Can women have it all? The new Workplace Gender Equality Act puts a different question on centre stage. Can women – and men – ”have it all”? Can the Australian economy ”have it all”, where it fully reaps the benefits of its educated workforce? Can employers ”have it all”, and meet the pent-up demand of the modern workforce for flexible work and meaningful careers which are compatible with caring responsibilities?
The new act, which passed through Parliament on Thursday night, is a landmark development on the journey to gender equality in Australian workplaces.
It focuses on gender equality rather than equal opportunity for women, recognising that barriers in the workplace based on gender should be removed. The renamed Workplace Gender Equality Agency is charged to promote equal pay between women and men, and elimination of discrimination against those with family and caring responsibilities. Importantly, it takes the agency into the 21st century with a new task – to improve the productivity and competitiveness of Australian business through advancing gender equality in the workplace.
The way we work has changed markedly in the past half century. Technology ensures we’re connected to anywhere 24/7, yet workplaces continue to operate on archaic models more suited to the 1950s. Men are no longer content with the workforce roles modelled by their fathers. A Diversity Council of Australia study found that 18% of men had considered resigning in the previous six months due to a lack of flexibility, and that flexibility was the highest-ranked employment driver for parents.
Flexibility is the key to achieving gender equality and needs to be moved to centre stage. It’s not something simply to be dispensed as a favour to women with children. Flexible work practices and flexible careers need to be available – and taken up – by both women and men, so that they become the norm.
The imbalance between male and female earnings is as important now as it was when this agency was established 26 years ago. The gap is currently 17.5%, and has changed little since we filed our first annual report in 1986-87.
Even today, where work experience and education are on par, women graduates are paid on average $2,000 less a year than men. Women earn less than men during their working lives, and retire with substantially lower retirement funds than men. Women are two and a half times more likely than men to live in poverty in their old age. It is imperative for the future of individual women, and the economy, that this gap is eliminated.
This new act will be a powerful driver of change. Reporting organisations will provide ground- breaking data for analysing progress in workplaces, data this agency will use to set industry-specific benchmarks. Employers will be able to compare their performance with their peers.
The act will allow us to measure how far Australian employers have come but, more importantly, determine where there is more work to be done, and where the agency can help.
The case for gender diversity is clear – it’s good for business, good for the nation, and good for individuals. From a national perspective, increasing productivity is vital to our future prosperity. The World Economic Forum has just released some depressing figures – Australia ranks 68th of 129 countries for wage equality for similar work, and 44th for female labour force participation. Yet we are ranked equal first for female educational attainment. If we achieved the female workforce participation rate of a country such as Canada, a simple increase of 6%, the Grattan Institute has estimated this would increase Australia’s annual GDP by around $25 billion.
Some still contest that there is a need for intervention in the workplace. However, the figures speak for themselves. Progress towards gender equality is far too slow.
Others today oppose the legislation, resistant to ”more government red tape”. However, as is currently the case, all private sector organisations with more than 100 employees will be required to report, but the reporting will be able to be done online, and will yield much more useful data for employers.
Some organisations instinctively flinch at the challenge of work flexibility and equality of pay, but these are critical enablers of gender equality. The business case for gender equality is clear – it delivers better organisational performance, greater access to talent and competitive advantage.
My hope is that, 10 years from now, we will not ask the question, ”Can we have it all?” but rather, along with the gender pay gap, curtailed careers and inflexible workplaces, this will be a dilemma consigned to Australia’s past.