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Marlene Kanga: women’s participation the silver bullet for ‘jobs and growth’

There’s one very obvious area of the Australian economy which, if addressed, can create the much desired “jobs and growth” and go a long way to address our budget black hole: the greater workforce participation of Australian women.

The Grattan Institute recognised that increasing women’s workforce participation should be one of the top three economic reform priorities for Australia way back in 2012. It identified that an increase of just 6%, to the same level as Canada (which has a similar resource based economy) would add $25 billion, or approximately 1%, to Australia’s GDP.

A more recent report by McKinsey Global Institute has indicated that increasing workforce participation by women globally will add $12 trillion in GDP annually by 2025.

According to McKinsey, key measures of gender parity at work are the labour force participation rate, the percentage of women in professional and technical jobs, the size of the gender pay gap, the proportion of women in leadership positions and the proportion of time spent by women relative to men on unpaid work (generally at home).

Australia continues to lag in these measures and the development of policies that would support women in these areas, especially in the critical family formation years.

The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2015 ranks Australia at 36, declining from 24 in 2014 and 15 in 2006 because other countries have improved their gender gap at a faster rate. This rank takes into account various factors including educational attainment, health outcomes and political empowerment.

Australia was ranked at 54 in labour force participation and 63 in wage equality for similar work (two key indicators listed by McKinsey) out of 136 participating countries. This was despite ranking first in female educational attainment.

In the post-mining boom era, where Australia is looking to innovation to develop new industries and create jobs, there is a need to urgently address the serious deficit in the participation of women in professional and technical jobs especially in science, engineering and technology. These are the worst performing sectors by any measure.

For example, there are just four Australian-owned companies in these sectors that were listed as Employers of Choice by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency in 2015, indicating that the majority had not implemented systematic processes to ensure gender equity, although 99% had diversity policies!

Grow the pipeline

Australia is also lagging in the supply side. Reports from Australia’s Chief Scientist show that the proportion of girls studying science and mathematics has been declining steeply for decades. These are the enabling subjects for tertiary studies in science, engineering and technology. While the proportion of girls studying the sciences remains high, the proportion remains below 20 percent for engineering (although pockets of higher percentages exist in some faculties).

On graduation, analysis by Engineers Australia shows that about half of female graduates in engineering do not enter the workforce. Of the rest, another 50% leave within the first 10 years, especially as they start a family. The losses continue so that there is less than 1% of Australian born women engineers remaining in the cohort aged more than 50 years. Consequently, the pipeline of career progression of women engineers to leadership positions is full of very large holes.

The lack of women in the science, engineering and technology sectors is peculiar to “western developed” countries.

By comparison, fast developing economies in Asia, the Middle East and South America, have increasing numbers of girls and boys studying science and mathematics at school and going on to science and engineering as careers of choice which provide high levels of respect and satisfaction.

In Malaysia, for example, in 2015 nearly 30% of registered engineers were women, up from just 6% in 2000. The proportions studying engineering are around 50%, supported by government policies that recognise the importance of women’s contribution to innovation and economic development.

The strategy is to use the best brains, male or female, to tackle the roles in engineering, science and technology. This rational approach has overcome cultural barriers to drive economic change.

Australia also needs a similar shift in the mind set of our leaders and the culture of our organisations.

Our workplaces need to be inclusive, retain women and encourage them to return to work after the crucial family formation years so that they can progress to leadership positions.

Both business and government have a role to facilitate the change which is about maximising the utilisation of Australia’s human capital. Strategic changes and policies which drive change will result in greater innovation, improved prosperity and ultimately better economic outcomes for Australia.

For more on gender issues visit University of Melbourne’s Election Watch.

Author Bio

Marlene Kanga

Dr Marlene Kanga AM is a non-executive director of Sydney Water Corporation, board member of Innovation Science Australia Board and chair of the AusIndustry R&D Incentives Committee. She is also president-elect of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations.