When it comes to the future of work, gender equity remains one of Australia’s greatest challenges.
In 2006, Australia placed 6th in the world for workplace gender equity. But by 2018, Australia had fallen to 39th. Meanwhile, New Zealand has consistently climbed the ranks, placing 7th in 2018.
What are the causes of this inequality and how can we remedy the situation?
Australia is consistently ranked first in the world for women’s educational attainment and our educational institutions equip people from all walks of life with the skills they need to succeed. But from there, we slip backwards.
According to research from Dr Isabel Metz at the Melbourne Business School, this backward slip has a lot to do with socialisation.
“More often than not, change generates some level of resistance. This is all too often apparent, even for simple things like when grumbling occurs when the type of office printer is changed,” says Dr Metz.
“So, it’s not surprising that there is resistance to something as significant as gender equity.”
Recent studies show that, contrary to common belief, millennials and to a lesser extent Generation Z, are most likely to cling to stereotypical gender roles.
But given how deeply embedded gender roles are within our society more generally, Dr Metz believes the first step to changing them is experience.
For example, once people work with a diverse group of people they are more likely to then regard them simply as ‘professionals’, rather than defining them by gender roles.
Dr Metz says resistance to gender equity can manifest in a range of behaviours, from aggression in those who fear losing something they feel entitled to, through to silence and passivity.
“A lot of the passive resistance comes in the form of silence from men, and some women,” explains Dr Metz.
“A lot of the time this occurs because they overestimate how much other individuals are clinging to traditional social gender roles.
“They believe that if they speak out, they will be ostracised. What they don’t realise is that traditional stereotypical views of men and women aren’t as widely accepted, or deeply entrenched, as they believe.”
Research suggests that a gender-balanced environment offers benefits for men and women.
“I’ve interviewed male executives and managers who spoke about wanting to work one day a week from home, but they felt they couldn’t approach their boss to discuss the idea,” Dr Metz says.
“Yet enabling men and women to make use of flexible working arrangements enhances workplace culture and counters potentially negative workplace consequences, like burnout.”
“This code of silence is damaging to men and women because both groups continue to work and behave within the confines of traditional gender roles. It’s this passive resistance that we need to address.”
Dr Metz believes it is important to openly talk about the culture of silence that prevents many men from moving from ‘passive’ to ‘active’ agents of change.
“Making it acceptable to have these conversations is important because it will increase awareness of the shared benefits that come from gender equity,” she says.
“It will also present men with a reality that will assuage their fears. Talented men won’t lose their jobs because of gender equity. This is where I think there is value in initiatives such as the Male Champions of Change.”
Dr Metz says champions of change include influential men and women who advocate for gender equity in leadership, provide a safe place for men to talk to peers about this workplace issue and serve as role models, illustrating what can be achieved within an organisation.
“Male advocacy groups aren’t about fighting the gender equity battle for women. They are about standing next to women, shoulder-to-shoulder, taking part in the discussion and advocating the benefits of gender equity in organisations,” says Dr Metz.
Organisations wanting to create a progressive culture change can take practical steps at the executive level.
“One way that organisations can do this is by using communication mechanisms that stimulate honest feedback, like anonymous employee surveys and confidential interviews,” says Dr Metz.
“Another is by encouraging senior men and women to ‘speak up’ about their concerns.
“So if a male executive with a young family requests to work a four-day week, he should be given a fair chance to use the company’s family-friendly policies without feeling ostracised by, or isolated from, his colleagues.
“Leadership values are communicated when a leader or CEO makes it clear to the organisation that his or her family’s interests are placed ahead of the organisation’s, at least some of the time,” says Dr Metz.
“Another way to break an organisation’s culture of silence around gender equity is to provide the opportunity for workplace forums where employees feel safe to discuss issues with colleagues and share experiences.
“Through discussion and shared experiences, an organisation can monitor the depth of employee feeling towards the way men and women are treated in the organisation. Forums can also foster relationships and support networks, reducing people’s sense of isolation and fear of speaking up.”
As change occurs at the individual and organisational level, it will create greater opportunities for men and women in the workforce, enhance well-being, foster a more positive team culture and support balanced and fruitful work and family lives.
In the end, we’re all on the same side.
Isabel Metz is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne.