Our approach to accelerate gender equality at work

The state of gender equality in Australia and around the world

Ahead of International Women’s Day, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) published the gender pay gaps for nearly 5,000 employers for the first time. And the results show Australia still has long way to go.

Half of employers have a gender pay gap of over 9.1%, and only a third have a median pay gap between the target range of -%5 and +5%.

Globally, the numbers tell a similar story. The World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Gender Gap Report found if progress continues at its current rate around the world, it will take 131 years to reach full parity. For East Asia and the Pacific, it’s 189 years.

The gender pay gap often reflects a lack of gender balance at the leadership table. So it’s not surprising that the landscape is similar when it comes to senior leadership roles around the world. WGEA’s 2023 Gender Equality Insights Report found that the number of company boards chaired by women increased only by 3.3% in the three years to 2022. While there were modest growth in women in leadership in the US and Canada, women of colour still remain underrepresented, according to a McKinsey survey.

Yet we know that women’s economic empowerment is more important than ever to creating communities that thrive. In fact, McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) has found that advancing women’s equality could add $12 trillion to global GDP by 2025.

So, what’s halting women’s progress?

3 common barriers to gender equality at work from our research with women

The intersectionality of gender inequality cannot be understated.

Intersectionality recognises how different aspects of a person’s identity (gender, race, age, class, sexual identity, religion and more) might interact to change the way they experience the world – and the barriers they might face as a result.

Intersectional Female Icon

Bias continues to perpetuate differential treatment for women. Many workplace behaviours, structures and systems are rooted in conscious and unconscious bias, with systems that were designed with the majority (historically men) in mind.

Women also still carry a disproportionate amount of the domestic load. While this difference varies from country to country, women still consistently have to juggle two jobs (one at home and one at work) and are still more likely to be impacted financially.

From subjective or biased systems for promotion to a disproportionate domestic burden and structural barriers, women face many complex barriers to advancing their professional careers.

We have worked with thousands of women through our Women Leaders Development programs in Australia1. These are the three most common obstacles they share:

1. Confidence and self-doubt

This is a pervasive issue. Women often express uncertainty about their abilities, a fear of stepping into new roles, and a lack of confidence in voicing their opinions, taking on new challenges and promoting themselves effectively. While the research highlights that a lack of confidence is common among women, we are not suggesting that confidence is inherently a women’s issue. It can be clearly linked to the environmental barriers women face from childhood, school, workplaces and in personal life. The challenges these barriers present can leave long-lasting impact for advancing women into leadership positions.

2. Lack of opportunity for advancement

Our findings and significant research suggest women face structural barriers in the workplace around access to opportunities, networks, exposure, and stretch opportunities. They also face challenges in access to opportunities and progression in the workplace due to unconscious bias. Unfortunately, this is driven by all genders, not just men. Our deeply ingrained beliefs about gender role expectations and assumptions about what women are and are not capable of have shown to have detrimental impacts for their career progression.

3. Balancing work and personal life

The challenge of juggling personal commitments while still achieving their goals at work is a common theme. This includes balancing young families or caring responsibilities whilst pursuing more senior role opportunities, which can lead to both stress and burnout.

1 We recognise that women face unique barriers depending on the country they are in. Our research cited in this article is based on the experiences of women living and working in Australia.

These barriers reflect structural workplace challenges as well as challenges in lifestyle and embedded individual mindsets. Addressing these requires a combination of individual empowerment, organisational support, and systemic change to create more inclusive and supportive work environments for women.

Overcoming these barriers is an incredibly complex issue and one that cannot be solved overnight. That doesn’t make it less urgent. By investing in and prioritising the development of women leaders, you can accelerate progress.

  • Tailored support and inclusive practices are particularly important for women from diverse backgrounds, who face unique challenges. For instance, non-white women face gender and racial discrimination from the beginning of their careers, while many in the LGBTIQIA+ community are targets of implicit and explicit aggression.
  • Organisations with low gender balance (overall or in some parts of the business) need to consider tailored initiatives to ensure they can attract, engage and retain women at all levels.

At Inkling, we have been driving for gender balance in leadership with our clients since our inception in 2013. Today, we continue to help make sure women have the tools and support to navigate the barriers. We’re also incredibly excited to see strong movement towards engaging the most senior leaders in development to understand their role and accountability in breaking down these barriers.

One approach that can help you address gender inequality effectively is sponsorship.

Why sponsorship is a highly effective approach to accelerate gender equality progress in your workplace

What does sponsorship really mean?

Sponsoring someone at work can take many forms. It includes a senior leader connecting with and advocating for a person and their career progression within the organisation.

While a mentor shares their knowledge to support the growth of individuals, sponsors go beyond, using their authority and influence to help provide opportunities for them. Both are important tools for advancing women’s careers. However, while mentoring can be part of sponsorship activities it rarely works the other way around. In our experience, most senior leaders do more mentoring than sponsorship.

How sponsorship drives gender equity

Men are 46% more likely than women to be sponsored. Women often have mentors, but are much less likely to have sponsorship. This is concerning as research shows that it is sponsorship, not mentoring that drives career progression. As a result, women often miss out on experience and exposure that will help them progress into senior roles.

Sponsorship can have profound benefits for women. It increases their visibility and profile among senior leaders and offers new experiences, exposure and advocacy to succeed. An inclusive approach to sponsorship also empowers women to speak with courage, influence and authority and promote themselves and their achievements authentically. It also allows them to explore multiple career pathways suit them. Our experience is that senior leaders benefit from learning how to sponsor someone different from themselves. The research indicates that 70% of sponsors unconsciously pick ‘mini-me’s; this makes it easier to provide sponsorship but often gets in the way of increased diversity in leadership.

Women with a sponsor are 19% more likely to get a promotion compared to those without, and they often become leaders of the future. Sponsorship boosts careers by disrupting bias within the workplace and building confidence, resilience, and aspiration. And it’s not only women who reap the benefits.

A sponsorship culture leads to an inclusive and diverse workplace. And when women feel included, they are 11 times more likely to promote their companies than those who do not – a key indicator of employee engagement. On the flip side women who feel excluded are three times more likely to quit than women who feel fully included.

Sponsorship also helps your organisation develop a strong pipeline of diverse talent, improves retention, and shows your organisation’s commitment to investing in and empowering diverse talent.

Assessment and impact analysis of Inkling’s Sponsorship programs on Women’s Leadership Development

Regular and targeted evaluation forms a crucial element of all Inkling’s Sponsorship programs, which strategically focus on four key program measures: confidence, resilience, movement, and inclusion. These measures are assessed through various components and selected based on the understanding that they play crucial roles in women’s leadership development, as evidenced by various sources.

To better understand how Sponsorship supports women’s leadership development in the workplace, we analysed the data of 120 Australian-based women leaders working in ASX-listed corporations who have participated in an Inkling Sponsorship learning experience. We looked at 10 key components related to the four key measures outlined above, then calculated the weighted averages for the pre and post-program percentages across all 120 women, as well as the overall percentage increase. Here are our findings:


Career Mobility (Movement)

Resilience and Inclusion

Based on the data, it is evident that the women experienced substantial positive transformations in confidence, resilience, and aspects related to career mobility due to participating in a Sponsorship program. Participants exhibited a greater proactive approach to managing their careers, actively seeking opportunities, expanding their networks, and receiving career support and advice from senior people within the organisation.

While the data shows that Sponsorship programs effectively enhance confidence, resilience, and career clarity, qualitative feedback from the examined dataset indicates that there remains a need for improvement in cultivating inclusive workplace environments.

Become a truly inclusive leader

Research from Inclusive Leadership Compass shows that 2 in 3 leaders are not confident they’re effectively role-modeling inclusion. Anecdotal evidence suggests this is due to uncertainty about the day-to-day behaviours that matter, limited development opportunities, and fear of making mistakes.

Inclusion is one of the most important leadership qualities today, and critical to creating a more equitable workplace. Discover what it means to truly lead inclusively and learn practical strategies and tools for fostering inclusivity in your organisation by joining us at our upcoming Inkling Insights webinar: What makes an inclusive leader today? Register here or click the image below to save your seat.

Are you ready to accelerate progress?

We need to address both the structural and individual barriers to achieving gender equality in the workplace. While these can be complex, creating a sponsorship culture is an impactful first step you can take to invest in women at your organisation.

Connect with our Diversity & Inclusion Practice if you would like some information or guidance on how to bring this to life in your organisation.

Connect with Inkling's D&I Practice

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