Slow climb for women in the workplace

Posted on 28 August 2011


Sun-Herald editorial
August 28, 2011

THE imperative of equality for women in the workforce has undergone a philosophical shift.

Forty-odd years ago, when international feminism was nascent and in Australia the Women’s Electoral Lobby was being formed, the call for redressing gender imbalance was all about discrimination.

In the second decade of a new century the campaign to improve women’s status and expand their numbers and influence throughout the workforce is more pragmatic. The fight has shifted from the removal of a social evil to a commercially driven push to take advantage of the talents, education and experience of women at all levels of employment.

It’s not as romantic as women’s liberation but at least it’s a recognition, long overdue, that a person’s gender should not be a key qualification for employment.

As The Sun-Herald’s magazine Sunday Life reported in June, the US organisation Catalyst found that Fortune 500 companies with high levels of female managers perform considerably better than firms with fewer women in charge.

And yet, as we and our sister paper The Sydney Morning Herald report this weekend, the move towards a semblance of workplace equality dawdles.

A woman, 45, with a diploma in community services and 17 years’ experience working with victims of domestic violence takes home less pay than a rookie school teacher.

Big business, presumably populated with some of our finest minds, also performs woefully. According to research by Equality Opportunity for Women in the Workplace, 2 per cent of ASX 200 companies in 2008 had female chairs and chief executives. Those figures in 2010 rose to 2.5 and 3 per cent respectively.

A quarter of Australia’s politicians and university professors are women yet 45 per cent of the entire work force is female. Nationwide, women must work an extra three months a year to earn the same as their male colleagues.

Paradoxically, the country has a female prime minister, two female premiers and a woman serves as governor-general. The richest person in the country is Gina Rinehart, mother-of-four Gail Kelly runs one of the major banks and science, medicine, law and the arts have prominent female leaders.

But so much more must be done – sooner rather than later – to include a more representative number of women at all levels of the workforce.

Companies big and small could make a start by reviewing their efforts to balance the numbers.

Workplace equality has acquired an economic imperative but its implementation remains, at its core, a simple matter of social justice.