Australia’s Gender Equality Scorecard: progress is too slow

Libby Lyons
Topics Gender
Libby Lyon WGEA Director

The third year of data collected and released by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows that across Australian workplaces, women continue to be under-valued and under-represented at senior levels. While there is progress, the pace of change is much too slow.

The most obvious symbol of lost potential in the workforce is the gender pay gap: the difference between the average full-time earnings of men and the average full-time earnings of women.

WGEA data shows that full-time female workers in Australia in the last 12 months experienced a 23.1% pay gap. This means the average Australian man, working full time, was earning nearly $27,000 dollars a year more than the average Australian woman, when we look at total remuneration. Our data shows that gender pay gaps exist in every single sector – even the female-dominated industries.

For most of our nation’s industrial history the causes of gender inequality were obvious. It was openly considered more important for men to work more and earn higher wages than women, because of their accepted role as the family breadwinner.

Then, things changed:

  • Equal pay for equal work became the law in a series of decisions in the 60s and 70s,
  • Family structures became more diverse, and
  • Women pursued the opportunities of professional life.

Now, we have reached a situation where workplace gender inequality is neither publicly accepted nor supported by the law. But unequal outcomes persist.

Work recently done by the Agency with Diversity Council Australia and KPMG into the causes of the gender pay gap identified bias and discrimination as the single biggest factor.

The difference between the pay gap for base salary (17.7%) and total remuneration (23.1%) reveals the greater share of discretionary pay including bonuses and access to additional entitlements going to men – a sign of the pervasive bias affecting pay decisions.

The next biggest factor driving the pay gap was women and men’s concentration in separate industries and roles.

The third largest factor causing the pay gap was time out of the paid workforce by women, who bear the burden of unpaid caring responsibilities. 

For every hour that men spend in unpaid care work, women spend one hour and 48 minutes. Women pay an economic price for these responsibilities – often having to return to work in part-time roles that undervalue their education, experience and skills and do not allow for career progression. So we are still grappling with deep cultural norms about how women and men should work and how they should be valued for it.

The data also confirms that in Australia in 2016 your boss is much more likely to be a man than a woman. Across Australia five out of six CEOS are men. And fewer than a quarter of all board directors are women.

Despite this unacceptable status quo, there are positive signs that the pipeline of women into leadership in Australia is strengthening. Over the past two years our data shows that nationally the proportion of women in every management category has increased.

What is particularly encouraging is that the number of women being appointed and promoted has also increased. In the past year, women made up 42% of managerial appointments across Australia. Given that only 37% of our managers are women – this figure of 42% gives a really solid indication that things are heading in the right direction.

One area where we are not seeing enough change is in the industrial and occupational segregation across the workforce.  The truth is that most Australians do not know what it is like to work in a gender balanced industry. Our data shows that nation-wide, 61% of  employees work in an industry dominated by one gender.

Across Australia, men tend to work in male-dominated environments – workshops, mine sites, or trading floors – while women are more likely to work in care services, schools, admin or HR. This level of workforce segregation across the Australian economy is not conducive to diverse and inclusive workplaces that support innovation and healthy cultures. Challenging these stereotypes is a job for everyone.

On current trends this segregation and all the associated issues look set to persist. For example, 9 out of 10 graduates entering Health Care and Social Assistance in Australia are women; but only two in 10 graduates entering the construction industry are women.

This segregation not only stops people from pursuing satisfying careers, it also hinders the economic growth of the nation at a time when we need it most.  By now the business case for equality is well established – there is an identifiable link between equality and better business performance.

Some industries recognise this and we are seeing great initiatives to attract more women into scientific and technical roles. But encouraging men into female-dominated jobs is equally important.

The good news is that employers are stepping up to the gender equality challenge in greater numbers. For the first time, over 70% of employers have policies in place to support gender equality.

I believe the pace of that change will pick up when boards step up and insist on gender equality as a standing agenda item; and employees question current and prospective employers about: what they are doing to support gender equality; have they done a pay gap analysis; what parental leave is offered to women and men; what flexibility arrangements are available and what is the take-up? 

The WGEA’s dataset is a powerful body of evidence that can drive change in our workplaces and I look forward to continued improvement in the years ahead.

Libby Lyons
Workplace Gender Equality Agency

Libby Lyons was appointed as Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency for a period of five years from October 2015. Prior to joining the Agency, Libby held senior management roles across the corporate and government sectors in the energy, resources and telecommunications industries. Libby started her working life as a primary school teacher and so has experience in working in both female and male dominated industries and understands first hand that a more diverse work group makes for better decision making and organisational performance.

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