality in the workplace. The survey results:

1. Workplace culture

2. Lack of female leaders

3. Gender stereotypes

4. Lack of flexible work practices

5. Affordability and accessibility of childcare

6. Sexism

7. Lack of mentors

8. Societal expectations regarding gender roles (e.g. household work/childcare)

Other barriers identified

As part of the survey, respondents were also given the option of adding any other significant barriers and the following were recurring themes:

  • Entrenched boys' club, the all-male work environment and macho behaviour;
  • Workplace design including the one-income earner household model and logistics of school and work hours;
  • The confusion between presenteeism and commitment, the association of flexible work with lack of commitment, and the lack of career advancement for part-time employees;
  • The difficulty in juggling work and personal life, particularly caring responsibilities for children and aged parents;
  • The lack of support among women, women's lack of self-confidence and lack of sponsorship for women in workplaces;
  • Lack of commitment from leaders and executive teams towards gender diversity; and
  • Unconscious bias.

Also read 

What would contribute most to improving women's equality in the workforce?

As part of the survey, participants also supplied their personal experiences of gender issues in the workplace.

Individual responses to barriers

The following are all 119 individual responses to: What are the other most significant barriers to women's equality in the workplace?

Sponsors - males tend to be sponsored - someone higher up who actively advocates for your career advancement.

Lack of diversity in the leaders evaluating promotion candidates e.g. most senior women are evaluated by male managers, with not necessarily the same filters as women.

A historical male-dominated industry and boys' club mentality.

Unconscious bias.

Women often not having a mentor sometimes will not put themselves forward for a position because they mark themselves more strictly than a male competitor will.

Unconscious bias - they think they are supporting but they have preconceived ideas, or prejudice that influences their decisions. They also tend to sacrifice the weakest when hard decisions need to be made and this is often the female, part-time worker or one on maternity leave or just returning.

At senior executive level, lack of transparency in job availability re: senior executive and board positions. Only government tends to advertise. Private sector done via head hunters and networking.

Belief that if you work part-time or from home that you are not pulling your weight enough. You need to prove yourself. However, this is how women can work in workplaces with flexibility.

Unconscious or conscious bias of executives when hiring/recruiting for senior roles.

Senior leadership selection processes - lack of transparency on decision making, panel composition requires independent membership e.g. in October 2012 Elizabeth Broderick noted women took silk [appointed as Queen's Counsels (QCs)] in record numbers when a member of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) was on the selection panel. Time and again senior women are being beaten at interviews by male candidates - even when they have been acting in the role. Some further scrutiny of recruitment processes, panel composition and results is warranted. Also some executive recruitment for women training might be good too, delivered by experienced panel members on what they look for in candidate answers and the sort of questions often asked. Also equity statistics should be included monitored and reported to the executive of the organisation and information on equity should be included in annual reports. Government should make inclusion of equity stats in annual reporting a requirement to get government contracts.

Our own confidence and willingness to support other women.

Studying at a later age.

Hard to climb back after part-time/flexible work hours whilst children are young.  Difficult to shake the "Working Mum" label and be taken seriously.

Pay equality.

Perception of needing to be present for long hours at work.

Workloads. Job and career design.

Immediately thinking that because you're the female, you'll take minutes or do the photocopying even though you're more senior than the man.

Lack of senior male support.

Expectation that women of a certain age will have children and exit the workforce temporarily or permanently.

Childcare for older school age children there is plenty for pre-school and young school age.

Some male leaders think men can lead better.

Being an older woman is a huge barrier.

It is just hard work and incredibly time consuming juggling care of children with full-time careers - life is not perfect and it is difficult to establish and then keep in place the domestic network of family, paid carers and helpers and dear friends who help keep non-work life functioning and enjoyable.

Processes which do not protect against bias - conscious or unconscious.

Men nominating mates for roles and then accepting lower standards from them than they would ever accept from a woman.

Part-time employment is a very good option for women in the workplace who have family responsibilities. However I found when I was part-time that my career is basically "on hold" for the period of part-time employment. Employers want full-time people and are unlikely to choose employees who can only work two days or three days a week. It is difficult to get relieving opportunities as a part-timer.

An unconscious acknowledgement by men that their networking group excludes women, and that they don't bond with female peers/colleagues etc. in the same manner as they do with males, i.e. watching the footy. Consequently, an equally skilled female may not come to mind as quickly as a male peer, because of that lack of networking association.

Pay is not equitable.  I don't have kids, so it's difficult to rank those higher.

Unconscious bias. I think male leaders identify with younger men who remind them of themselves when they were young and unconsciously give them more support and opportunities.

Women's own lack of self-promotion and ownership of success.

Women's own reluctance to push themselves forward.

White middle aged males in positions of authority who want to clone themselves.

Lack of respect to embrace alternative leadership practices.

Lack of commitment from Chief Executive Officer and lack of powerful sponsors to champion women.

Education of women in what is possible and how to manage male-dominated workplaces in a successful manner.

"All-male club"

Lack of mobility for women when they have kids or are married. The fact that they don't want to move overseas might also limit their career opportunities.

How women manage and promote themselves in the workplace and how they think about their own abilities.

Non-transparent hiring and pay processes.

Subtle boys' club.

Working hours for both men and women mean that women are disadvantaged because they are not willing to sacrifice time with their children in the way that c-suite men are.

Entrenched boys' club and rewarding macho behaviour (overtly or inadvertently).

In most cases, even with two fulltime working professionals, the expectation of the logistics of the household, including children, falls to the female.  Men support with performing allocated tasks, whilst the female plans and organises the logistics (also likely allocating some specific tasks out).  On a separate note, in my view, it is not the childcare accessibility and affordability that is the issue, it is the flexibility around the logistics of childcare and school etc. - pick-ups/drops-offs/activities/training/ playdates etc.  Childcare is for a maximum of five years, whereas school is for the next 13 years.

Confidence in the women themselves and lack of support among the women.

There are flexible work practices but they are very difficult to access as management don't really support their use and co-workers don't support you if you access them.

Confusion and mixed messages given to women in relation to the workplace and career guidance.

Many women lack confidence to put self forward unless they are almost certain of the prize (they won't come forward unless they meet all the criteria to a very high degree and are harsh self-critics), whereas their less talented male colleagues often won't think twice.

Historical pay (including fringe benefits) practices.  Women's tendency to, relative to many male peers, underrate performance/argue for higher remuneration.

Often men have significant "other" help via stay at home or work from home partners meaning they only need to consider themselves for work-related activities whereas women frequently need to consider multiple people (partners, children etc.).

Lack of acceptance that there are other approaches and methods of execution besides the usual male-dominated way of doing things.

Unconscious bias and a "boys' club" mentality that locks women out.  Much management speak is about military and sporting references.

Equal Pay for equal work/skills.

We need flexible work places for men as well as for women so that men are more able to support women in their careers (e.g. by being free to pick up the kids from school/take them to training, etc.). I want my children to grow up in a supportive family environment, not one where almost all their needs are continually outsourced.

Women who take maternity leave end up further "behind" in their career as they simply miss out on opportunities or are perceived to be not as committed as their male counterparts.

Actually in this organisation there appears to be a lack of equality balanced the other way in some offices.

Career break or extended absences due to maternity leave during child raising years.

Inflexibility amongst male board members to adjust work practices to attract and retain high performing female executives/senior managers.

No meaningful level of discrimination exists.

Belief that the organisation is equal employment but not "walking the talk".  Great policies and procedures but these aren't always followed.

The key problem is senior jobs require one to devote 10 or more hours a day, due to current culture and expectations, and most women are simply not prepared to do that. Another example is multi-nationals require one to travel a lot or work abroad, and this does not work for women. I have had three opportunities to take an expat legal role but said no due to family reasons - husband works too. The man who started the same time as me was given a senior job, ahead of me, back in Australia because he has done the overseas stints.

Boys' clubs and the resulting networking opportunities.

Expectation that senior management /executive level roles must be full-time onsite. Require flexible work practices to become a viable option for males and females in senior positions. These positions also need to be redesigned to share senior responsibilities between multiple positions, rather than assuming a single full-time role is required.

Limiting career development while on maternity leave.

I'd actually say that each of these possible responses is of equal importance and significance, so putting them in a ranking order is actually very difficult. Sexism is important, but also very subjective - what might be experienced in one workplace is not necessarily experienced in another workplace. Reverse sexism is also equally as damaging (promoting women to fill a quota). Affordability and accessibility to childcare is of major significance because it means that the women who do decide to return to the workforce are more likely to be those that have the ability to walk into higher paying roles due to their position prior to having children. Which essentially means that those who took time out of the workforce to have children early in their working lives are much less likely to return quickly because the cost/ benefit isn't there. Which has many flow-on effects for a woman's entire working life - they return to the workforce to lower paying roles, with less responsibility, and do so at a later stage in life, meaning that the real career drive begins a lot later in life - if at all. It may even be discouraged by employers based on age. For example, a woman of 35/40 returning to the workforce to a low paying position or a role with low levels of responsibility is highly likely to be a reliable member of a workforce that is more likely to be overlooked for promotion than a young man or even young woman in the same role (e.g. Telephone operators, receptionists, factory floor workers, administrative clerks and so on).  I think societal expectations are also important to consider. Having had two successful careers in two male-dominated industries I think it is important to point out that there are certain educational qualifications and job roles that women seem to go for more than others. For example - I often find that senior execs in public companies who are women are "the head of Human Resources (HR) or marketing" they are almost never the Chief Financial Officer, Chief Executive Office, Chief Information Officer, head of sales, general manager of technology or anything of that nature - it is almost exclusively the women's domain that they will be head of HR or Marketing. It is a stereotype - but a valid one. How does it happen that women usually run these two areas, but they don't run the company, or the Information Technology (IT) department or the accounting department? In my careers I never came across other women who wanted to do what I was doing, they wanted to pursue careers in marketing or HR or admin, but never in sales or IT, or stockbroking. They were almost scared of what these jobs entailed - yet these jobs weren't scary, they were exciting.

Scrutiny of credibility by both genders in workplace, ties to workplace culture.

Lack of contacts and networks with people who make decisions.

Responsibility for aged parents - we focus on the childcare aspect but the role women play in aged care tends to fly under the radar.

Limits on progression and promotion opportunities for women who work part-time after having children.

I can only speak from personal experience with my current employer who has sufficient checks and balances in place to prevent this type of discrimination and actively promotes women into senior executive management roles. The current Chief Executive Officer is a woman.


Women still have a tendency to "pull the ladder" up behind them when they reach the top and forget the journey that was theirs.

Ongoing emphasis on hours of work rather than outcomes and outputs achieved.

Lack of executive commitment to promoting women in non-traditional leadership roles.

Prevailing unconscious bias.

Women not helping women.

Lack of consistency in message across business - i.e. say one thing at board level and do another within pockets within an organisation.

Pay scale differences for men and women in similar roles.

If there are two primary breadwinners in a family and neither is prepared to play a secondary role then it is imperative that suitable/adequate support in the home is available i.e. full-time nanny otherwise the house and children by default become the woman's problem/responsibility.

A form of self-censorship - women not stepping forward to take on additional leadership or higher roles because of household duties and wanting to have time to spend with children. Culture change would help to overcome this - if men were willing to spend more time caring/cooking/cleaning women would be freed up from their self-imposed obligations to do these things at the sacrifice of their careers. I would have placed access to childcare higher when my children were younger - this is very important for younger women, and can be the start of a setback in career. It is societal expectations that mean that it is women who stay back to do the caring if they can't get childcare, however.

Personal expectations re involvement in childcare. Working in an industry where value is based on units of time.

Leadership style.

Survey is flawed... This will skew the results!!  I selected Gender Stereotypes as #1, followed by Other as #2 - and societal expectations as a distant #3... No OTHERS.  More input to "Other" = The combative females that are in leadership positions (all the nasty stuff/stories you have heard are true - however, this generation of females in management are nearing retirement).  Women get in the way of other women progressing. For # 3 - in one instance I wasn't offered a job because the male selection panel felt I didn't know what I wanted to do even though I was deemed by this same panel to be the best interviewee and most qualified for the position.

Male dominance in senior roles perpetuating male influence in key decision making and directing what happens in the workplace.

Unconscious bias is the key issue. Even those (both male and female) who positively want to promote equality often exhibit unconscious bias (and by definition, are unaware of it).

I have always worked in male-dominated industries (futures, foreign exchange, stock broking and now banking) and never felt held back, discriminated against or otherwise disadvantaged because I was a woman. I was the first person (male or female) to be granted an Associate Directorship of the [company/sector type removed] I worked for over 10 years ago and was only one of two females amongst over 30 male employees at the time.

Lack of real commitment and leadership from many leaders in the business world to address this (there are great exceptions).


I think staff below women is harder on women in terms of how they expect them to behave and how they view them when they delegate. It remains more difficult as a woman to require the same quality work product and dedication as our male counterparts, and we are often stereotyped if we do have the same high expectations of our teams as men do - it's viewed as hard-nosed and unlikeable, whereas I think men are allowed to be like this and respected for it. Women with ambition also face stereotypes.

Threatened male leaders.

Lack of transparency in recruitment processes.

Lack of quantitative targets for female leadership representation.

There is no reason for the majority of those in charge of corporate Australia to change the status quo i.e. the gender imbalance in board rooms and at the top. Therefore, it will not change. There is nothing in it for them.

Industry norms.

Women's confidence and ability to believe in their ability.

Women seeking opportunity.

Women understanding their role in any workplace.

Women often limit their own promotion in workforce as they don't have the same energy/drive as men for promotion in and of itself as an objective.

Lack of willingness (perceived ability) to be mobile. Risk versus benefit is not compelling (risks - financial, relationships are immediate, benefit is often long term).

Personal expectations of WANTING to mother children and be at home with them while maintaining touch with a career and then when children are older moving back into career.

Women's lack of self-promotion as compared with male counterparts.  This is a generalised statement but one that I believe to be true in a majority of instances.

In some cases, it is the use of the flexible work practices offered.  Many jobs simply do not suit part-time practices.

Unconscious bias.

Women's under-estimation/lack of belief of their abilities to do the most senior roles.

Lack of sponsorship.


Women are not liked in leadership or supported by other women.

Unconscious bias.

In my personal experience, 'sexism' hasn't been explicit but rather more implicit - so tied up in societal expectations/gender stereotypes/working arrangements based around an all-male (and predominantly older male) environment.

Specifically cultural barriers, and lack of flexible work practices for women in managerial or leadership roles.

The mere fact that women need to leave the workforce for a period of time to have children means there will never be 100per cent equality.

Pay equity.

Fair allocation of work and opportunities.

Attitudes to part-time work affecting opportunities for advancement.

Relates to stereotypes and sexism - assumptions that a full-time male or female must be more committed and capable than a flex-working female (or male) i.e. presenteeism/commitment confusion.

Male-dominated science and engineering industry combined with early educational tracks and gender stereotypes compounds issues. Gender stereotypes confining to men as well - need gender balance across org levels and roles to benefit both men and women. Too many discussions about "gender" are really only one-sided discussions about what women need and not authentic gender discussions leading to sustainable changes.  The either/or fix the women OR fix the men approach will never work. I think both men and women can experience fatigue or put token programs/quotas in place to say they are doing something but it is sustained efforts by men and women (in power) that will in the end affect change.

Workplace relations - "boys' club", golfing/squash buddies.

It has been easy for years to employ or appoint and work with those you know within your circle.   Recruitment and executive growth needs to be focussed on far more to ensure the assessment and recruitment process is far reaching. No more just 'being in the club'.  Recognition of the investment made in bringing up middle to senior executives and not throw that investment away because of a short period of time when 'children' hit the personal agenda.

Sexism and stereotyping are often just not recognised or acknowledged or understood when they happen.

Similar to workplace culture, the inherent economic and social structures are based on one partner leaving the house for work, the other remaining with children and household.