Opinion article

Female participation at a record high, but improving workplace gender divide is the key

The need to lift female workforce participation, and the barriers to doing so, were critical issues raised in 2022 by the Albanese government. Yet though the number of women working is at an all-time high, Australia’s workforce remains highly segregated by gender. Concerningly this segregation is only becoming more pronounced over time – childcare and receptionist jobs are more female dominated than they were 25 years ago. And unsurprisingly, these jobs tend to pay less than the jobs dominated by men, writes CEDA's CEO Melinda Cilento.

The need to lift female workforce participation, and the barriers to doing so, were critical issues raised in 2022 by the Albanese government. Yet though the number of women working is at an all-time high, Australia’s workforce remains highly segregated by gender. Concerningly this segregation is only becoming more pronounced over time – childcare and receptionist jobs are more female dominated than they were 25 years ago. And unsurprisingly, these jobs tend to pay less than the jobs dominated by men.

Research by Jeff Borland at the University of Melbourne found that the proportion of hours worked by women in female-dominated sectors is seven percentage points higher today, at 44 per cent. Equally important, there are only a very few examples – physiotherapy and aged and disability carers – of female dominated sectors becoming less so.

Even in female-dominated industries, men still hold most of the leadership positions.

Reducing occupational segregation can deliver important benefits. In simple terms, reducing barriers that prevent people from doing the work they enjoy and are good at is good for them and employers. Research on US productivity improvements between 1960 and 2010 found that reducing ethnic and gender occupational segregation contributed between 20 to 40 per cent of a productivity uplift. Increasing diversity in typically male dominated sectors like construction has also been found to contribute to improved communication, mental health and productivity and reduced workplace injuries. On the flip side we know that when men enter typically female dominate sectors and roles, wages go up.

Tackling gender segregation requires action across multiple fronts and recognition that it occurs across sectors and occupations (horizontal), but also within them (vertical) as evidenced by a higher proportion of senior roles being occupied by men.

At the highest level, gender segregation reflects societal and cultural norms and influences. To put it bluntly, this is all about what society still sees as men’s and women’s work and roles in terms of careers as well as in the home. These stereotypes play out in everyday communication and conversations, through the media, and are perpetuated through TV shows and movies. It is of little surprise therefore that the proportion of women working part-time in Australia is the third highest in the OECD.

Societal views about different kinds of work and who performs that work are strong and impact thinking and future opportunities early, through attitudes towards education and training and the choices made by boys and girls. For instance, evidence shows that young girls have lower self-perceived ability in maths, despite no evidence of different innate ability. There has been considerable focus on proactively addressing these issues and boosting female participation in STEM. These have met with mixed results and different approaches will be required, not least in terms of how we capture imaginations about what the future of STEM looks like and how we broaden career advice and guidance, which too often is centred on narrow and more traditional options and career paths. In short, we need to widen and diversify our education and training pipelines if we are to reduce gender segregation in work.

Finally, changing what we do in our workplaces must be a priority. Eliminating bias in how we recruit for roles, enabling more flexibility, reducing the stigma attached to flexible work, and creating more inclusive workplaces are important if we are to reduce segregation across occupations. Proactive efforts to increase diversity – to continue to lift male participation – in sectors like aged care need to play a role in addressing the current critical workforce shortages.

Finally tackling both horizontal and vertical gender segregation will require employers to be more transparent about job requirements and selection processes, to provide more regular performance feedback, and thinking differently about job design, to compliment better childcare and other improvements.

These new approaches in how we can design roles – including job sharing at senior levels – are delivering benefits in enabling more diverse thinking and reducing key person risk. As we continue to navigate new ways of working following the pandemic, there is an opportunity to apply this broadly and reap the rewards of more diverse, engaged and productive workforces.

This article originally appeared in The Australian on the 3rd January, 2023

About the authors
MC

Melinda Cilento

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Melinda Cilento is Chief Executive of CEDA, a company director, economist and experienced senior executive. She is a non-executive director of Australian Unity and Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia. Melinda is also a member of the Parliamentary Budget Office panel of expert advisors.

Melinda was previously a Non-Executive Director with Woodside Petroleum, Commissioner with the Productivity Commission and Deputy CEO and Chief Economist with the Business Council of Australia. Melinda has also previously held senior roles with the Federal Department of Treasury, Invesco and the International Monetary Fund.

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