Australia, grow up and get with the rest of the world on workplace gender equality

Australia continues to drop behind the rest of the world on gender equality measures for women at work.

Yep, we've fallen from 17th to 20th place in PwC's annual ranking of 33 OECD countries on female economic empowerment. The only country to see a bigger fall is the Netherlands, due to a drop in women’s workforce participation.

It seems we continue to lack the maturity to address some of the systemic issues holding back women at work – particularly the gender pay gap, accessible childcare and shared caring responsibilities.

But then this time last year we still had a male Minister for Women and just two women represented in the ministry -- so that's at least some kind of progress.

The PwC Women in Work Index weighs and compares OECD countries on a range of measures including equal pay, female access to employment opportunities and job security.

So why are we going backwards on this index?

Well the first contributing factor to the Australia slide is that much of the rest of the world is actually making progress.

The second major factor is our persistent gender pay gap, currently at 17.3% according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, and worth around $20 billion a year according to PwC. The gender pay gap is the highest in Western Australia, at a massive 24.9%, and lowest in South Australia, at 10.3%. Interestingly in New Zealand, the gender pay gap is just 6%. 

Other areas of concern highlighted by the report are our lack of increase in female employment, and difficulties accessing affordable childcare, identified as a barrier preventing women from returning to work. On the latter, the report suggests there’s a strong economic case for our policymakers to improve access to affordable childcare.

Meanwhile, other policy areas that would significantly help would be around pay transparency, eliminating pregnancy discrimination and introducing strong incentives for men to take parental leave.

In her introduction to the report, PwC's diversity and inclusion head Susan Price says that underemployment is still a pressing issue for women, with more than half a million women in Australia – or nearly a quarter of all part-time workers – wanting to work more hours, but not having the opportunity to do so.

Meanwhile, there are no prizes for guessing who takes the top spots in this year's rankings, with Iceland, Norway and Sweden leading the race.

The Nordic region has dominated the list since the year 2000. Their policies on childcare and parental leave far exceed anything that's even been dreamt of as policy here in Australia.

For example, Sweden introduced shared parental leave as far back as the 1970s, with a view to better involve men in care and domestic duties. Parents are currently entitled to share 480 days of paid parental leave following the birth or adoption of a child, with each parent guaranteed a non-transferable entitlement of two month paid leave.

Meanwhile Nordic childcare also leads the pack, with heavy government subsidies seeing high rates of childcare and pre-school attendance. Childcare accounts for around 5 to 10% of household income in Nordic countries, compared to almost a third of such income in the UK, and much higher here in Australia. 

Clearly, there’s much we can learn from the Nordic region, but we still have a very long way to go.

As a start, the Turnbull Government could seriously consider delivering a women's budget. Here's why

Key points from Australia’s performance in the PwC Women in Work Index

* Australia has dropped from 17th to 20th place out of the 33 OECD countries indexed.

* There has been no improvement in the Australian gender pay gap, nor increase in the number of women working full-time

* A lack of access to affordable childcare is a key barrier preventing women from returning to work following motherhood. 

* Australia’s female labour force participation rate is at 71%, up just one percentage point. The figure for men is 82%. Just 62% of women are in full-time employment

* Increasing women’s workforce participation to match that of Sweden could result in a massive $162 billion boost to GDP

* Closing the gender pay gap could boost female earning by almost 20%, equating to around $60 billion.

* Key improvement areas for policymakers include: creating more affordable and accessible childcare; pay transparency; eliminating pregnancy discrimination; and encouraging shared parental leave and other care

PwC says employers can also do more such as by: ensuring pay and promotion decisions are fair; supporting women’s career advancement; and promoting flexible work

·     * The rate of women on boards increased by around 3% across the OECD countries, with the largest increases seen by countries with specific board targets in place such as France, Sweden, Belgium and Italy. 

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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