With the G20 Leaders’ Summit due to take place in Brisbane this week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has declared as a leading goal, the need to reduce the gender participation gap across G20 countries by 25% by 2025. If this target is agreed and set, it could help to enable 100 million new jobs for women across G20 nations. It is indeed great news that gender is on the agenda.
Without question, improving the status of women in developing countries is a critical step towards equality however, what does this mean for Australia? If each G20 nation will have the responsibility to determine what policies to implement to meet this target, how should Australia respond? The Prime Minister will face heightened scrutiny to develop and implement effective domestic policies to enable Australia to reach this target. The government has already promised “bold and brave” improvements to childcare early next year. Recommendations from the recent Productivity Commission report on childcare may also be implemented. The government’s paid parental leave policy slated to start in July next year may also be legislated.
International organisations have responded to the target by highlighting childcare and paid parental leave as critical factors to closing the gender workforce gap. There’s no doubt that paid parental leave plays a vital role in ensuring financial security for families at the time of birth/adoption while encouraging mothers to remain attached to the labour market. However, I believe accessible and affordable childcare and access to flexible working and flexible careers is even more important than a generous paid parental leave scheme.
In 2013, more than 100,000 women wanted to work and would have been available to start work within four weeks if suitable childcare arrangements were available (ABS 2013). However, the availability and cost of childcare are significant issues that many parents, especially mothers, face as they make the decision to return to paid work.
DCA’s own research has found that employers report access to childcare presented major difficulties for their business. Nearly 95% said access to and availability of affordable childcare presented difficulties for their employees. An astonishing 97% reported that access to childcare limited the number of hours their employees were available to work. So long as childcare for both infants and school aged children continues to be difficult to access and uneconomic for families, women will continue to leave the paid workforce and are likely only to return on an intermittent basis.
Access to flexible working and careers is also key for many women who need to manage their caring responsibilities alongside paid work. Women are most often the carers for children and/or for elderly parents and, in my experience, many fail to return to work when they can’t find a job that is flexible enough to accommodate these caring demands. Indeed, flexible working for men may also be a key enabler for improved female workforce participation. DCA’s research (Men Get Flexible!) reveals that young men are just as interested in being carers for their children but more afraid of asking for flexibility from their employers. If employers enabled mainstreamed flexible career paths for both men and women in the workplace, greater gender parity at home would certainly lead to improved female participation in the labour market.
Although I applaud the Prime Minister in leading the setting of this target, a significant opportunity that has been overlooked is the engagement of older women in greater workforce participation. We must not only look at the child-rearing stages when it comes to closing the gender gap. While Australia's labour force participation rate is higher than many OECD countries (11th out of 35), older women’s participation in the labour market is substantially lower than men’s in all age groups − as much as 17 points lower for women aged 55-64 according to our Older Women Matter research. So there is considerable scope to increase women’s participation in this area. As our research showed, better utilising the older female workforce has significant benefits for business, as well as the broader Australian economy and older female workers themselves.
And let’s not forget that addressing discrimination in the workplace continues to be important for increasing female participation. Discrimination against pregnant women in particular remains rife as the Australian Human Rights Commission’s research recently showed. More community and business education campaigns focused on the rights and entitlements of pregnant employees are needed.
Tony Abbott pointed out in his recent statement about the G20 that governments don’t have all the answers. While it’s true they play an important role in introducing policy settings to encourage more participation by women in the workplace, the role of the employer in attracting, retaining and progressing women in their workplaces is just as critical.
Employers can do a great deal in this regard, including making flexible working and careers standard business practice; addressing cultural and attitudinal barriers for women; putting in place comprehensive maternity/parental leave policies and childcare support; and reviewing all recruitment, development and promotion processes to ensure there is no gender bias are a few examples.
According to the Grattan Institute, increasing the labour market participation of Australian women offers one of the three greatest opportunities to increase our nation’s productivity to the tune of about $25 billion per year. So while there’s a lot to do, there’s a lot to gain.
The G20 Leaders’ Summit has provided new impetus for the government and employers to work together to address these barriers and we should not lose this momentum. It is only then that we will see real progress in closing the gender workforce gap in Australia.
Lisa Annese is DCA's Chief Executive Officer