Helen Conway, director of Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

Helen Conway, director of Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Photo: Christopher Pearce

NARROWING the gender gap in Australian leadership positions will be on the agenda on Tuesday, as some of the nation's top female leaders join an education seminar in Canberra.

The She Leads Conference, an initiative of the YWCA of Canberra, will involve representatives from the corporate, government and not-for-profit sectors and try to address the inequalities in business and politics by sharing experiences and strategies for advancement.

''We’re a long way off gender equality,'' Helen Conway, a conference speaker and the director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, said.

''There has been some progress, but two of the key indicators that we haven’t got there are firstly the pay gap ... the second indicator is the poor number of women in leadership positions.''

A pay gap of 17.5 per cent still exists between the sexes and while 46 per cent of the workforce is female, less than 10 per cent of executives in top-500 listed companies are women.

''We have a major problem getting women into leadership positions,'' Ms Conway said.

She said social and structural barriers around flexible work and stereotyping were largely to blame but there were strategies women could employ to move up.

''A lot of it is really developing the appropriate skills of working in these environments, making sure you are good at negotiating; if for example ... you are approached about a job or are applying for a job, or there’s a promotion in sight, it’s important to talk about salary,'' Ms Conway said.

''If opportunities arise, grab those opportunities because they may not come again – often women are a little reluctant ... they think, ‘Am I the right person for this job? Do I have all the skills?’

''I think if we can just persuade women to back themselves, have the courage to step up – there’s a whole lot of work you can do with young women around confidence building.''

Ms Conway said education that focused on leadership is important.

''We all go to university and learn technical skills ... but the skills I needed to be a manager and a leader in the various organisations I’ve been in were not taught to me as part of my law degree.

''If you have some formal training around leadership, I think it’s very helpful.''