Why job cuts and gender equality matter to the economy

In virtually all sectors of the paid workforce women are underrepresented in leadership positions, at a time when both the Government and the Opposition are foreshadowing cuts in public service positions without reference to increasing gender equality.

At June 2011, women comprised 57.5% of all Commonwealth Public Service employees. As at June 30, 2011, women held 35.3% of government board appointments, with four government portfolios meeting the gender balance target.

The statistics in corporate Australia are equally concerning in the light of corporate dismissals in the media, retail and automobile industries. Again there is no sign that attention is being paid to efforts to redress gender inequality as a contribution to longer-term economic prosperity and corporate productivity.

The EOWA 2010 Australian Census of Women in Leadership shows that women hold only 8.4% of board directorships. Further, 54% of ASX200 companies had no women board directors in 2010 – a number which has steadily increased from 49.7% since 2004.

Only about 22% of board directors in National Sports Organisations (NSOs) are women, and nearly one in five NSOs have no women directors

The international context of women in leadership is another compelling reason for reform in Australia. Currently, when compared with New Zealand, the US, Canada and South Africa, Australia has the lowest percentage of women on boards. When compared with the UK, US, Canada and South Africa, Australia has the lowest percentage of executive key management staff personnel.

Despite having Julia Gillard in the top job, and Anna Burke as Deputy Speaker, in 2012, women made up 24.7% of elected positions in the House of Representatives and 38.2% of the Senate. Compare this to the fact that 61.4% of all law graduates are female.

Women hold only about 22% of the most senior positions in law firms (as partners, principals, directors or in sole practice). In the Federal Court of Australia, women make up only 16% of the bench and the latest appointment was again a well-qualified male

A CEDA event addressed by Therese Rein noted that Australia’s level of productivity growth has been declining since the mid-1990s, and asked if increased representation of women in the workforce positively affect productivity?

Ken Henry has pointed out that this is a critical question; as pro-growth policies focused on participation and productivity, and offer the best prospects of meeting the looming fiscal challenge without compromising the living standards of future generations.

Women are leaving school as educated and skilled as their male counterparts but only 59% of women are participating in the workforce, compared with over 70% of men. This ranks Australia 45th in the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap when it comes to labour force participation – and 17th among the 34 countries in the OECD. Around 43% of women participating in the workforce are working part-time.

There have been significant developments in the area of women on boards overseas, with promising reforms being implemented to strengthen the representation of women at decision-making levels.

In countries such as Norway and Spain, governments have introduced mandatory quotas that require a specific percentage of women to sit on boards and in other leadership roles. Other European countries such as France are also considering implementing a mandatory quota system.

The Australian Human Rights Commission sets out some clear reasons why consideration of opportunities for women in leadership should be considered when there are job cuts and salary packages.

  • Women are in fact more likely than their male counterparts to have relevant post-graduate qualifications. This is despite their tendency to undervalue their own skills and to be less forthcoming in pursuing leadership positions.
  • Economically, it is a worthwhile investment. According to Goldman Sachs, narrowing the gap between male and female employment rates would have huge implications for the global economy – in Australia it would boost our GDP by 11%.
  • Further, the current gender bias means that women are employed in roles where their productivity is not maximised. If the gender productivity gap was minimised, for example, by increasing the number of women in leadership positions, the level of economic activity in Australia could be boosted by 20%.

Now is the time for both public and private sectors to invest in longer-term productivity and maintain the capacity of corporations to fill their top positions with those most able to move towards greater gender equality in their leadership ranks in the next decade.

This article first appeared on September 7th, 2012.

Dr Colin Benjamin is an entrepreneurship and strategic thinking consultant at Marshall Place Associates, which offers a range of strategic thinking tools that open up a universe of new possibilities for individuals and organisations committed to applying the processes of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. Colin is also a member of the global Association of Professional Futurists.

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