Women in leadership positions

In Austria, women are better educated than ever before, yet they are severely underrepresented in decision-making and management positions. According to the 2022 „Frauen.Management.Report“, which was been published annually by the Austrian Chamber of Labour since 2005, the proportion of women on management boards of the top 200 companies (in terms of revenue) in Austria is 8.9%. Among the supervisory board members of the top 200 companies, 24.7% are female. Among listed companies, the proportion of women on supervisory boards is 28.8% in 2022, and in management board positions is 8.2%.

In September 2022, the Directorate General for Women and Equality in the Austrian Federal Chancellery published the study „Women in Leadership Positions. Current Analyses on the Representation and the General Framework“ by the Economica Institute for Economic Research. It contains up-to-date analyses on the representation of women in leadership positions and effects on companies, based on comprehensive literature reviews and secondary analyses. The study illustrates that women in leadership positions positively contribute to company performance and thus create a competitive advantage in Austria. The three focal points of the study deal with the current representation of women in leadership positions in Austria, with the effects on companies and with possible fields of action regarding the framework conditions.

Project: Women are TOP! (2013-2015)

This website was originally launched in June 2015 to present the results of the PROGRESS project „Women are top! To the top by innnovative corporate cultures“. This project was coordinated by the Directorate-General for Women’s Affairs and Equality of the Austrian Federal Chancellery and implemented from September 2013 through April 2015 in co-operation with two project partners:

The website includes the compilation of good practices in Austrian companies, incl. company representatives’ testimonials, and the online simulation game „Choose your board“. Additionally, background information, studies, reports and further links are presented.

As the project focused on Austrian companies, the main results presented here are currently available in German only so far. For any questions, please do not hesitate to contact the department III/6 at the Federal Chancellery as the project’s coordinator.

The project: context, activities and target groups

While female labour market participation (20-64yr olds) in Austria is at 70.1% above the European average of 63.5% (2014), it is characterised by a high part-time rate (46.3% for women in 2014), a significant gender wage gap (23.0% in 2013) and an only slowly melting glass ceiling to CEO and board positions (5.9% resp. 16.2% women in 2014). Numerous initiatives during the last years addressed the increase of (full-time) employment, improved reconciliation, wage transparency and gender-balanced representation in decision-making positions. However, with binding legislation only for specific areas, progress remains slow.

The main target group – in contrast to past projects – were not individual women, but the companies and their cultures: In 15 Austrian companies of various sizes, sectors and regions, FORBA’s subproject set impulses for change during the action-centred company research, networking and information events and close cooperation, esp. with CEOs and HR managers. Surveys, focus group discussions and expert interviews with company representatives were carried out. The findings made up the base for a collection of good practices for promoting women in management positions that were compiled in this online resource. In a series of events in three Austrian cities, comprising expert inputs, workshops and discussions, short- and long-term ways of networking between companies, experts and stakeholders were  facilitated.

During WU’s subproject, expert interviews with board members, CEOs, legal experts and head hunters as well as literature studies were drawn on to explore the idealtypical and de facto practices of board nominations in Austria. The findings provided the base for programming the prototype of an online simulation game allowing players to reflect their decisions while nominating new members to their company’s advisory board. Results of research and pre-testing were published and presented in articles and conferences to company representatives, researchers, and executive search consultants.

Main objectives

The key objective of the project was to contribute to an effective implementation of policies and measures promoting women’s share in management and board positions in Austrian companies by identifying central barriers and mechanisms in company cultures, by facilitating an exchange of good practice among companies and by developing an online simulation game as an innovative tool for training and reflection.

Specific goals therefore included:

  • Promoting long-term knowledge transfer and practice-oriented dialogue about measures aiming at gender-balanced representation and changes of company culture to companies and stakeholders and setting the political agenda for further measures;
  • Making subtle mechanisms of exclusion from board nominations visible, identify company characteristics in nomination practice and develop a tool for reflecting on gender-biased decisions;
  • Identifying role model companies for successful measures promoting gender-balance in management positions, studying supporting and hindering company cultures, setting impulses for change of company cultures within the studied organisations, and making good practice examples accessible including the generated insights on companies motivations, approaches, implementation processes and experiences.
Key results, outcomes and lasting impact

The collaboration partner WU Wien developed a computer based simulation game prototype. The game simulates a board nomination process and gives the gamers the opportunity to take over the active decision making role. Feedback on the actions taken and the decisions made will provide the users with learning experience. This learning focuses firstly on the process of nomination decisions as the approach itself harbors gendered practices. Secondly it focuses on the selection decision and the gendered selection criteria for individual candidates. Thirdly the feedback also includes the overall composition of the supervisory board created by the player in terms of functional and demographical diversity. The tool provides a learning environment in which gendered behavior is rendered visible for heads of nomination committees, company owners, head hunters and other persons searching and selecting potential board members. This can lead to a deep level individual change of the mind-set of simulation gamers. It is therefore a useful tool when it comes to increasing the number of women in top management and on supervisory boards as it can help to overcome gender biased nomination decisions.

Resulting from FORBA’s analysis of 15 companies, six main fields of activity addressed by the companies in their attempts to increase women’s share in management positions were identified: implementation of activities, working time arrangements, reconciliation of paid work and unpaid care work, recruiting, human resources development, and commitment of managers. Important approaches and activities identified in these fields include the following:

  • changing working time and company cultures to counteract widespread norms of fulltime/overtime as leadership prerequisite by implementing part-time or shared leadership positions, flexible or trust-based working time, or home office arrangements
  • targeted, systematic recruitment and training of female managers and potentials
  • involving management level in corporate human resources development to train and prepare the next generation of executives, to counteract ambivalences and irritations caused by measures promoting equal opportunities and to monitor, implement and sustain these objectives
  • implementing permeable and life phase sensitive career tracks to shape career opportunities for employees

In order to increase the number of women in top management and supervisory board positions it is not sufficient for educational measures to focus only on women themselves. Rather, it is important to aim at decision makers as the promotion of women depends on them, their approach towards nominations and their perception. Stereotypes and role ascriptions often play a very important, but unconscious part in promotion and nomination decisions. Therefore decision makers have to be challenged concerning their methods of selecting, sponsoring and promotion. The process of searching and evaluating candidates should be reflected with the aim to reveal a hidden gender bias. As the simulation game prototype focuses on decision makers, it does not only grant a new perspective in management learning, it also has a significant impact as management and supervisory board positions depend on these individuals.

During the research and collection of corporate good practices, stakeholders and potential multipliers were involved in different fields and on different levels (i.a. company level, local/province social policy, social science, consultants, authorities etc.). Participants were invited to share their contact details with peers for further networking activities after the project’s end.

Co-financed by the PROGRESS programme of the European Union

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