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It’s still a long way to the top for Australia’s working women

Australian women are still significantly under-represented in senior management positions. AAP

The 2012 Australian Census of Women in Leadership, released on Tuesday, paints a mixed picture of gender equality in the workplace.

According to the Census report, women now hold 12.3% of ASX 200 directorships, up from 8.4% in 2010, but they only hold 9.7% of executive key management personnel (executive KMP) positions in the ASX 200. There are 18 more women in executive KMP positions than in 2010. The report suggests some explanations for this: “the recent focus of attention on women in leadership has been directed at boards rather than executives”, and that “although it is possible to secure a board position by having demonstrated ability in other organisations and activities, senior executives normally need to have worked their way up the executive ladder. The pipeline for senior executive positions is generally narrower than for board positions and it will take time to channel more women through it”.

If corporate Australia wants to sustain the significant gains it has made in valuing women’s leadership, it needs to focus its attention on building pathways for career advancement.

To channel more women through the pipeline requires a shift in workplace cultures to enable women and men to share and balance work and life responsibilities. The model of the ideal worker dedicated only to work needs to change to reflect the realities of family and society. The Census report echoes this sentiment: “the ascent through executive ranks often requires time and availability that conflict with other commitments. While women attempt to balance these commitments, often male executives feel free to focus on their careers. More needs to be done to support women and to achieve greater work/life balance for both women and men in demanding executive positions”.

A much broader shift in other equality measures is also needed to enable women’s retention and advancement. ABS statistics released in August 2012 show that across Australia, women’s average full-time weekly earnings are now 17.5% less than men’s earnings. In fact, over the period of 18 years, the pay gap has increased by 1.5 percentage points from 17.2% in February 1996 to 17.4% in February 2012. The pay gap in the private sector is considerably larger than the public sector. In February 2012, the private sector gender pay gap was 20.8%, compared with 12.9% in the public sector. Furthermore, the gender pay gap in mean weekly earnings of managers in full-time positions was 20.5%.

The new Workplace Gender Equality (WGE) Act 2012 consolidates Australia’s effort to accelerate gender equality in workplaces. From the 2013–14 reporting period, gender equality indicators (GEI) set by the Minister will underpin the new reporting framework, steering attention to “address the most pressing contemporary challenges to gender equality in Australian workplaces”.

GEIs will include the gender composition of the workforce and of governing bodies of relevant employers; equal remuneration between women and men; and availability and utility of employment terms, conditions and practices relating to flexible working arrangements for employees and to working arrangements supporting employees with family or caring responsibilities.

No longer can it be said that the slow pace of progression for women is because of a lack of constructive support, analysis, information and successful business case examples. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s “light touch” approach is supporting employers and leaders in workplaces to remove barriers to the full and equal participation of women in the workforce.

The elimination of discrimination on the basis of gender in workplaces ultimately requires a values shift that translates understanding into action. Only then will Australia see a reduction in the gap between policy and practice. The possible implementation of mandatory quotas in the not too distant future would be a sad reflection on Australia’s organisational leaders, who had chosen not to take action of their own volition.

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