What is it about women? It seems widely acknowledged that they are smarter than men, or at the very least more intuitive. Remarkably, many men and women tend to agree on that. Why then do men apparently still have a better chance of getting to the top, for the time being at least?

Why indeed, when those women who have made it to the top generally do such an outstanding job? Over 100 of the nation’s top female business leaders are listed on the Chief Executive Women (CEW) website www.cew.org.au. Women like Jillian Broadbent, Meredith Hellicar, Margaret Jackson, Gail Kelly, Linda Nicholls and Carla Zampatti to name just a few. Clearly this list is only the tip of a veritable iceberg of highly successful female business leaders in Australia.

Being the father of three girls is one reason I’ve always been passionate about the future of women in leadership. The other is that in my personal experience as a CEO and now non-executive director on several boards, it strikes me that women have special qualities that potentially put them ahead in modern business leadership.

Recently, a QUT Brisbane Graduate School-sponsored group of women business leaders, Fostering Executive Women (FEW), invited me to speak my mind on what women should do to improve their lot in business leadership. Being put on the spot and needing to make sense to a well-informed, critical and mostly female audience, I called on some acknowledged women leaders for their views.

My respondents included: Annabelle Chaplain, former investment banker now respected company director; Bronwyn Morris, former accountant, recently retired high-achieving chairman of Queensland Rail; Stephanie Paul, founder and managing director of leading public relations agency The Phillips Group; Nerolie Withnall, former lawyer now prominent company director; and Jane Wilson, former medico turned company director, recently retired Queensland state chairman and national director of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

I asked these acknowledged leaders three basic questions: What, if any, unique capabilities do women bring to business leadership? What, if anything, holds suitable women back in business leadership? What should women do to markedly improve their access to business leadership roles?

Do women have unique capabilities as business leaders?

While there is some divided opinion, the majority believe women excel in people skills such as listening, communication, empathy and emotional intelligence, and that they have more developed organisational skills especially in multi-tasking and attention to detail. Importantly too they add that women offer a different perspective to men, and represent half the consuming market, and an even greater share of private wealth.

What then holds suitable women back?

Relative to their male counterparts, the main inhibitors mentioned are lack of confidence in themselves and hence less personal risk-taking inclination, less developed business networks and embedded stereotype attitudes. Other factors raised are women’s propensity to find life-balance (partner, children, home), and the fact that they are often more prepared and more able to put their career on hold than their male partners.

So what should aspiring women do about it?

There was a clear consensus that women should face the problem head-on and be proactive. Their advice to their aspiring sisters was clear: “Go for it, take risks and have confidence as men do.” “Be more assertive in telling people your ambitions and goals.” “Network with men – they allocate most of the jobs.” “Move on where there is discrimination.” They also say that because women remain the primary carers, aspirants must invest in getting themselves organised to cope with dual roles. Further, they believe that not only do women need to find a good mentor (female or male) to help them, but they also need to be generous in helping other women find their way forward.

They are quick to recognise and despise what many describe as ‘female tokenism’ and a ‘boys’ club’ mentality still common on ‘older style’ Australian boards.

When one reflects that a business is basically a value-creating system populated with cooperating people whose activities must be planned, organised, led and controlled, women have much to offer in business leadership. Women’s imbued and perhaps natural skills in these classic components of leadership arguably give them a significant competitive advantage over men, especially in modern, people-centred businesses – an advantage that many Australian women have yet to capitalise upon in their quest for ‘a fairer go’ at the top.