The latest Census of Women in Leadership reveals that Australian women are going sideways when it comes to running the nation's top companies.
Women such as Gail Kelly are a rare breed in corporate Australia - the Westpac boss is one of just 12 women who are chief executives at Australia's top 200 companies.
Helen Conway, the director of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency which carries out the study every two years, says the gender balance is marginally better when looking at directorships.
"There is some good news, and the good news relates to the top 200 boards.
On those boards we've seen a considerable increase in the number of women who'd been appointed," she observed.
"Back in 2010 8.4 per cent was the percentage of women on those boards.
In 2012 it is now 12.3 per cent, so that's a good increase." Helen Conway says while there are more women on boards, there are fewer women in the pipeline.
"I think the really bad news, and the disappointment of this census, is that in executive ranks we've seen negligible progress," she added.
"Very concerning is that almost two-thirds of ASX 500 companies have no female executives and only 12 have a female CEO and, if you look internationally, Australia has the lowest percentage of female executives compared to countries with similar government structures." Another survey by the Australian Institute of Company Directors found female directors filled just over 15 per cent of board positions - up from nearly 13 per cent last year.
Big companies doing better The institute's Steve Burrell says big listed companies are doing better than smaller ones.
"The ASX 200, we are now looking at 20 per cent of female directorships.
For the ASX 50 it is 19.4 per cent," he said.
"The larger the company, the better the result so far, and what we need to do is to continue that progress at that level but also try and extend that down into the smaller companies." Yolanda Vega, the head of the Australian Women's Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says professional women are abandoning the corporate sector and setting up their own companies instead.
"Over the past 10 years we've seen this lack of movement of women going up.
At the same time if we look at the data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, that illustrates that over the past 10 years the number of women sole traders has gone up 24.6 per cent, while for men it has only gone up by 1 per cent," she said.
"So women are tired of the corporate environment because it doesn't provide flexibility, and they today have the ability to walk out, leave their employer behind and start up their own business, and that's exactly what we're seeing is happening." The Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, says mandatory quotas may be needed to boost the number of women on boards.
Steve Burrell says he does not think that will work.
"Superficially, quotas can look like the answer because you do get quick results, but whether those results are sustainable and whether or not at the end of the day they really address the problem is in our view, very questionable, and we think a more voluntary approach which gets to the real heart of the problem is a better way to go," he said.
Yolanda Vega says something is clearly not working within the current system.
"The Discrimination Act has been in place since 1984 and yet today, almost 30 years later, we are still talking about equal pay," she said.
"So something is not working and the reality is, if nothing changes, nothing changes and we are seeing that regardless of how many legislations we see come into place, nothing is changing within the environments that these women are working in."