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Letter from Australia: The problem with women

Julie Hare unpacks the retention and promotion of women in 137 of the top 200 companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange - with surprising results
This article is more than 5 years old

Julie is Wonkhe's Associate Editor in Australia.

International Women’s Day has been and gone for another year. It seemed to have an added vigour this year, underscored by the #metoo movement and the fact domestic violence is now, finally, getting some political traction.

A really interesting report was released last week. It came from Zoe Whitton, Citi Bank’s head of environmental, social and governance research.

It looked at the retention and promotion of women in 137 of the top 200 companies listed on the Australian Securities Exchange.

What it found was shocking. Male-dominated sectors such as mining, construction and energy were surprisingly good at getting junior women into more senior positions. However, sectors such as healthcare, with huge numbers of junior female employees, fail miserably. And not just as a proportion of total employees, but in absolute numbers. Worse than that, over the four years of data Whitton looked at, the numbers were actually in decline.

“Healthcare [has] heaps of women, but then there’s a huge drop-off,” Whitton told the Australian Financial Review. “Even though utilities starts at 30% (females in junior roles), it ends up at 15% (in senior roles). Healthcare starts in the vicinity of 70% women but only 10% representation in senior roles. That trend is getting worse.”

Searching for equality

What’s doing my head in about all of this is not just the unfairness of it, but the fact that females make up 60% of all students in universities. If we look at commencements, about 50% of first-year women each year at in three areas: healthcare, education and humanities (excluding law and economics).

So while education is a good space for women – they see it as a strategy for economic security – what happens once they reach the workforce is fiendishly cruel. Due to a range of reasons, there is a disconnect between educational outcomes and career progression.

Why? Self-segregation in the careers women choose. Structural sexism in the workplace. The fact that men’s roles are more highly valued than traditionally female roles. Caring responsibilities, go without saying.

In fact, average full-time salaries for women are lower than for men in every occupation and industry in Australia, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. That is a horrible sentence to write. The exception to the rule appears to be at Google, which reported last week its male employees were earning less than women – although that has been disputed.

The one bright light in all of this is that the gender pay gap is narrowing. But very slowly.

Last year, the Grattan Institute found that female university graduates are now expected to earn 27 per cent less than men – or $750,000 less – over their career. Ten years earlier, the gap was 30 per cent.

This IWD, Prime Minister Scott Morrison bought into the debate. The Liberal Party has been under intense pressure in recent times over the lack of female representation generally (23%) and a historical lack of senior women in the ministry.

It went something like this: “We want to see women rise [but] we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse.”

Somehow he couldn’t summon the “a rising tide lifts all boats” metaphor but stumbled awkwardly over the very conservative notion that middle-aged, middle-class white men are the new victims of leftist, feminist, multicultural, pro-Marxist thinking. Or something like that.

The brick wall

Unsurprisingly, Morrison’s comments were condemned around the country and also reached an international audience. He was forced to clarify his thoughts the next day – only to make it worse.

He said that as a husband and a father of two daughters he had a vested interest in the advancement of women. Which is interesting given he first met his wife when she was 12, started dating at 16, and married at 21. She is/was a registered nurse, but is currently a stay-at-home mum. This is not a criticism of Jen Morrison. But perhaps her PM husband doesn’t really have his head around the economic necessities that drive women into education and the workforce.

Anyway, I offer this up not just merely as an example of the banality of federal politics in Australia and as momentary relief from the rolling catastrophe that is Brexit, but as evidence of the fact that some blokes, including those who run the country, just don’t seem to get it.

There is so much structural sexism at play in this country that women can’t even get ahead in the fields in which they dominate by sheer numbers.

As the wonderful Gloria Steinem once said: “I’ve yet to be on a campus where most women aren’t worrying about some aspect of combining marriage, children and a career. I’ve yet to find one where many men were worrying about the same thing.”

I’ve been wondering if nursing/teaching/humanities degrees should contain components that address sexism in the workplace and also some fundamentals in management. Or whether this is the responsibility of employers to ensure there is a female pipeline to move into more senior positions. Whitton said she thought complacency in female dominated sectors might the the problem.

After all, if you have a workforce of 70% women, surely some are going to float to the top. Or maybe not.

One response to “Letter from Australia: The problem with women

  1. See also this study which found that more than half of the gender earnings gap in Canada is due to the under-representation of women in top 10% of earners, not to women being paid less for the same lower level job.

    Bonikowska, Aneta, Drolet, Marie, and Fortin, Nicole M (2019) Earnings inequality and the gender pay gap in Canada: the role of women’s under-representation among top earners. Statistics Canada catalogue number 11-626-X No. 088,

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