Why businesses need a cultural overhaul for gender equality in the workplace
2 April 2020 at 7:30 am
For too long, women have been blamed for inequality. It’s up to businesses to look within themselves and weed out systemic structural inequality, writes Andrew Cairns.
You may think women have come a long way in the workforce since the 1950s. How far do we have left to go to achieve equality at work? In fact, we have a long way left to go. It’s 2020, yet Australian women still face a pay gap of 14 per cent, meaning they take home on average $241.50 less than their male counterparts each week.
Businesses have a vital role to play to achieve equality in the workplace but it’s not as simple as encouraging women to “lean in” and offering them courses to build their confidence so they can ask for that raise. What’s needed is a complete cultural overhaul.
For too long, women have been blamed for inequality. People justify the pay gap by suggesting that women aren’t doing the same amount of work; they “choose” less lucrative careers, they “choose” to leave the workplace and have kids, they don’t ask for what they want.
Of course, this doesn’t stack up in reality. Women earn less when they put in the same amount of work than men. They earn less within the same sector and job – the pay gap is highest in the financial and insurance services sector at 24.4 per cent. Yes, women tend to enter lower earning occupations that are stereotypically feminine, such as childcare and teaching, and are paid less precisely due to these roles being viewed as “women’s work”. But what does that show if not that there are deeply ingrained sexist biases at play in our society that block women from earning their fair share?
We need to stop blaming women. It’s up to businesses to look within themselves and weed out systemic structural inequality.
Let’s start with salaries. There are multiple factors behind the pay gap. To close it, organisations need to be aware of the fact that women’s work can be undervalued. Most modern organisations would believe that gender is not a factor in their remuneration practices, yet a pay gap still exists across the Australian economy. The truth is that all organisations can and must do more to ensure that skills and experience are the only factors at play in setting salaries. One way to rectify the situation is to conduct a gender pay equity audit to identify issues and areas that can be improved. Compare starting salaries, performance payments, and superannuation to see if gaps exist and work to eliminate them.
Another key area that puts women on the backfoot in the workplace concerns leave entitlements. We know some women choose to have children, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of their working life. Men also choose to have children with almost no change to their career prospects. Australia lags behind OECD countries when it comes to parental leave – the average length of paid leave among OECD countries is 55 weeks, while the Australian system offers just 18 weeks. It’s up to businesses to step up to provide the support and flexibility that new mothers need so that they can return to work if and when they choose to, with minimal disruptions. This could mean offering more generous leave entitlements for mothers, flexible work hours or working from home. Some businesses also offer opportunities for new mothers to stay connected to the workplace and key projects when they’re on maternity leave, so they don’t get left behind.
Making our workplaces more equal will not only benefit women. Increasing women’s participation in the workforce is key to boosting Australia’s productivity and innovation. A KPMG study found that if the labour force participation gap was halved, Australia’s annual GDP would increase by $60 billion in just 20 years, and our cumulative living standards would rise by $140 billion.
Every girl born today should have equal opportunities to get an education, a career and earn as much as her male counterparts for the same work. It’s unacceptable that we’re not there yet. If we transform our workplaces and culture into a place where women can thrive, we will reap the benefits with stronger families and communities.
About the author: Andrew Cairns is the CEO of Community Sector Banking, Australia’s banking specialists for not-for-profit organisations.