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Breaking the glass ceiling of gender equality

21 Mar 2013, by Informa Insights

Women still face challenges and discrepancies in the workplace and policies are being developed by the government and companies to achieve gender equality and break the glass ceiling. Following this, we had the opportunity to pick the brains of a few outstanding women and speakers of the upcoming Gender Equality in Australia’s Workplaces Summit on their thoughts on why that is. We asked them:

Do you think females often find that they reach a glass ceiling in trying to further their careers? Why do you think that is?

Negotiating the labyrinth…

Yes, there is a barrier to women achieving the highest levels in their careers. This is clear from the fact that women are now well over 50% of university graduates but still only 10% of key executives in AXS 200 companies, and they number about 20% of university professors, to quote only two statistics. Is it a glass ceiling or a labyrinth that they must negotiate? I’d prefer the notion of labyrinth with its many entanglements. Women approaching middle and senior management jobs are often negotiating child bearing, child rearing and family issues in a culture which still expects women to do most of the family work ( and still look sexy, and professional!!). Many workplaces still display a blokey, ‘old boys’ culture and tend to undervalue women’s skills and working style. Women still report discrimination in many workplaces. And there are not enough senior women to act as role models and mentors for younger women, an essential part of moving up through the system.

So many women become lost in the labyrinth and retreat to a safer pathway, either by choice, frustration or coercion.
Emeritus Professor Alison Mackinnon AM, FASSA, Hawke Research Institute, University of South Australia

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In my view, I believe that women have come very far in taking control of their own careers. I can only cite names of women who have become world and national leaders. But of course as in anything else, there is always room for progress. In many areas in the world, we still hear stories of women who suffer not just from discrimination based on gender, but from harsh abuses as well.

I am fortunate to be in a society where I can use my skills and background as a Chinese immigrant to fashion a career that rewards my capacities.

For those who are in less fortunate circumstances, I think most of it comes from strong cultural influences, where women are treated differently from men. In some societies women are not given the same privileges as their male counterparts. In education for example, if women are not allowed to come to school and earn advanced degrees, then ignorance can perpetuate the cycle of abuse and inequality.

In spite of this however, I generally see progress in giving women equal rights. Lets just hope we all move along faster.
Lindy Chen, Managing Director, Chinadirect Sourcing

Not everyone is likely to become the CEO, be it male or female. For those, hopefully large numbers, who do aspire to CEO, Coo, CIO… and beyond, there are many hurdles along the way. For women there tend to be more hurdles than for men.

Some of the reasons women fail to reach their career potential include:
• Lack of recognition of the role of carer in career and how this needs to be integrated into career paths; which means carers are downplayed when promotion decisions, plum assignments, line/operational roles are considered. Once relegated to the carers track it is very hard to catch up with your peers
• Bias in organisations; conscious or unconscious regarding women’s promotion ‘worth’ – this is slowly changing but not quickly enough for many capable women
• Bias , conscious or unconscious, against those working flexibly which is very unfortunate as the world becomes a 24/7 flexible place
Ruth Medd, Chair, Women on Board

Working women of today and indeed society in general, are fortunate that corporate Australia is no longer tolerant of an employer attitude that equates females to temporary workers who will leave the workforce or contribute only in a minor way after the birth of children and raising a family (and thus any opportunities to them limited).

Those employers who hold and promote that traditional view, and there are regrettably many as discrimination statistics and my experience in this area of the law attest, are the ones that women will find difficult to penetrate in terms of executive and management positions (should they even want to work there) and they will also be the organisations that will in the future find it hard to attract and/or retain female staff.

Having been a female lawyer for nearly 20 years and a partner for over half that period of time but also in advising employers in numerous industries, I have found that there are still widely held perceptions about the contributions that a working mother can make. Rarely are male employees with the same responsibilities lumbered with that same prejudicial view.

Gender Equality
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However I can only hope, and I do have faith, that the ever increasing numbers of highly competent and dedicated working mothers, indeed parents, the changes in the performance of work that are facilitated by technology, the changes in anti-discrimination, workforce gender equality and workplace relations laws and the demand for labour without ruling out 50% of the workforce, means that barriers such as the glass ceiling will be less commonly experienced and hopefully shattered by the time my daughter embarks on a career.
Kathryn Dent, Director, People+Culture Strategies

I am not sure if there is a glass ceiling but statistics suggest that something is preventing equal representation of men and women at senior levels of corporate Australia. I think there are multiple reasons for this, which are cultural, biological and due to prejudice;

Culture: Expectations placed on women to be the primary care givers to children, the primary housekeepers and the carers to elderly and unwell family members mean many have less choice than men about how their time is consumed. This is an inhibitor to a career in senior management. These expectations are often placed on women by she herself, her partner, her parents and other family, her peers and even her work colleagues in some cases.

Biology: I have no evidence for this other than anecdotal, but in my experience women don’t back themselves enough. They are less likely to be risk takers than men and tend to be less confident on average than men. There are of course many exceptions and the exceptions tend to be senior women in management in my experience.

Prejudice: In some cases, there are simply work practices in organisations that tend to favour males over females (and able bodied people over disabled people and certain ages over others and time rich over time poor people etc). What is so frustrating is that these seem to persist even though organisations have policies in place to dismantle them.
Cherelle Murphy, Senior Economist, ANZ


One of the major issues for women in the workplace is the gendered nature of the organization.  That is , that organizations while being treated  as gender neutral are in fact gendered as masculine.  This is to say that the organization’s practices and processes, its idealized worker, its symbols and the way labour is divided all advantage males.  Women thus, find it increasingly difficult to navigate these structures when so many of them are hidden. Promotion becomes problematic in such organizations as what is required is not transparent.
Dr Mary Crawford, Visiting Scholar, Queensland University of Technology

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