Leadership | Diversity | Inclusion

Economic growth requires greater female workforce participation

Closing the gap between the number of men and women in Australia’s workforce will boost Australia’s GDP by 11 per cent, Dr Cathy Foley has told a CEDA audience in Canberra.

Speaking at the ACT Women in the future workforce: impacts, trends and drivers series, CSIRO Science Director and Deputy Flagship Director Dr Foley spoke about gender equality in the future workforce, empowerment and opportunity.

Dr Foley highlighted why Australia needs greater female participation in the workforce from an economic perspective both at a national level and an organisational level.

“When more women work, economies grow. So I’m pushing this idea today that Australia is only going to be saved, and the rest of the world is only going to be saved, if we actually get more women working,” she said.

“If we see female participation increase, say to the level of Canada, we will see a growth of $25 billion.

“If we see the flow-on of more women working we will reduce pension costs, we will increase personal savings in households and we will lift tax revenue.

Speaking on the merits of greater female workforce participation at an organisation-level, Dr Foley cited a 2011 study examining the gender composition of boards, which found that boards which are 16-40 per cent composed of women are 26 per cent more profitable than those with lower percentages of female board members.

“If your company is going downhill, don’t go and get re-branding or outsource to Bangladesh, you should go out and put more women at the top as you will find your organisation will become more profitable,” she said.

“If you’re going to have successful teams that deliver, you need to be have teams which are diverse.”

To achieve this greater workforce participation, Dr Foley said women need to see more mentors and role models within organisations, and that the change should happen at the board level.

“If we see more women as board directors, you will see the trickle-down effect really fast,” she said.

In addition to looking at the benefits and barriers to female workforce participation, the event also discussed how the composition of Australia’s workforce will undergo dramatic change in the coming years, reshaped by digital disruption, and what the role of women will be in this future workplace.

World Federation of Engineering Organisations President-Elect Dr Marlene Kanga began her address by acknowledging CEDA's report Australia’s future workforce? and outlining the scale of disruption on work trends and abilities.

“The newly emerging economies are much more open – science and technology is for everyone. The future is here in my view,” she said.
Telstra Corporation Chief Scientist Dr Hugh Bradlow spoke in-depth on technological disruption, with the message: “You can’t benefit from technological progress without social progress. If you’re stuck in the past with your attitude to (gender) diversity, then you are not going to benefit from the progress technology offers.”

Dr Bradlow said the future workforce will become a collaboration between humans and machines, and machines are going to automate parts of jobs. Within this workforce, most human jobs will be about understanding human need and translating that into a solution for a human problem.

Because of these changes, he believes the future workforce should be “gender agnostic”, as barriers to gender and age come down.

However, Dr Bradlow said “At the end of the day we can have all the technology available, and be at the theoretical point of view that we shouldn’t have to worry about gender in the workforce, but from a cultural view we still have a long way to go.”