Last month I was invited to sit on a panel to discuss the topic of improving gender equity in the workplace and it proved to be a significant personal epiphany in terms of our approach to these topics.
It was a high-profile event and there was a large audience. Yet as I looked out across the crowded room, I noticed most people in attendance were women. There were also two tables of female students from a girls-only school. The girls asked a question about how they might engage young males more in the gender equity discussion, and I realised they had just hit the nail on the head. There were no boys sitting with them that day, and very few men at any of the other tables.
It’s a sad fact that overall men are still making most of the decisions in business in this country. Some of them might feel somewhat alienated by the gender equity conversations and that makes it easier to sideline some issues, but it’s very important that they get onboard. Younger males should be listening and engaging in the discussion as much as women. Men coming into the workforce need to be the future champions of change. They need to be visible and vocal in the public debate, and yet that isn’t happening yet.
At the moment, most of the discussion about gender equity, parental leave, flexible work, and caring or childcare issues is driven by women. Yet this isn’t just a ‘woman’s problem’, is it? It involves everyone. If senior management in most Australian companies recognised this more, I’m convinced we’d see a big improvement in our equity score card.
A poor gender equity score card is bad for business
The latest figures from the Women’s Gender Equity Agency (WGEA) were released a few weeks ago. They tell us one thing: nothing much is changing in the workplace. Most organisations are still headed up by male CEOs and run by largely male-dominated boards. Most managers at the highest levels are also likely to be men (only 39.4 per cent of managers are women). Men are still paid more than women on average, and, although flexible work is getting more attention for women few companies actually have any KIPs in place for their managers to enable this, and few targets have been set to encourage men in this area. Less than 50 per cent of companies currently offer paid parental leave, and only a small percentage have leave for secondary carers.
It’s little wonder with these figures that many women decide to give up on career aspirations.
STEM areas have been performing particularly badly. Only 17 per cent of women are working in these fields, although there is now a lot of effort going into turning this around. In engineering, we need to have more women on our teams and to encourage them to stay. We’ve successfully increased the number of women who are qualified engineers by more than 24 per cent to 52,700 in 2018, but that’s not our real problem. We have issues in getting them to stay. Around 40 per cent of female qualified engineers choose to work at something else after they graduate. Clearly changing workplace cultures and making the industry less male-dominated and more flexible in its structure is vitally important.
STEM employers starting to lead the way with new ideas
Making a difference to the imbalance of power involves some innovative and decisive decisions from boards. Some of the major STEM employers in Australia are now leading the way and showing how you can attract and retain women after they have children – ultimately this must mean devising family-friendly policies that are available to both parents so men can share the responsibilities too.
My own company has just announced a revamp of our parental leave program. It now includes access to both paid and unpaid leave, including taking it on a part time basis; paid superannuation while a staff member is on parental leave; and generous secondary carer’s leave. And we ask managers and our HR team to offer more flexible work options for both men and women and to help support and onboard people again when they are re-entering the workforce.
Mining giant Santos has also just announced they will pay 50 per cent of out-of-pocket costs (after any government rebate) up to $10,000 net per child per year for up to three years for eligible staff returning to work as primary carers. That’s a real game changer. These programs will attract women because it enables them to have more choice about when and how they return to work.
Employee surveys in all industries now show men also want to be more actively involved with parenting and to support the career aspirations of their partner, but the traditional workplace doesn’t allow it. There is still a lot of stigma attached to a male asking for leave to help look after children.
We need to change this. If you encourage more men to work flex, to access paid parental leave, to be visible as carers and to be present for their families (without fear if what their boss thinks), we’d probably also see more women to stepping up to take those leadership roles they are currently giving up on. The business win from this would be to provide a bigger talent pool to choose from when it comes to promotions and succession planning.
Diversity of thought is essential
This is not just a moral or equality issue. Having a diverse workforce has been proven to improve innovation and problem-solving capacity – this is especially important for STEM areas that will drive the economy in the future. Research also shows gender diversity has a direct impact on the bottomline. Having scores of men designing and working on technology, AI, infrastructure, or research projects, for example, ignores the ideas of 50 per cent of the population. Without more representation from women, we simply can’t be doing the best job.
The strategy must now be to work harder to get male business leaders to want to do something about the lack of equity we face in our workplaces.
Men must want to transform workplaces
We must encourage more male CEOs to attend women’s leadership events and to come onto panels and discussion groups. Boards need to start honestly asking themselves are we gender diverse? Do we have pay gaps in this organisation? Are we embracing women and building a workplace where they feel included? Are they supported to continue with us to senior levels? What are our retention rates for women and how can we improve them? How are we supporting men who want to share the care at home? What’s the plan to address these issues? And, importantly, how will we measure our efforts in these areas?
It’s time to stop talking just to the converted. Women already know the issues. You don’t need to convince them that things need to change. In the 21st century we need new models for workplaces that are agile, inclusive, accessible, flexible and embracing of diversity from the top down.
What’s the point of telling girls at school they can do anything, if they finish only to find they are paid less, promoted less, do more work at home and must take a backseat in their careers when they have children.
If we can encourage the next generation of male leaders to reject stereotypes and to create a new workplace vision, things might change for the better across all industries, including in STEM professions. We should aim for a new paradigm where gender isn’t a factor in the workplace at all. That’s my hope for employees everywhere, and for the future of my daughters.