Gender equality is more than just women on boards

It’s been more than two decades since equal opportunity for women legislation was first implemented, but representation of women in leadership positions in Australian business is still stubbornly low. In 2012, just 14% of directors in the top 200 ASX-listed companies are women. 

But while this paucity of female leadership has understandably generated much concern and a fair bit of action, I would argue there are additional problems to address that are just as pressing – problems that affect more than just the few who are at senior executive or board level. 

Pay equity is one such problem. On average, women earn 17.4% less than men (based on full-time average weekly earnings). By 2019, the average woman will have half the amount of superannuation that the average man. As a result, women are two and a half times more likely to live in poverty in their mature years than men. 

Women’s workforce participation continues to lag behind that of men too. While participation rates for women have increased over time, much of this employment growth has been in the current low status part-time work cycle where, regrettably, career advancement opportunities are limited, where wages growth is below average, and where a small but growing proportion of women are in fact underemployed (that is, they want to work more hours and in job classifications where they are more challenged and where wages and salaries are higher).  

As many mothers will attest, finding flexible work that reflects their skills and experience can be difficult. Indeed, the Diversity Council Australia’s Get Flexible research found that while many people have access to “basic” flexible work options, meaningful flexible work and careers are not common practice in Australian workplaces. 

Yet flexible work provides considerable mutual benefits for employers and employees in terms of productivity and performance. Such benefits include higer employee engagement, health and job satisfaction, and the attraction and retention of people talent. 

The care system is another major problem that must be addressed in the gender equity debate. A woman’s ability to fully participate in the workplace is constrained by the prohibitive cost of childcare. Women still undertake the lion’s share of childcare and home duties, and often struggle to access support networks through schools and cheaper care options. Meanwhile, woman must also contend with the lack of flexible work options to accommodate school holidays and elderly care – both challenges that appear to have a greater impact on women, than men. 

Finally, violence against women is an issue that not only affects the women directly involved, but also their workplaces and the wider community. Domestic and family violence is conservatively estimated to directly cost employers over $484 million per annum. The cost of violence against women and their children to the Australian economy is estimated to be likely to cost the economy $15.6 billion by 2021-22. 

I regret to say there’s no magic bullet to fix all these problems. Despite much effort to improve the position of women in the workplace over nearly thirty years in Australia, it will take continued hard work, focus and dedication across many fronts to make real change. 

I hope the attention on women in leadership positions continues. But I also hope a similar or greater level of focus can be directed towards addressing some of the other, equally pressing issues for women.

Nareen Young is the CEO of the Diversity Council Australia, an independent, not-for-profit workplace diversity advisor to more than 170 organisations in Australia.

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