Helping women succeed

Professor Grace McCarthy highlights how women can advance their careers

Helping future female leaders by providing support, guidance and access to advance their career is key, according to Professor Grace McCarthy, Dean of Business at UOW’s School of Business.

Organisational leaders know that hiring the best people and getting the best from them is central to their organisation’s success. But while some of those ‘best people’ are female, the number of female CEOs, female senior executives and female directors in Australia is lower than it could, or should, be. There has been positive movement over the past few years, with the Australian Institute of Company Directors noting that the proportion of female directors in the ASX 200 reached 33.6 per cent by end May 2021, although women only occupied 10 per cent of ASX 200 board chair positions. Progress is, however, being made and in August 2021, there were no longer any all-male boards in the ASX 200.

For organisations to be able to appoint female candidates to strategic positions, it is important that female applicants are ready and competitively positioned to succeed. One of the ways to develop a strategic overview is to complete a Master of Business Administration (MBA).

UOW actively encourages females to take this career-enhancing program – and thus be well qualified for senior roles – through our Women in MBA (WiMBA) Scholarships. The scholarships are one of the ways we live up to our commitment to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, in particular contributing to Target 5.5: Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.

My own career journey started as a librarian and information manager for a large multi-national company which sponsored 15 people a year on an MBA. On completing the degree, two directors offered me new roles, the Director of Strategic Planning and the Director of Technology. I chose the latter because of his pitch: “If you go to work in Strategic Planning, you know what you will be doing next year and the year after. If you come and work for me, I have no idea what you will be doing”. So of course, I went to work for him!

I loved my roles in Technology and Business Excellence, and particularly my final role with the company as European Director of Customer Service, with 10 teams in five countries reporting to me. From a personal point of view, I can vouch for the strategic overview that an MBA provides and the ability it gives a manager to have meaningful conversations with people in different functions and professions and at different levels in a company.

Many women, while highly capable, sometimes lack the confidence or are unwilling to put themselves forward. Acquiring knowledge and skills by itself is important but is not sufficient. Women need confidence as well as competence to succeed.

CEO of the not-for-profit Cram Foundation Karen Burdett says the MBA from UOW “gave me the confidence to take the next step in my career.”

Similarly, the Executive Officer to the Chief Operations Officer at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Samantha Arkapaw, credits the MBA with giving her more confidence in the value-add and diversity of thinking she can bring to drive more well-rounded and holistic business outcomes.

The myth of the ‘Queen Bee’, first documented in the 1970s, suggests that when women achieve positions of power, they may behave in what is perceived as a more masculine way and may also see other women as threats. In supporting Hillary Clinton’s US presidential campaign, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned that: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”.

But the Queen Bee effect is not evident in the WiMBA students and alumni. On the contrary, the Group Head of Marketing at independent living, residential aged care and home care provider IRT, Stefanie De Santis, says: “The true value of the MBA has been the connections built with the network of amazing women in the WiMBA program and the ever-supportive academic staff. I could not have gotten through it without them.”

This is consistent with research in women in leadership on which I have collaborated with the Dean of Business at UOW Dubai, Professor Payyazhi Jayashree. We found that human capital by itself was not a significant predictor of human success, but human capital combined with social capital were very important, with social capital particularly important for senior roles.

One of the obstacles facing women is managing the competing challenges of work, study and home life. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it emerged that women continue to do more of the housework and spend more time looking after their children. The challenge of trying to ‘do it all’ was confirmed by Renee Connolly, Port Manager at Svitzer, who started her MBA when her first child was four months old.

At UOW, we provide a mentor for all of our WiMBA scholarship recipients, and one of the most frequent topics of conversation is work-life-study balance. These conversations support women in making career choices that make the most of their talent in a sustainable way. In other words, taking a rounded approach to professional development that includes mentoring and networking is important in helping women achieve their potential, rather than focusing solely on academic achievements.

As an ethical Business School committed to equity, diversion, and inclusion, it is important for us not only to talk about responsible leadership but to act in line with our values.