Getting more women to the top in aged care

As Australia marks International Women’s Day, Australian Ageing Agenda examines why more women aren’t progressing into leadership positions in aged care, and what can be done about it.

From left: Samantha Bowen, Cynthia Payne, Sandra Hills and Judith Chapman.

As Australia marks International Women’s Day, Australian Ageing Agenda examines why more women aren’t progressing into leadership positions in aged care, and what can be done about it.

Women make up eight out of every 10 administration and clerical roles in the residential care sector yet they hold less than four in 10 chief executive roles.

While women account for 84 per cent of community and personal service roles in the sector, they make up 52 per cent of key management positions, according to the government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency figures for 2016.

It’s worth noting that the residential sector is ahead of other industries in some respects – for instance, the 37 per cent of female CEOs in the residential sector is more than twice the average for other industries (16 per cent).

But given women make up 82 per cent of the residential care workforce overall, many argue the sector can do better when it comes to getting women into its most senior and influential ranks.

For Dr Judith Chapman, an organisational psychologist who regularly advises aged care providers, what’s most worrying is that the government figures show the percentage of women in CEO and key management positions drops as the size of the organisation increases.

“Roughly half the CEOs of small organisations are women, but only 11 per cent of the largest have a female CEO,” Dr Chapman told Australian Ageing Agenda.

These figures suggest that women in roles such as service coordinators and nursing supervisors have a good chance of being promoted in organisations that employ less than 250 staff, but things change dramatically when staff numbers reach 500.

“At that point less than 50 per cent of key management personnel are female and the percentage of CEOs is about half that,” she said.

Samantha Bowen, founder of the Acorn Network, an organisation established to support young leaders in aged care, said that getting access to senior executives is among the key barriers preventing more women from progressing into senior ranks in aged care.

“Many young women I speak to feel they can’t access or ask for advice from their senior leaders,” Ms Bowen told AAA.

Focusing on barriers can ingrain poor perceptions

As an aged care CEO for the past 14 years Cynthia Payne said she is often asked why men still dominate the executive ranks in the sector.

Through her work mentoring young women at the University of Sydney and Western Sydney University Ms Payne has come to believe that persistently focusing on barriers may serve to ingrain perceptions among women that they will struggle in the workforce.

Virtually all the young women seek out the mentoring because they are concerned about the barriers they will face within their chosen career, but through the program the mentors can unpick these concerns and reinforce the view that anything is possible, said Ms Payne, who is CEO of for-profit provider SummitCare.

“My mother raised me to believe that women can and will do anything they set their mind to and my own experience points to this,” Ms Payne told AAA.

While Ms Payne acknowledged there has been times she felt “a boys club” existed in the sector, she has also watched women rise to substantive roles, such as Norah Barlow at Estia and Michelle DeRonchi at St Ives HomeCare while female entrepreneurs like Natasha Chadwick have launched ventures.

Stories women tell themselves

Similarly, Sandra Hills, CEO of Benetas, said that one of the key barriers preventing women from progressing into senior ranks is the perceived “glass ceiling.”

“That is, the stories that women tell themselves, or subconscious assumptions women hold, about their role in society,” Ms Hills told AAA.

Many women believe they need to take a career break to look after the children, whereas men often feel they should remain the breadwinner and don’t seek to use flexibility to share caring roles, Ms Hills said.

“Men often hold an assumption that they have to make a choice and it better be work. For women who want to have it all, they may assume the old adage ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it to’ applies to them. But the truth is women can enjoy a fulfilling career and meet family responsibilities.”

Workplaces are getting much better at valuing an individual’s skills, whilst understanding the juggle of work and family life. Most of Benetas’ senior leadership team are challenging the false assumption that if you’re going to have a family, you can’t hold a senior role at work, she said.

Ms Hills saw positives in the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s figures, pointing out that 70 per cent of managers in the sector are women.

“Women represent the majority of managers in only one industry – healthcare and social assistance. The focus for the aged care sector, and Benetas, is to facilitate good succession planning to ensure the pipeline is there.”

In addition, people from disadvantaged and immigrant backgrounds are over-represented across the aged care workforce as they often have highly desirable personal attributes, such as respect for the elderly, she said.

These groups face invisible or perceived barriers, such as a belief they can’t progress further, and aged care leaders need to challenge these attitudes, said Ms Hills.

Targeting women, mentoring

Ms Bowen said that aged care providers need to be aware of their “blind biases.”

“Many aged and community care organisations do not target women or young leaders in their recruitment for senior leadership positions, believing they do not have the battle scars or skills to excel in these positions,” she said.

Providers must remain open to cultivating diversity throughout the organisation, including at board level to ensure there is a mix of well-rounded skills and perspectives, she said.

Ms Bowen also wants to see greater mentoring of young professionals by senior leaders in aged care. She said:

“IBM, Disney and Google all have incredible mentoring programs that support senior executives to mentor and coach younger females within their organisations. Not only do these provide significant support to young leaders, they also promote better understanding of the challenges associated with leadership roles as well as the opportunities.”

In addition, Ms Bowen argued there are many strong women, and men who are supportive of women, in aged care’s leadership ranks – the challenge is to find creative ways of highlighting these individuals as significant sector role models.

Tapping into the current female leadership

Dr Chapman suggests focusing efforts on the mid-sized aged care organisations as females make up about a quarter of CEO positions which means there is a talent pool there to draw on.

She said providers could start with some “soul searching” by asking how their CEO and key positions are typically sourced, whether current employees are encouraged to step up and if there are any unintended barriers facing women.

Dr Chapman pointed out the providers had in the past often promoted capable clinicians into management positions without sufficient support and training. Some will eventually leave the role, if not the sector, while others struggle on but with a negative experience.

Providers should not begrudge the relatively small injection of resources that would ensure the transition from professional to leader is successful and satisfying, she said.

“Now that the sector has a Leadership Capability Framework the foundation is there for targeted leadership development programs that can be tailored to each person’s needs,” Dr Chapman said.

Mid-sized providers could also work to assess the experiences of women with regards to leadership opportunities, and organisations could even form groups to plan projects and share results, she suggested.

Networks of women supporting each other would be a welcome initiative but Dr Chapman also argued that the sector could utilise the skills and experience of current female CEOs to establish a women’s “community of practice” to provide vision and leadership.

Support other women

“Women have to believe in themselves and work with mentors and networks,” said Ms Payne. “Support other women; I am an overt supporter of encouraging women.”

She suggested women spend at least 10 to 15 per cent of their working week on active learning, while she has personally found that business coaching has provided a sounding board to challenge her thinking and processes. Ms Payne said:

“Ask for help, seek out role models and ask them to help you with feedback or as a sounding board. I am never afraid to seek guidance from trusted colleagues – male and female.”

It’s also important to find an employer with a track record in mentoring opportunities and a focus on training and development, Ms Payne said.

Organisational responses

Ms Hill said that organisations need to promote flexibility at all levels, while boards and CEOs need to proactively seek out opportunities to increase the diversity of their leadership teams.

Programs that actively open doors for women, and other groups in need of support, are also required, she said.

Ms Hills points to gender equality initiatives implemented within Benetas including moves to pay superannuation to staff members while on paid parental leave, the promotion of job sharing and flexible work, and leadership and mentoring programs.

‘Now is the time’

For Dr Chapman, the aged care sector should act on this issue now.

“The sector is growing and smaller organisations are consolidating into larger ones. The statistics suggest that without express action there will be even fewer women CEOs and senior managers in the future,” she said.

“Progress towards a more reasonable representation of women in management is likely to happen only if women themselves are in the driver’s seat. And now is the time.”

Read more in AAA’s special report on women in aged care: 

Tags: Acorn Network, benetas, coaching, cynthia-payne, dr judith chapman, education, female leadership, leadership, mentoring, networking, professional-development, Samantha Bowen, sandra-hills, slider, summitcare, workforce,

3 thoughts on “Getting more women to the top in aged care

  1. While I understand the push for equality here- I think some of the reason why it may not improve in the near future is because of the need for solid sales and business experience in the community sector now and into the future. Services and organisations will be drawn to more male dominated fields to recruit for their executive and higher roles- mainly as they are now looking for vast amounts of skills and experience to keep their business alive in a changing environment. Community services are looking for sales, business, startup drivers and change-makers with a lot of experience to take on the current challenges of the sector and to basically survive. This offers some great opportunity but mainly for those with this type of sales based experience (another male dominated sector)- and a lot of it!

  2. Not all women want to be at the top leading an organisation. But there are lots of women who’d like to be heard, mentored, recognised and valued for the diversity of skills they bring to any role in the care sector.
    There is certainly a lack of progress in the sector for some women unless one is part of a ‘club’ with the right connections.

  3. A well-written article on an important topic. The statistics quoted here are typical of senior executive leadership and board representation across Australia and internationally. Personally, I am encouraged by the increasing level of female leaders I see coming through the ranks and strongly believe we all have a role to play in supporting and promoting women in our sector.

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