This overview by lawyer Prue Gilbert delves into what’s holding back organisations increasing female participation in the workforce.
The business case for increasing female participation in the workplace makes sense. A 6 per cent increase could boost Australia’s annual gross domestic product by $25 billion, respected public policy think tank the Grattan Institute estimated in 2012.
Australian business agrees, with significant investment continuing into initiatives designed to attract, retain and promote female talent and meet the publicly stated goals.
Yet when men and women are entering junior to middle management years (25–34), 86 per cent of men work full-time compared with 67 per cent of women. The gap widens as they age, with men maintaining 88 per cent full-time employment and women reducing to between 53–58 per cent, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics, National Census of Population and Housing, 2011.
Leadership of corporate Australia suffers as this female workforce drops out of the talent pipeline (women earn more than 60 per cent of all bachelor, graduate diploma and postgraduate degrees). Business compounds the effect by drawing 90 per cent of its leaders from the male portion of the workforce, notes the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA).
Many leaders frustrated by lack of progress in achieving gender parity will view the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) report Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review as a welcome insight, because it reveals what may be undermining their efforts: discrimination.
The report, released in July, finds that sex discrimination can start at pregnancy, affects both women (one in two) and men (one in four), and represents a major barrier to workforce participation, and therefore economic performance.
It also acknowledges that managing pregnancy and working parents can be a vexed issue for employers seeking to balance the needs of the business with the needs of employees, underpinned by a social infrastructure of respective rights and responsibilities that’s not well understood.
For many, those rights and responsibilities are simply too complex to navigate. The Fair Work Act, Sex Discrimination Act and Paid Parental Leave Act are overlaid with enterprise bargaining agreements, employment contracts, and internal policies and procedures. Now add often well-intentioned senior managers imposing their own experiences (and therefore stereotypes) of parenting onto new mothers. The result? An all-too-often narrow business case that rewards employees on short-term returns and creates the perfect storm within which pregnancy-related discrimination can thrive.
The Supporting Working Parents report details the many different forms through which discrimination is experienced, ranging from negative attitudes to job loss.
But the finding that 91 per cent of mothers who said they experienced discrimination and didn’t make a formal complaint should concern employers. This tells us that discrimination is a driving force behind a working mother’s decision to opt out of the workforce, and for those that do return, not utilise their full skill set and experience to advance their careers.
This hypothesis is supported by the findings in global management consultant Bain & Co’s 2013 report Creating a positive cycle: Critical steps to achieving gender parity in Australia. The AHRC report quotes: “Whereas it is presumed that women do not seek advancement because of family, it is more commonly because they lack support or encouragement from their companies. Mothers retain their overall career ambition, but settle in due to the embedded institutional mindset of corporates.”
For working mothers (although not yet fathers), taking maternity leave and having children has become a perfectly acceptable reason for working flexibly and ‘treading water’. But, as the AHRC report highlights, usually underpinning that is a lack of confidence born out of discriminatory behaviours directed towards them, whether consciously or subconsciously. This is confounded by their strong instinct to act as ‘nest protector’ and their unwillingness to jeopardise their capacity to protect their family.
Seventy-two per cent of the women who said they experienced discrimination also said it had an impact on their mental health, which included stress and the effect on their self-esteem and confidence.
So what does this mean for employers? Hopefully, some outrage from leaders that in 2014 the contributions of working parents are still not valued. Ultimately, the key to unlocking the potential of this talented workforce is doing something about the barriers of structure and style that make advancement and participation, in all organisations and industries, so difficult.
Accountability must rest with workplace leaders to re-envision the pathway to equality and address limiting beliefs around the value of pregnant women and working parents. This requires auditing the impact and effects of discrimination within their own organisation, ensuring there’s a clear business case for achieving gender parity, modelling behaviours and values required to create an inclusive culture, and establishing a zero tolerance policy for discriminatory behaviours.
Practical measures, such as upskilling managers in people management, instilling a workplace flexibility mindset and managing pregnancy as an event in a woman’s career, are also essential. CEDA has found that, when it comes to world best practice in these areas, Australian managers are significantly lagging.
Finally, continued investment in working parents – especially mothers – should not be underestimated. Trained coaches, using a structured process, can swiftly restore negative impacts of workplace discrimination affecting a woman’s confidence. This can inspire her to ‘lean in’ to her professional vision, and enable the workplace to reap greatest value from her contributions.
The 2014 AHRI Inclusion and Diversity Conference, in Melbourne on 30 October, will focus on building management practices in the areas of diversity and inclusion. Registrations close 24 October.
Learn more about managing parental leave transitions in the workplace. Head of flexibility and diversity from Allens Dr Jacqui Abbott talks to HRM TV.