‘While Australian companies are increasingly active in their efforts to drive gender equality, women remain underrepresented at every stage of the career pipeline in Australia’ (Mckinsey, 2018).
While women make up 42% of the Australian workforce, only 10% of CEOs at large, for-profit organisations are women. This under-representation, while aided by quotas and recruitment policies, cannot be cured by them. Instead, it is the by-product of deeply-entrenched attitudes and practices which have led to women experiencing financial limitations and reduced access to capital, being continuously designated as the primary carer in their personal lives, and a longstanding gender bias. Consequently, the under-representation is not something that can be straightened out overnight.
So, what exactly is being done to instigate change?
While unfortunately, no magic formula for change exists, a cultural shift like this requires a universal understanding of why the specific change needs to happen. Most people would agree that as a principle, men and women should have equal opportunities, but this doesn’t translate into actions.
We’ve put together six key steps that every workplace should consider to eliminate factors holding women back from success in the workplace:
Listen to women’s voices in decision-making and leadership roles
Since 2009, the number of women on the boards of ASX 200 listed companies has more than tripled, going from 8.3% to 26.2% in 2018. While this is a positive step forward, it means that women still only make up a quarter of board members, a figure which drops further when it comes to entrepreneurship. In 2017, only 2 per cent of global venture capital funding was allocated to female founders. A recent study found that ‘unless women have significantly more direct experience in a certain field than men, they often won’t be considered as credible’, meaning that women are taken less seriously when it comes to sourcing capital and thus pose an even greater challenge when launching a start-up. The study suggests that as female-led start-ups are more likely to be based on their founders’ personal experiences, male-dominated venture capitalist firms are less likely to relate to their pitch. Instead of forcing women to feign masculinity and adopt the traditional industry discourse, venture capitalists need to rewire their orthodox approach to create a more inclusive system.
A policy isn’t enough, it’s now about implementing strategy
However, while many organisations lack diverse leadership boards, more and more companies are recognising that a diverse team is necessary in the modern workplace; since 2013, ‘around 300 companies have implemented stand-alone gender equity strategies’. More than just a number to be filled, the adoption of gender equity strategies means a more thoughtful and active role is being played to address the imbalance. Renowned keynote speaker and author Avril Henry believes that language is a key force in excluding women; “I see this language all the time when a woman comes in to power–they’re referred to as ‘mother of triplets,’ their shoes and jackets are mentioned. Why aren’t we concerned about the parental status of men or what shoes they wear? We’re making it so that it’s a man’s world in terms of jobs, power and language because we are using language inappropriately. If we can change the language, we can change the conversation.” While policies are useful, they don’t address the more fundamental issues that cause the need for them in the first place; addressing the language, norms and traditions which exclude women will be far more effective in achieving the long-term goals of inclusivity and equality.
Address and understand the pay gap
In every single occupation in Australia, women’s average full-time salaries are lower than men’s. While Australia’s pay gap is lower than it has been in over 20 years, having dropped to 14.6% over the last 12 months, on average men are still paid $244.80 more than women each week. We shouldn’t be misled into thinking that all women are paid less for the same job (although that is often the case); more precisely it means that most senior roles are held by men. This is more about breaking down the traditions which hinder women from reaching senior positions, re-evaluating a woman’s role as the primary carer, and creating a culture of gender indifference.
Normalizing flexible work practices
Examining the barriers that women face in business, McKinsey found that flexible work practices facilitated the highest number of women to reach senior positions. That means taking a step back from the norms that govern workplace activity and asking how a workplace can best accommodate its workforce. On top of this, companies need to be willing and proactive when addressing the challenges that arise in this process and building a supportive and inclusive infrastructure. If a woman is tied down by maternal responsibilities, for example, a company should be accommodating (within reason), so her role as a mother doesn’t limit or define her in the workplace.
Calling upon the greater issue of diversity in all forms
Recognising that equality isn’t just a gender issue, diversity in all forms also has to be on our agenda; in an ever-changing world, the business environment develops at the rate of the fastest player. Companies are gradually realising that a diverse team is more relatable on the global scene, where demands are above and beyond what they might have been previously. Diversity in business is more than a question of gender, and companies are being forced to be accountable for not stepping up; it has recently emerged that firms may be forced to reveal figures behind the ‘ethnicity pay gap’.
Make it universal
While the workplace can foster inspiring teamwork and strong cooperation, it can also bring out a competitive side. If not everybody is on board with changes or attitudes, cracks will appear and widen. Prove the value of a diverse team in every applicable situation, for example, opening opportunities for individuals through increased team performance, improved results for the business, attracting new talent, an inclusive and cooperative reputation.
While these steps are necessary, they are only a fraction of the actions that need to be taken to instigate lasting change. There is a growing number of Australian movements supporting female empowerment and entrepreneurship:
- The 100 per cent project: their vision is to see 100% of Australia’s leadership potential, female and male, equally contributing to the social and economic future. They state that they “exist because women are currently not given the opportunity to contribute equally. Women are under-represented on most boards of most Australian organisations. We believe the reasons for this can be found in the day-to-day practices and mindsets that shape how most organisations are run.” The 100% Project’s mission is to challenge leaders in Australian businesses and organisations to identify those reasons and take action to change them.
- SheStarts: SheStarts is Australia’s only venture-backed start-up program designed to help female entrepreneurs build big tech businesses.
- The Female Social Network: TFSN is a network of networks bringing together leading female entrepreneurs running their own business, and parenting networks. As a collective network of 25+ communities of Mums from Australia, USA and UK, reaching over 14.7m women and 660k female entrepreneurs, TSFN acts as a gate keeper to a highly-engaged community of women.
Gender equality is not an isolated issue, but a global one. The Australian government is committed to promoting gender equality in and beyond Australia: the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade states that ‘gender equality is critical to development, economic growth and stability, and must be a key part of aid programming.’ Their Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment strategy aims to promote Australia as a global leader for gender equality and is supported by their Gender Equality Fund ($55 million in 2018-19). This fund has been used to establish organisations such asInvesting in Women, to ‘catalyse inclusive economic growth’. The Australian government has made gender equality a key priority in their aid performance targets, stating that at least 80% of investments should directly address gender issues, regardless of their primary purpose.
Although there is indisputably a long way to go, the Australian Government’s increasing activity on both a national and international scale is developing a receptive environment primed to welcome cultural changes; in 2015, Australia was ranked second in the top environments for women entrepreneurs. With new policies and actions being taken to eliminate factors limiting women from excelling in the professional world, ‘aspiring and current female entrepreneurs have potential competitive advantage, and the conditions in Australia are favourable.’
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