Progress towards gender equality, including milestones such as having the first female Prime Minister, should not be confused with success in workforce equality, journalist and author Dr Anne Summers told a CEDA Women in Leadership forum in Sydney.Dr Summers told the forum that poor access to childcare was a key factor in Australia's poor record of female workforce participation and equality in the workplace.
"It is difficult to think of another area of government policy where the government spends upwards of $5 billion a year on something that is found satisfactory by so few people," she said.
"Childcare was unavailable, unaffordable or insufficiently flexible to meet the needs of working families - particularly limiting the careers of women who were mostly responsible for childcare in Australia."
In addition, a judgemental attitude to working mothers and the misogyny factor had stymied Australia's progress in gender equality over the past 40 years, she said.
Dr Summers said most CEOs do not have wives in the workforce and many still believe the mother's place is in the home.
"There is a deep seated conviction in this country, on the part of a great many men and shared by far too many women that women, have no place in the full time workforce once they have children," she said.
"We have no hope of creating a society of equals while these attitudes are entrenched and it goes to the heart of why we have fared so badly in the equality project."
The forum heard that work must be redefined collaboratively by employees and managers to ensure flexibility for everybody if Australia is to increase the proportion of women in the workforce.
Rio Tinto, Managing Director of Northparkes Mine, Stephanie Loader, said while Rio Tinto was working to boost the proportion of female staff from 17 per cent, where it had been stuck since 2010, to 23 per cent in 2015, tackling work schedules to make the workplace more flexible was the next step.
"I really believe that to enable us to move beyond that 17 per cent of women in our mining business, we need to broaden the scope of flexibility. We need to move beyond the definition of flexibility only being for carers -flexibility is something we have got to think about for everyone," Ms Loader said.
This would mean thinking about work differently, designing it differently, putting in place objectives that not only measure the quality of the work but the schedule, she said.
The forum heard that while companies such as Rio Tinto, the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) and public sector corporations such as the ABC were actively working towards gender diversity with targets for female board members, managers and workforce, much more needs to be done.
The forum also heard:
In an attempt to boost female participation, the ASX now requires listed entities to either report annually on the proportion of women on boards, in leadership and in the business as a whole and strategies to promote gender equity - or to explain why not.
Executive General Manager, People and Development, ASX Group, Amanda Mostyn said since this reporting requirement was introduced in 2010, 99 per cent of companies in the ASX top 200 had complied with the reporting requirement and 82 per cent had set measurable objectives to improve gender diversity.
"The progress that is made [in gender equity] is slow - and I do agree - I think it is very important that we do monitor progress and assess the interventions," she said.
ABC Deputy Director - Technology, Margaret Cassidy, said it was important to have women in technical roles as they bring a broader focus to solving technical problems which is essential in the digital age.
"We need people who are not just focused on solving technical problems but focused on solving people problems," Ms Cassidy said.
Technological change has meant some former impediments, such as the sheer weight of television cameras, were no longer an obstacle to female participation in technical operations, she said.
The ABC's Women in Broadcast Technology Scholarships, for women to study electro-technical or related areas at TAFE, are an important tool in encouraging women to think about a career in technical support in broadcasting, she said.
Most of the ABC's female technicians had come via scholarships, she said.