A new women-in-the-workplace census has revealed that the proportion of women to men on Australian corporate boards and in executive leadership roles is in decline.
The percentage of female board directors and executive managers in Australia's 200 richest listed companies has fallen since 2006, the census found.
The figures have come as a disappointment to equal opportunity advocates, who had been encouraged by surveys from the first half of the decade indicating that the number of women in influential corporate positions was on the rise.
"At the 2006 census we described the pace of change as glacial," Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) director Anna McPhee said. "In 2008 the results show that women's progress is melting away."
Women make up almost 45 per cent of the Australian labour force, McPhee said, but look set to continue being chronically under-represented in leadership positions.
The Australian Census of Women in Leadership, conducted by Sydney's Macquarie University in conjunction with EOWA, counted all members of its target population within the ASX200, and found that the number of directorship seats held by women had not kept up with the increase in overall board seats.
Women held 125 of the 1,505 seats available, the census found, which was a proportion more in line with 2004 figures, or a drop of almost half a per cent from 2006.
The number of women holding executive manager positions within the ASX200 fell from 12 per cent in 2006 to 10.7 per cent, and the number of companies with no women executives at all rose sharply from 39.5 per cent in 2006 to 45.5 per cent.
Women held only four of the 200 CEO positions.
Further, women held only 5.9 per cent of senior line management positions with either profit and loss or direct client accountability, such as marketing or sales directors.
"Roles which are considered core to business performance remain out of reach for many women," McPhee said.
According to McPhee, the overall decline in female representation could be partially contributed to the recent influx of traditionally male-dominated resource businesses into the ASX200.
However, this only served to highlight the issue of gender segregation within such industries, she said.
Women, McPhee said, are placed at a disadvantage from the moment they enter the workplace.
They often earn less than men, receive less access to training and development and are commonly harassed, either sexually or otherwise.
In addition, their commitment to company goals is generally called into question.
"As soon as a woman steps into the workplace it's assumed she won't stick around, but leave to have children," McPhee said.
However, research shows that a woman is statistically more likely to leave a job to start her own business than start a family, she said.
The only hope of achieving a gender balance at senior levels, MCPhee said, is for organisations to be proactive and endeavour to shed outdated prejudices.
"People think time will change things," she said, "but the 2008 census shows that time alone will not."