A forum of business leaders and academics has suggested a series of childcare and education reforms as one pathway to closing the gender pay gap.
Normalising parental leave in the workplace was one crucial element in overcoming gender disparity, including the gender pay gap, a Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre and Women in Economics Network policy symposium has heard.
The pay differential sits at about $26,000 per year for total remuneration, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s (WGEA) November 2017 scorecard.
With women utilising about 95 per cent of care leave, as reported by WGEA, the forum heard that addressing parental leave as a need for all genders, accommodating that need, and making significant changes to the Australian childcare system would help the drive to greater equity.
Among those on the panel was workplace corporate adviser Conrad Liveris, who said he felt the government should consider integrating childcare into the education system, with government support.
“I cannot understand why we’ve found ourselves in a situation where tax subsidies seem to be the one thing we can only try with childcare,” he said.
Fellow panellist and influential businesswoman Diane Smith-Gander said it was crucial organisations and society started normalising parental leave as something every parent needed.
“Any organisation worth its salt should be taking end-to-end responsibility for parental leave,” Ms Smith-Gander told the forum.
“I was very struck by a young man who I heard speak about 12 months ago.
“His experience was working with one of the large mining companies. He and his wife decided to have a child and he wanted to be a present dad right from day one and he moved to part time, four days a week.
“He said it was amazing, but he found that all of a sudden he was no longer being given opportunities to do a bit of discretionary work on a project, or to come to a meeting that he otherwise might have expected to come to, and then he didn’t get invited to drinks on a Friday night.
“He went home to his wife and told her about what had gone on and he said, ‘then I took a step back and suddenly realised, I’m being treated like a woman’.”
BCEC principal research fellow Rebecca Cassells said one positive trend was an 11 per cent increase (to 38 per cent) in employers analysing their pay data for gender gap.
However, she said the pattern of employment needed to be considered.
“I think we need to move the discussion on a bit from the like-for-like pay gap,” associate professor Cassells told Business News.
“More often than not, the types of roles women tend to dominate, and that might be HR, they’re just devalued and that doesn’t mean they’re not as productive (as male-dominated roles, like IT).”
She said Australia should look to Iceland, where the government was taking steps to assess organisations, comparing the financial reward for disciplines along similar value levels.
“The monitoring, analysing and evaluating of the pay gap is really important and we’re seeing a lot of firms taking steps to assess any issues they see,” associate professor Cassells said.
Addressing gender equity at a school level was the answer to driving positive, long-term generational change in Australia, she said.
“The reason we see so much inequality is because it comes down to the value of women,” associate professor Cassells said.
“There’s a culture that we need to shift and it’s got to come through the education system and through families and communities.”
Positive role modelling was needed also needed, she said, and we should be working towards a 50:50 gender representation for government ministers.
Taking up that argument on behalf of the political establishment was panel member and Women’s Interests Minister Simone McGurk, who said she supported that shift.
While women make up 44 per cent of government board and committee positions in Western Australia, Ms McGurk this month released a statement saying the state was targeting 50 per cent.
“I know we all feel the frustration that we’ve been talking about this since the 1970s, but the reality is we need to keep doing that, we need to keep chipping away,” Ms McGurk said.
Diane Smith-Gander says organisations need to normalise parental leave for all genders. Photo: Attila Csaszar
International panel guest, University of Michigan associate professor of economics, Betsey Stevenson, said cultural change would be achieved by everyday activities, including encouraging women to negotiate, while Ms Smith-Gander highlighted this could come with risks.
“I think transparency is a great friend for us in the battle for equity, but I’m sure many of you are well aware of the double-bind, which is if you do something unexpected, it will be regarded quite poorly and may end up with the opposite outcome you were seeking,” Ms Smith-Gander said.
She said men needed to stand beside women, shoulder-to-shoulder to achieve change.
Curtin University partnerships and pathways manager, Melissa Langdon, founded Bossmama last year and is now working with universities and large organisations to devise return-to-work plans and assess practices and gender equity goals.
“I look at personal development, so particularly for women, rebuilding confidence after career breaks and learning how to negotiate flexibility,” Mrs Langdon told Business News.
As a mother of two, Mrs Langdon said returning to government and then education after having her children was a difficult process, and she and her husband (a lawyer) both needed to negotiate part-time positions with their employers.
Mrs Langdon said Bossmama offered a confidential support program for employees, which allowed her to report unidentified data back to chief executives, informing how the business was tracking for parental support and gender equity goals.
“The real issue seems to be the anecdotal feedback shared among mothers groups and social circles isn’t getting to HR directors and CEOs,” she said.