International Women’s Day 2015: Are Australia’s working women heading back to the future?

Media releases

In 1985, the world looked very different – big shoulder pads and big hair were everywhere, we’d never heard of DVDs, the internet, smart phones, or the hole in the ozone layer and Michael J Fox was starring in Back to the Future.

An exciting new world was dawning for women in the workforce with the Sex Discrimination Act becoming law in 1984, the Wall Street Journal coining the ‘glass ceiling’ and Diversity Council Australia (DCA) opening its doors in 1985, to demonstrate the Australian business community's commitment to equal opportunity for women.

To help celebrate the milestone of DCA’s 30th Anniversary, and in the lead up to International Women’s Day on 8 March, we have looked at just how far women have come in the last thirty years. And it appears that while more women are participating in paid work, women are better educated and they are slowly reaching positions of leadership in business, in some areas, we seem to be heading backwards. Women’s underemployment has doubled, the gender pay gap has increased again instead of decreasing, and women are increasingly relegated to part time work which is very often low paid and low status.  

Lisa Annese, DCA’s CEO said despite some improvements, the lack of progress in several key indicators shows Australia is still not properly valuing the contribution of women at work.  

“The recent increases in the gender pay gap have been widely reported – but the fact that underemployment rates for women have also grown so much is disappointing. Clearly there are still some major barriers to Australian women fully participating in paid work,” said Lisa.  

“It is also surprising to see more women working part time. It’s obviously not getting any easier to combine full time work with having children. Major barriers continue to be limited access to quality, well paid and flexible work, as well as a lack of affordable and flexible childcare.

“There is now plenty of evidence to support the benefits of better utilising and rewarding the skills of women – benefits to workplaces and to the wider economy. With economists now having clearly established that increasing the workforce participation of women offers one of the greatest opportunities to increase global productivity, governments and employers must do more to change this picture. This International Women’s Day, Australia needs to do better by the next generation of working women,” concluded Lisa.

Key statistics – in the 1980s vs today

  • Workforce participation rate[i]: In 1985 it was 45.8% – it is now 58.6%
  • Part time work[ii]: In 1985 36.6% of employed women were working part time – it is now 46.6%
  • Underemployment[iii]: the rate for women in 1985 was 5.3% – it is now 11.2%
  • Gender pay gap[iv]: full time adult ordinary time earnings for women were 17.8% less than men in 1985 – now they are 18.8% less than men
  • Graduate salary gender gap[v]: in 1985 women graduates earned an average of 95.7% of male graduate starting salaries – now women graduates working full time earn an average of 93.8% of male full time graduate earnings
  • Educational attainment[vi]: In 1985, only 52% of girls completed year 12 and only 5% of women had a degree – now 82% of women aged 20-24 had attained year 12 qualifications,  and 31% of women had obtained a Bachelor Degree or higher qualification
  • Dual earner households[vii]: In 1986 49% of families with dependents had both parents employed – now 62% of families have both parents employed
  • Occupations[viii]: In 1985 only 3% of women described their occupation as ‘administrative, executive, managerial’ – now 19.4% of directors in the ASX 200 are women and 10% of employed women described their occupation as ‘managerial’
  • Women returning to work after having children[ix]: In 1985 46% of women with kids aged 0-14 were participating in the paid workforce and of these 56% worked part time  – now 68% of women with kids aged 0-14 are participating in the paid workforce, and 58% work part time.

DCA’s top 10 tips for employers to support women in the workplace

  1. Ensure flexible work is available to all employees at all levels of your organisation
  2. Design jobs, workflows and careers that can encompass flexible working
  3. Make sure your organisational culture enables both women and men to work flexibly and train managers on how to manage employees working flexibly
  4. Enable pregnant women and mothers to return to work and to continue to be valued members of the workforce with the same opportunities as their colleagues
  5. Undertake a pay equity audit and review your wage setting and pay scales to ensure part-timers are compensated in line with full-timers
  6. Put in place gender progressive performance evaluation and development that does not disadvantage employees working flexibly
  7. Pay superannuation on paid and unpaid parental leave
  8. Provide salary transparency
  9. Put strategies in place to promote more women into leadership positions
  10. Proactively address sexual harassment and discrimination to create an inclusive workplace culture.

[i] March 1985 vs December 2014. Source: ABS, Labour Force, Australia, Dec 2014 (time series trend data).

[ii] March 1985 vs December 2014. Source: ABS, Labour Force, Australia, Dec 2014 (time series trend data).

[iii] February 1985 vs November 2014, Source: ABS, Labour Force, Australia, Dec 2014 (time series trend data). Underemployment refers to the number of employed people who want, and are available for, more hours of work than they currently have.

[iv] March 1985 vs November 2014. Sources: ABS, Average Weekly Earnings, March Quarter 1985 and ABS, Average Weekly Earnings, November 2014 (released February 2015).

[v] 1985 vs 2013. Sources: Graduate Careers Australia, Graduate Salaries 2011 ( and An analysis of the gender wage gap in the Australian graduate labour market, 2013,

[vi] 1985 vs 2014. Sources: ABS, Labour Force Status and Educational Attainment, Australia

February 1985 and ABS, 2014, Education and Work, Australia, May 2014.  

[vii] 1986 vs 2012. Sources: ABS, Australian Social Trends, 1997 and ABS, 2013, Labour Force, Australia: Labour Force Status and Other Characteristics of Families, Jun 2012.

[viii] May 1985 vs December 2014 and January 2015. Sources: ABS, Year Book Australia, 1986 and Australian Institute of Company Directors Statistics, 2015, as at January 2015

[ix] 1985 vs 2014, Sources: ABS, The Labour Force, Australia, March 1985, ($File/62030_03_1985.pdf) and ABS, Gender Indicators Australia August 2014 ('s%20participation%20in%20paid%20work%20lower%20than%20men's%20(Media%20Release)~10008).