When Western Australia competes, it competes hard.
To our detriment, this has extended to gender inequality. Our gender pay gap is still growing and traditional attitudes about women remain strong.
As one executive man said to me recently, “maybe some women like not working”.
Western Australia has the most masculine economy in Australia. Dominated by resources and infrastructure industries, it can seem like women don’t even have a chance at success here.
It’s a question I recently posited to Quentin Bryce, when she was in Perth for a University of Western Australia and Australian Institute of Management conference.
Having “observed a marvellous advance” for women, she remained confident that “women can succeed anywhere”, even in the male bastions of Western Australia and her home state of Queensland.
But the gender and diversity conversations have been missing from the white-male-wash that is Perth. While the nation considered women in leadership, how we support female talent and the challenges facing the socio-economic gaps, Perth focused on our successes: resources and building our city.
Earlier this year the Committee for Perth released their two-year-long project, Filling The Pool, which catalysed discussion and action in a distinctly Perth way - big, hard and in your face.
CEO of the Committee, Marion Fulker, said that “everyone has got to be working together”. Her report pointed out that Perth has a very tight business culture. She said there’s an acknowledgment that firms are recruiting equal numbers of female talent at graduate and junior levels, but are “not able to sustain them”.
Central to the report was understanding the experiences of women after they leave paid employment. Fulker, while clearly frustrated at the lack of senior women in workplaces, said that women “can still make a contribution to society and the economy external to corporate life”.
Economies where influence is wielded by a small group of men are unsustainable.
We cannot ignore the reality that Western Australia has benefitted from the high value placed on traditionally male skills and industries. But these are not excuses for inaction. Truly, the pool of talent is a limited one.
Curtin University associate professor Linley Lord said that in Western Australia “the ideal worker is absolutely male”. This is not uncommon in economies built on heavy-duty industries, which are often physically demanding and very time intensive. “Men do not recognise that women often have a different set of demands on their time”, she said. And while she believes that “a lot of senior managers understand the issue, they are unsure of the best way to address it”.
This can seem like a dismal situation, and one which is reflected in other industries and segments of the economy, but I remain hopeful.
Gender equality is not out of reach in Western Australia, not by a long shot.
Perth is playing catch up, and it is something we do well. Rather than coming second we want to be in the middle of the action.
Firstly, the discussion has ramped up. It is front of mind and people are being pulled on it. I asked a chairman earlier this year why his board had only one woman and he started by saying “this is question I am hearing more”.
Discussion is good. It’s what makes people act.
But beyond this we are also more conscious of our actions. Rather than passing this off as just a women’s issue, we’re starting to understand it as a challenge for the whole of our society. One where the key players are being pushed to act.
If anything, the experience of Perth shows how important it is to bring key influencers into the conversation. Out here, they are primarily men.
Marion Fulker is aware that changes as deep as this take time, time to understand what we need to do and then to make an informed decision about the best way to achieve that.
Out west, the opportunity to act on gender equality is ripe, there are huge opportunities here for anyone who wants to take them.
But for now, if you want to see a raw exploration of gender inequality - come to Perth.
Conrad Liveris is a workforce diversity specialist
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