Opinion article

Workplace inequality starts sooner than you think

We know we have a workplace inequality problem. But do we know how early it starts? asks Tracy McLeod Howe. 

"Gender differences in the workplace are coloring how I imagine my future and my opportunities." NCOSS Young Women’s Advisory panelist, 16-years-old

Women’s lack of economic equality is not only a women’s issue, but a social and economic problem affecting us all. 

Goldman Sachs JBWere has estimated that closing the gap between male and female employment rates would boost Australia’s GDP by 11 per cent. According to the same report, if we channeled women into more economically productive – and higher paid – employment, it would increase GDP by 20 per cent.

And yet the pay gap remains and gender segregation remains. Inequality continues to be a systemic issue in our workforce. And the problem starts early.

At NCOSS, as part of the New Year for Women project, we have been looking closely at the experiences of women across their lifecycle.

The project has been informed by the experiences of a range of women and while we’ve been blown away by the energy, intelligence and generosity shown by the young women who are involved in the project, their experiences paint an alarming picture.

Young women don’t enter the workforce and suddenly find themselves in a world that treats them differently. The divergent expectations around men and women’s participation in the workforce begin before they’ve left school. 

As Professor Alison Sheridan very rightly points out in her chapter in How unequal? Insights on inequality  “Causes of this inequality are diverse, not least being the entrenched views on who should do what sort of work, and how work is valued.”

Experiences shared by some of the young women involved in the NCOSS Young Women’s Advisory Panel include:

“At school there’s an expectation on what girls should study and what boys should study…and young women will make their choices regarding subjects by Year 8 based on pressures from their school teachers, peers and what their parents encourage or enforce they study….By the time they  have reached Year 9 young women  have already been unconsciously funneled into particular subjects….they are counting themselves out of particular careers simply because of the social pressures imposed upon them during these years…” NCOSS Young Women’s Advisory panelist, 17-years-old

Then, what starts in school continues into university and women’s first experiences of work. We continue to see women over-represented in areas of study linked to lower earning industries, while men continue to be over represented in study areas linked to higher earning industries. For example, women outnumber men by 3:1 in health and education courses, and men outnumber women 5:1 in engineering courses.  

With experiences like this, is it any wonder that a recent report by ANZ Bank found that nearly half of all women employed in Australia work in only three sectors: health and community services, retail and education? 

We also heard that when young women first enter the workforce they continue to be given opportunities based on gender expectations: 

"Girls get the front of house, and customer service, where there is an emphasis placed on looks and you experience harassment…I didn’t want to be put at the front of house, I wanted to be out the back of house doing storage and financing…all career progression comes from the back of house… when I raised this with the manager I was told ‘to settle down'…'’ NCOSS Young Women’s Advisory panelist, 16-years-old.

Research by the University of Sydney backs up this experience. A study looking at the experiences of young (18-25) waitresses, shop assistants, bartenders and cashiers working in Sydney found that customer-perpetrated sexual harassment is alarmingly common and that employees feel quite restricted in their ability to respond to it. Alarmingly, up to 67 per cent of female retail workers have been victims of harassment. 

It is true that enormous improvements have been made to the workplace and in our legal and social systems to advance women’s participation and engagement in the workplace, but we must not sit on our laurels. Many inequalities remain and we must not ignore them.

Professor Sheridan is absolutely right that, “Until we address the fundamental problem of the undervaluing of traditionally female work and occupations, achieving a more equal distribution of women and men in these and increasing the participation rates of disadvantaged groups in the labour market, Australia’s dismal record in addressing the inequality regimes in our workplaces will continue, with a real cost to national productivity.”

But we also need strategies that ensure girls are empowered from the very beginning of their lives to choose any occupation they wish and are given the opportunities to succeed. Teachers have a huge role in shaping the opportunities girls feel that they have into the future. 

A great start would be national and state career strategies that are responsive to the needs of girls and women, and ensuring that any career development or gender bias training initiatives in schools and communities encourage the benefits of improving gender diversity for the workplace and society. 

The benefits are there if we do it. So, what are we waiting for?

CEDA research: Read and download How unequal? Insights on inequality.‚Äč

About the authors

Tracy McLeod Howe

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Tracy McLeod Howe is Chief Executive Officer of the NSW Council of Social Service (NCOSS). Tracy is a legally trained advocate with a commitment to human rights, addressing community disadvantage and gender inequality. Previously, Tracy has worked in both government and non-government settings, including with Domestic Violence NSW as Chief Executive Officer and as a senior legal advisor in federal government. Tracy currently sits on many advisory boards in government and community including the NSW Government’s Social Impact Investment Expert Advisory Group, the NSW Domestic and Family Violence Council and the NSW Premier's Council on Homelessness and has been a delegate at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations in New York over the past 6 years.

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