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Priority area 5: Leadership, representation and decision-making

There have been remarkable improvements in women's representation in Australia's public life and key leadership roles over recent decades, particularly at all levels of government.Note 115 This is the result of concerted efforts to boost representation, but there is still a long way to go.

Equality cannot be achieved without women from a range of backgrounds meaningfully participating in decision-making and public life – in communities, business and government.

Perceptions of women's roles and capabilities, caring responsibilities and undervaluing the importance of lived experience in designing systems and policy responses contribute to women's under-representation in leadership and decision-making roles. Women can be deterred from participating in public spheres due to the abuse and violence they experience, including sexual violence and online abuse. Sexism, which is often compounded by other forms of discrimination and prejudice, can limit opportunities and career progression, as well as representation in leadership.Note 116

When women are not involved in decision-making and design processes, systems, policies, services, technology and infrastructure will not meet their needs. It can limit women's access to resources and services, especially for women in rural and remote areas, women with disability, women living in poverty and women who do not have English as a first language. This creates extra work across the community to bridge access gaps. Given the unequal impact of crises like climate change and conflict on women, it is particularly critical women have a seat at the table in efforts to address these challenges.

To achieve gender equality, more women, including First Nations women and women from diverse backgrounds, need to be represented in decision-making and design, leadership and in public life. This would also help shift gender attitudes and stereotypes. The Government must represent the population, as a key decision-maker, and can role model the benefits of diversity in leadership.

See Data snapshot – leadership, representation and decision-making for further analysis

What have we heard?

'The Australian Government must undertake a long-term, targeted and deliberate investment program to ensure women are leading and building the economy in equal measure to men.'

— Women's Economic Equality Taskforce, final reportNote 117

What we'll do:
Australian Government actions

Leading by example is critical for the Government, within parliament, Australian Government boards, and the Australian Public Service. Policy informed by the voices and lived experiences of diverse people ensures the Government makes good decisions.

Actions underway

To improve representation, leadership and decision-making, the Government has already made a number of investments and reforms. The Government has:

  • provided funding to support leadership programs for women to run for parliament so that more women are able to enter into political roles
  • supported delivery of Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women's Voices), led by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
  • supported more women to participate in sport safely and promoted greater women's representation in sports leadership roles through government grants, and worked with state and territory governments to establish targets for women in leadership in sport
  • been a committed global champion of the Women, Peace and Security agenda, which aims to ensure equal participation of women at all levels of decision-making
  • in response to Recommendation 7 of the Australian Law Reform Commission's Report, Without Fear or Favour: Judicial Impartiality and the Law on Bias, the Government has implemented a transparent and merit-based judicial appointments process which ensures all candidates from a diversity of backgrounds have the opportunity to apply.

In addition, the Government will continue to:

  • set targets for gender representation on Australian Government boards to drive gender balance in chair positions and at the individual board level
  • develop a new international gender equality strategy, recognising gender equality as central to Australia's foreign policy, international development, humanitarian, trade and security efforts.

What structural change looks like: Respect@Work

For many women, discriminatory and unsafe workplaces impact not just their safety and wellbeing, but also their career opportunities, retention and progression. In 2020, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner inquired and reported on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. The Respect@Work report revealed the extent to which workplace settings in Australia fail to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and related unlawful conduct. It found that 41% of women surveyed had experienced sexual harassment at work, and their harassment had impacted on their safety, wellbeing and ability to contribute. The Government is implementing all recommendations of the report, which include changes that mean workplaces now have a positive duty to prevent sexual harassment. This reform is supported by investment in resources for business, funding for services that provide advice and support to working women and Fair Work Act 2009 reforms. The Government's reforms help create structural changes to how workplaces operate, and ensure that women will be safer at work.

Media has an important role in elevating diverse talent and leaders, delivering diverse stories and promoting women's reporting and participation in highly visible and influential areas, including sport.

Future directions

To further accelerate progress, directions for future effort include:

  • further work with the private sector to share good practice and learn what works, and encourage companies to boost representation on private boards and in executive positions
  • working across all levels of government to identify opportunities to deliver on the priority reforms under Closing the Gap and ensuring First Nations women can be front and centre of driving change and gender equality
  • ensuring gender is considered and women can lead action on climate change and are represented in disaster and crisis mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery efforts, including in leadership and advisory positions
  • exploring options to improve the representation in media and advertising of the diversity of women and gender roles more broadly, including through improved media literacy.

What others can do:
action outside of government

To ensure that leadership reflects the diversity of Australia's population, community organisations, sporting and professional bodies, and industries can implement targets to achieve increased gender diversity and representation of women in leadership positions. Setting targets is an effective tool for spurring action and ensuring transparency and accountability. Targets must be supported by measures and programs that address barriers to leadership and offer training, networking, mentoring and scholarship opportunities to women, as well as succession and pipeline planning.

To increase representation and diversity in decision-making more broadly, organisations should be consulting widely, looking for gender balance in design and delivery teams, and committing to representative samples in research. Employers, particularly in large companies, have a critical role in ensuring gender equity in leadership – in C-suite positions, and on boards. Representation and visibility, particularly in ASX300 leadership positions, increases the likelihood of women considering leadership as a viable pathway.

Media is also significant in this priority area, as 'you can't be what you can't see'. Media has an important role in elevating diverse talent and leaders, delivering diverse stories and promoting women's reporting and participation in highly visible and influential areas, including sport.

How we'll measure progress

The Australian Government will measure and report on the following ambitions and outcomes to demonstrate that change is happening.

Ambition: Close leadership and representation gender gaps.

Key outcomes:

  • there are more women across all levels of political, judicial and public service leadership and decision-making
  • there are more women across all levels of non-government leadership and decision-making
  • women's participation in sport increases across all levels, including in positions of leadership
  • women are recognised equally through the Australian honours system
  • more women influence and are represented in media.

Data snapshot – leadership, representation and decision-making

It is critical for governments to represent the diversity of the population they serve. Of Australia's 31 prime ministers, only one has been a woman. Promisingly, the 47th Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia saw 44.5% of seats across both chambers held by women,Note 118 the highest number of women in an Australian Parliament on record. This is reflected in government administration, with the representation of women in APS Senior Executive Service roles increasing from 26% in 2001 to 53.4% in June 2023. Similarly, in 2023, 51.6% of people on Australian Government boards were women.

Women also made up 49.4% of Order of Australia (General Division) recipients in the combined Australia Day and King's Birthday honours lists, which is the highest proportion on record.Note 119 As at June 2023, 44.9% of judicial officers in Australia are women.Note 120

In the private sector, there has also been change in recent years, but there is much more to do. In 2023, women made up only 9% of CEOs in the ASX300, and more than 4 in every 5 CEO 'pipeline' roles were held by men.Note 121 At the current rate, it could take up to 50 years to achieve gender parity in CEO roles in corporate Australia.Note 122

Representative leadership is about more than who is leading businesses and governments. Diversity in leadership at a community level is not well tracked but is critical – particularly in First Nations communities, where leadership supports belonging and connectedness to land.

Women have been historically under-represented in sports, media and the arts, particularly in relation to how these are publicly presented and appreciated:

  • Women's sport does not get as much airtime as men's sport and women currently make up 18% of sports journalists, athlete pay disparities exist and women are more prone to suffering common sports injuries.Note 123 These barriers affect the value placed on women and girls in sport and lead to inequitable participation, training, development and leadership opportunities.
  • Over 70% of Australian art school graduates are women, yet women and gender diverse people continue to be significantly under-represented in leadership positions in the cultural sector and in the collections and exhibitions of major visual arts institutions.Note 124
  • Women in the Australian music industry face high rates of sexual harassment, sexual harm and bullying. First Nations people face additional barriers in the music industry, including a lack of airtime, exclusion from line ups and being under-represented in influential roles.Note 125
  • Women are quoted much less frequently in the media than men. When they are quoted, it is more likely to be in articles written by women than by men.Note 126

Some groups of women face even greater barriers to being represented in leadership positions in Australian organisations and public life:

  • Only 16% of women with disability feel represented in leadership roles, compared with 23% of men with disability.Note 127
  • The proportion of culturally diverse female ASX leaders doubled in the decade to 2015 – but they were appointed as ASX directors at half the rate of non-culturally and racially excluded women.Note 128,
  • Only 5% of senior leaders in Australia represent the 24% of Australians from non-European and First Nations backgrounds.Note 129
  • One in 3 women experience online abuse in a work context. Rates of abuse are even higher for women with a public online or media profile, women with disability, younger women and those who identify as LGBTIQA+.Note 130

Diverse leadership and representation are important when communities and nations face events and crises that have disproportionate or specific impacts on women and other parts of the population. This includes climate change, conflict and disaster.

Women face greater impacts from climate change. In Australia women are more likely to live in housing unable to cope with extreme temperature and experience higher rates of ill health and death as a result, especially older women.Note 131

In times of natural disaster, natural hazards, mitigation and recovery, women face increased unpaid care and domestic work due to existing roles, responsibilities and cultural norms. Violence against women increases during and after natural disasters.Note 132 The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic also coincided with the onset or escalation of violence and abuse.Note 133