Gender equality needs women to lead shift to digital economy. So where are we? - Women's Agenda

Gender equality needs women to lead shift to digital economy. So where are we?

International Women’s Day 2016 started like many of my work days do with a 4.30am taxi ride to the Brisbane airport for a day of meeting’s in our nation’s capital.

But something about this journey was ironically fitting. When I asked my taxi driver to take the airport tunnel – and pay the subsequent toll – he quipped, “is the boss paying, is he?”

Without flinching I said calmly but firmly, “the boss is a she.” 

Happy International Women’s Day indeed.

This minor interaction speaks volumes of the importance of days like International Women’s Day and just how far we have to go to change the underpinning cultural narrative that creates ongoing assumptions about gender roles in our society.

Such comments are not the only thing that seem out of place in this otherwise modern, progressive nation we live in.

Like the fact that despite having been part of the workforce for centuries, women still earn on average more than 17% less than their male counterparts.

Like the fact that despite being eligible to run for Federal Parliament since 1902 and some State Parliaments before then, women make up less than one-third of all parliamentarians in Australia and one-fifth of all ministers.

Like the fact that on average, one woman in Australia is killed every week as a result of intimate partner violence. Every single week.

In 2016, it’s horrific to think these facts still represent the status quo. Yet even in the face of these statistics, it’s apparent Australia has come a long way on the journey to gender equality.

I’m a woman in my 30s, married, no kids, and over the past 15 years I have been able to pursue and build a successful career across the diverse industries of media, government and the social purpose sector. When I go to work every day no one questions why I’m not at home raising children and preparing my husband’s dinner. (Well, almost no one)

In fact, I have been the primary breadwinner in my household for the past five years as my husband has been studying – a very 21st century marriage some might say.

However, if I do decide to have a baby, statistically speaking my career ambitions are doomed.

Just this weekend, The Parenthood released a new national survey that showed one in three women have experienced discrimination at work due to falling pregnant or having children.

It’s not just that we lack universally embedded family friendly workplace policies in Australian business, it’s that our national culture doesn’t support their use even where such policies are in place. And Australia is missing out as a result.

We need more women to progress in their careers and take on leadership roles in Australian business and government – not only to ensure the moral imperative of achieving gender equality, but in fact to ensure our nation’s economic and social prosperity.

It’s no furphy that having women on boards and senior leadership teams is good for business. A La Trobe business school study released on International Women’s Day found that top Australia companies that employed more women on boards were making more money. Yet despite the obvious benefits, 12% of the ASX 200 still do not have a single woman on their board.

What’s more, women make up just 17% of CEOs in Australia. Our country is still dominated by the decisions of men.

If we are going to change this for the next generation we need to take serious action, now.

The future of work presents some real opportunities for women, as the economic drivers of automation, globalisation and collaboration create greater options for flexibility in work which could benefit working mothers in particular. However, the shift towards freelance and contract employment also heralds real risks in terms of workplace conditions such a maternity, paternity and carers leave.

The shift toward a digitally-driven knowledge based economy also places greater pressure on the need to invest in women’s education. According to research by the Foundation for Young Australians, 90% of the “jobs of the future” will require a minimum level of digital literacy, with 50% requiring the ability to not just use technology but to create and configure it. More broadly, research indicates 75% of the fastest growing occupations require STEM skills.

Clearly, if we are going to achieve gender equality, women need to be leading the way in this shift to a digital, knowledge-based economy.

Yet right now, women make up just 19% of all startup founders in Australia and only 34% of graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths are female.

I’m a big believer in the model of “if I can see it, I can be it”.

To engage the next generation of young Australian women in the skills required for a tech-centric future we have start thinking differently about how we inspire a passion in STEM, and start backing and celebrating those women who are blazing the trail.

Rather than forcing coding down the throats of young girls, we need to demonstrate the role these digital skills will play across all industries – from the tech sector itself through to health, education, finance, sport and everything in between.

And we need to support more women currently in the workforce, to lead innovation and share their stories of impact to inspire the next generation.

Australia’s future depends on it.

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