Workplace equality: flexibility will help smash the ceiling

The Abbott Government’s appointment of only one female cabinet member highlights the large workplace equality gap that still exists in many ways in Australian society.

Women continue to take on a larger burden of unpaid work than their male counterparts. They are more likely to care for young children or a disabled or frail family member, thus having their careers interrupted, and both promotion opportunities and lifetime earnings reduced. Yet generally women live longer after retirement than men, leaving them with less financial security and putting them at risk of poverty in later life.

While a greater proportion of women finish Year 12 and graduate with a degree, or are higher-qualified than men, they are less likely to economically benefit from their education. Women in full-time work earn 17.6 per cent less than men, and in Australia women only account for 34.5 per cent of managers and 11.8 per cent of chief executive officers. Of particular note, NSW has the lowest level of women CEOs at only 10.9 per cent of the total.

An Ernst and Young report from July 2013, The Role of Women in Unlocking Productivity, found that women working flexible hours waste less time compared to the rest of the working population. It also found that Australia and New Zealand could collectively save at least $1.4 billion in wasted wages by employing more productive female workers.

Australia is behind in employing women aged 55 to 64. Data from the Diversity Council of Australia and the Human Rights Commission shows only 53.8%of this group work in Australia; in New Zealand it’s 68.9%, and if Australia increased its mature-age participation rate to that of NZ, gross domestic product would rise by four per cent.

Recent modeling by Deloitte Access Economics shows that increasing women’s workplace participation could lift national output by $98.4 billion over 30 years. The Women’s Electoral Lobby argues that modern working structures do not encourage women to return to the workforce. This is due to biases employers have towards predominantly offering full-time work and also due to cultural norms that expect women to take on carer duties.

Thus, a major challenge in getting women back into the workforce and into higher positions is that organisations mostly provide full-time positions. Further disadvantaging women is the fact that promotions are usually offered to those who work full-time and have not had a break in their career.

If we are to redress this vast series of impediments to women achieving workplace equality, organisations need to develop more flexible work practices that provide career opportunities for part-time and casual employees, and attitudes need to change so that women are considered for leadership roles.

Governments can also help. They should consider incentives for hiring carers or people returning to the workforce after a break, similar to payroll tax rebates for employers hiring someone with a disability.

A recent NSW Reachtel poll found that 70% of the state would support such a move. More affordable childcare spaces are also part of the solution.

So, in 2014 let’s smash the glass ceiling and work towards workplace innovations that truly enable women to thrive.

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