05/12/2007 - 22:00

Addressing the gender imbalance

05/12/2007 - 22:00

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Is one of the answers to our skills shortage right under out noses?

Is one of the answers to our skills shortage right under out noses?

There is a large pool of potential workers already in the state, educated to our own standards and experienced for what we need.

Yet, it seems, we do little to encourage them to join the workforce.

The group I am talking about is women.

Having attended a recent Engineers Australia forum on addressing issues of gender and cultural diversity, I’ve taken on board some of the issues raised.

While some readers may consider such a discussion more suited to a thesis by a university radical, the fact is that engineers have been feeling the skills shortage in this state for years; and the profession also has one of the lowest levels of female participation in the country.

With women representing around 15 per cent of engineers, the issue is far more acute than across the whole working population, where around 68 per cent of 15 to 64-year-old women work, compared with 83 per cent of men.

But exaggerated or not in that particular profession, the issues that plague the engineering sector are present across the entire working population.

The fact is, if we had the same proportion of our female population working as the Canadians do, we’d have tens of thousands of additional workers.

In Canada, almost 75 per cent women aged 25-64 are working, compared with 67 per cent in Australia. The UK is the same as Canada, while the US has almost 73 per cent.

Sweden has an even higher participation rate of 81 per cent, though I’d suggest the Commonwealth countries are a better cultural comparison.

Furthermore, the Australian women who work are more likely to be doing so on a part-time basis compared with most similarly developed economies.

This multiplies the effect of the issue. Not only do we have fewer women working, but those who do actually work less.

There are many reasons put forward for this. Partly its cultural, partly it’s about incentives.

Inadequate maternity leave, inflexible workplaces and, in many cases, less pay compared with men doing the same job, are cited as significant reasons.

Perhaps, it’s fair to say, that Australia’s wealth, climate and amenities mean that some of the negative motivations to work also don’t exist. But, then again, this doesn’t discourage male workers, whose workforce participation was consistent with other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development nations as recently as 2005.

As I said before, engineering is an acute example of this.

Unlike other professions, such as accounting, law and medicine, there has not been a big shift in gender balance in the engineering sector in recent decades.

Perhaps the incorrect perception of engineering as a job that involves wearing a hard hat and boots, as well as construction site connotations that come with them, have scared women off. That would certainly explain why that industry has a vastly reduced recruitment pool compared with other professions.

But in the workforce as a whole, those issues don’t generally exist.

There are many more benign work environments, yet we don’t fill them with as many women as other countries.

Some of the state’s biggest companies have recognised this as an issue.

They have sought to make their companies more female-friendly, not just because they need workers, but because they believe there is a business case for more diversity in the workplace.

There is some evidence that the more diverse a workplace – not just with regard to gender, I might add – the more profitable it is.

This makes sense. Widening your recruitment pool gives you access to more talent.

Making those people feel more at home in the workplace increases retention and reduces costs.

It is a virtuous circle of hiring better people who work better, smarter and longer.

There are some specific advantages. Many mining companies seek to hire women drivers because they are kinder on their machinery, ultimately reducing costs.

But overall, most people would suggest more women in a workplace is more about wider benefits than specific ones.

I’m sure there are those who would argue that there are workplaces that, due to the job at hand or ingrained culture, operate better as a single sex operation. That may be the case but, by definition, there is a limit on those due to the number of people available to work there – by sex or by choice.

I was intrigued to read a piece by a Stanford academic that looked at this issue.

In a research project, students were shown a version of a promotional video for a maths, science and engineering summer leadership seminar.

One group was shown a video with largely male actors, the other a video whose actors were more representative of the population.

There were a variety of physiological effects, mainly experienced by the women watching the more masculine-focused video, but the key outcome came when the subjects of the experiment were asked if they would attend the seminar.

Both the men and women who watched the more gender-balanced video showed a greater desire to join the program.

Their reasons might be vastly different, but men and women both preferred to be at a mixed function.

There’s every chance this kind of preference is reflected in the population at large when it comes to seeking a workplace or staying in a job.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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