WGEA Director Libby Lyons argues the pay gap is cause for concern – for men and women. “Too often, the phrase gender equality is code for women’s equality, but men have their own challenges in the workplace that we need to address as well,” she says.
Elizabeth (Libby) Lyons has been director of the WGEA for just over a year now, so it’s a good time to take stock, particularly given the recent figures showing the gender pay gap hasn’t altered much and is currently at 16.2 per cent. But Lyons is a pragmatist.
“The pay gap has hovered between 15 and 19 per cent for the past two decades. We need to be realistic; it’s not going to change overnight. My focus is on working with employers to create a sustainable momentum for change,” she says.
Any profile of Lyons is incomplete without an appreciation of her illustrious background. Lyons’ grandmother was Dame Enid Lyons, the first woman to be elected to the Australian Parliaments’ House of Representatives, the first woman in cabinet, and wife of Australian Prime Minister Joe Lyons. Dame Enid was, by all accounts, a formidable woman, who actively campaigned for the rights of women and families, even after personal tragedy struck. In 1939, her husband died in office and Dame Enid was left to raise 11 children alone.
Clearly an inspiration for Lyons, she says Dame Enid was a resilient character.
“In those days, there was no pension for the spouses of parliamentarians. My grandmother was facing a difficult future. But she wanted to earn her living and she believed in speaking up for others, so she got out there and in 1943 won her seat in parliament.
“More than anything, it’s Joe’s and Enid’s belief in public service that has stayed with me. She passed that on to her children, including my father Kevin, and I too have tried to instil that same sense of public service in my son Charlie.”
In a strange twist of fate, a similar tragedy was to befall Lyons. In 2010, her first husband, lawyer Michael Jones, died suddenly of a brain tumour, leaving her to bring up their 15-year-old son on her own. Jones had taken on a bigger parenting role, while Lyons was forging ahead with her career, so she is particularly attuned to the benefits of sharing the work and parenting role with men.
“Whatever we do, we’ve got to do it in partnership with men,” she says. “Too often, the phrase gender equality is code for women’s equality, but men have their own challenges in the workplace that we need to address as well. Until we see men as equal stakeholders in the journey to gender equality, we will not create sustainable change.” Lyons believes that men and women need to be champions for each other. “We know that men are twice as likely as women to have requests for flexible working refused. When a man wants to work flexibly, we need to support him as well.”
To meet the needs of both sexes, Lyons says flexibility is key and in her role she is urging employers to introduce flexible work policies.
“Men need to be … encouraged to take up flexible work arrangements. Data shows that there are far more women who work flexibly than men. There are entrenched cultural values in Australia around presenteeism and long working hours. A lot of young people, who have seen their parents’ generation struggle to find a work-life balance, are saying there’s got to be a better way than this,” says Lyons.
“Our culture is changing in the way we deal with the responsibilities we have around the young, the elderly and the disabled, therefore we need to change our work practices to suit this changing environment. Besides caring, flexibility is also about general wellbeing.”
Striving for seniority
While flexibility is the aim, it’s the gulf in pay that continues to grab the headlines, principally because little seems to change. The gender pay gap means women are retiring with, on average, 44.3 per cent less savings than their male counterparts. Twinned with this is the dearth of senior women in top jobs – including board roles.
To address the disparity in remuneration and participation, Lyons says a gender equality strategy is just as important in sectors with 80 per cent women as in the male-dominated financial and resources sectors. The WGEA’s data shows that even though women dominate in professions such as early education, healthcare and social assistance, there exist gender pay gaps that favour men.
“The reason is that there are more men in those industries who are in managerial roles. Women in these sectors need to question their employers about a gender equality strategy. Have they conducted a gender pay gap analysis? Do they have a flexible work policy? What parental leave arrangements do they have?” says Lyons.
Lyons’ own work experience began as a school teacher, after which she moved into IT, corporate training, government relations and, before moving to the WGEA, she was head of corporate affairs for the Olympic Dam project at BHP Billiton.
“When I look back, there were hurdles that I had to jump and I think now, the company should have done this, or that was sexist. But I just got on with it.” The implication is that is what women tend to do: avoid challenging the status quo and make the best of things.
Gender inequality needs a multi-faceted approach, says Lyons, and the WGEA focuses on educating, supporting and working with employers to take action to address it.
“We call on employers to conduct a proper pay gap analysis by looking at their workforce, working out what their pay gap is, reporting that to the board, identifying the hot spots in the organisation, and then developing an action plan to address the pay equity gap,” says Lyons.
Devil in the data
The Workplace Gender Equality Act (2012) requires all non-public sector companies with 100 or more employees to annually report on gender indicators, including the gender composition and remuneration of their workforce, to the WGEA.
Lyons says, “Our focus is on collecting the data and working with employers to ensure the integrity of the data, and helping them understand why robust data is important, and why making change in this area makes good business sense. The leaders in this field recognise that to remain competitive, to attract better people, to retain the good employees, they need a workforce that is more representative of the community in which we live and that is one of gender equity”.
The WGEA has a number of successful programs running, such as the Employer of Choice for Gender Equality Program and the Pay Equity Ambassadors Program. The latter has shown that once employers have addressed the gap, it is important to constantly monitor the situation, otherwise the gap often appears again for various reasons, such as unconscious bias.
Lyons says it is important to learn from successes in other countries, such as Sweden and Norway, but is cautious about putting too much importance on international rankings of gender gap.
In the global gender gap tables, Australia ranks 36 behind countries such as Moldova and Mozambique. But on the positive side, she says: “Australia is the only country in the world that is collecting the sort of data around gender as we do at the WGEA. Many countries are looking up to us because hard data and evidence is what will drive changes and help successive governments to develop really workable policies.”