Women In The Workplace: Positive Signs, But Much More Can Be Done

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International Women’s Day is an excellent opportunity to look at the progress that has been made in Australia in addressing the gap between genders. As we move deeper into 2016, we are seeing positive signs and statements of intent from Australian businesses that having women more engaged in the workforce is to everyone’s benefit, but there are also clear areas where there needs to be improvement.

Facilitating work-life integration

For all the talk around work-life balance, there are relatively few individuals or businesses that truly understand what that involves. Many businesses simply stick email on an employee’s phone and give them a laptop, and call that flexible working. But that doesn’t create an environment that actually enables flexible working, and work-life balance should really be better termed as “work-life integration,” because in enabling flexible working, the goal should be that employees are able to be more fluid with their working habits, and work and “life” can then fuse together into a seamless day-to-day experience.

Unfortunately, in many Australian businesses, the expectation is still that there is a clear line between work and “life,” and so people who want to work flexibly need to contend with a “flexibility stigma” – a bias against people who are not in the office. It might be that an employee is working hard at home, or catches up on outstanding work out of normal work hours, but if they are not in the office during the expected working hours (which the point of “flexible work”, after all), then the rest of the organisation behaves as if they are not working. For example; many businesses will still reprimand employees for leaving work an hour early too frequently, even if they end up spending an hour catching up later on at night. For women who have carer responsibilities this can be crippling to their careers, as suddenly opportunities for promotion or career development dry up as the perception can be they are not as committed to their work.

While there is the understanding that enabling flexible working is important in order to engage with women in the workplace, the next step for Australian businesses will be to start adjusting business practices and entrenching these into workplace culture so that flexible work is not subject to these internal biases.

Involving Men

Easing the carer burden on women is something that, as a society, we should also be coming together to do. With 60 per cent of households now dual income, it’s time to provide equal incentive to men to take on a greater carer role at home and allow women the opportunity to return to work. A recent example is Aurizon, which provides men paid paternity leave for up to 26 weeks to stay at home with the child, allowing their female staff the opportunity to return to work and resume their careers. With childcare being so expensive in Australia, this eases the financial burden on families, and allows women to be fully integrated into the workforce more quickly.

We also need more female executives

In recent years there has also been a great deal of emphasis on getting more women into executive leadership roles or on boards. The statistics there aren’t looking great; not only do women in executive roles earn far less than their male counterparts ($100,000 pay gap, to be precise), but appointments still lag way behind those of men. Less than a quarter of directors sitting on the boards of Australia’s top 200 companies are women.

Part of the solution to address both of these issues is simply to give women more opportunities. As we’ve seen, there are some sharp inhibitors to women in developing their careers that all businesses in Australia can address… and should want to address because ultimately the more engaged the women are in the work, the more skills and expertise the business will be able to draw upon.