Wednesday, 11 March 2015 15:14

Women's equality: the pace of change is glacial, Kate Jenkins for The Age, 6 March 2015

The unfulfilled aspirations of women will remain until men help to effect change.

It would be good to think we've come a long way since International Women's Day was first celebrated early last century. Yet to recall the milestones women have reached in their fight for equality shows not only how far we have come; it shows how painfully slow that progress has been. In some areas, we're not moving at all.

Just over a century ago, in 1908, women in Victoria first got the vote. It took another 64 years before Australia established the principle that they should get equal pay for equal work. Not so long ago your mother or your grandmother went to work knowing that, whatever she did, whatever her skills, however hard she worked, she would be paid less than a man. Because she was a woman.

Victoria reached another milestone in 1977, when the Equal Opportunity Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex and marital status in employment. The first case under that act came when Deborah Wardley, a pilot, was refused a job with Ansett Airlines because she was a woman. She took the issue to the then Victorian Equal Opportunity Board, which found in her favour. Ansett appealed to the High Court and lost, allowing Wardley to achieve her ambition to become an airline pilot, creating another milestone worth celebrating.

But while we've enacted laws and set precedents, many practices and prejudices haven't changed. We cling to stereotypes about the work men and women "should" do and how they should do it. As a result, the journey to equality is an arduous trek, not a steady progressive advance. At best, the pace of change has been glacial.

Consider some facts. Four decades after we accepted the principle of equal pay, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the average woman in a full-time job earns $298 a week less than a man. The gender pay gap is now at a record high - on average, women earn 18.8 per cent less than men. Think of it this way: the average woman in Victoria has to work about 50 extra days a year to get the same pay as the average man.

The stark divide in the workforce is highlighted by gender indicators released by the ABS. Across the board, women earn less, do more unpaid work, and rarely hold senior positions. Those who do reach the top ranks face an even bigger pay gap. A recent report by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency exposed a gulf in pay for women in every level of management, ranging from 23.5 per cent for women classified as senior managers, to 44.7 per cent for women employed as managers in administrative and support services.

The divide is partly due to the fact women gravitate to jobs the employment market assesses as being of lower value. Other factors are also at play – a lack of flexible work, the legacy of an outdated job culture built on the male breadwinner model, and gender bias.

When women try to negotiate higher pay, they face a double bind. If they insist being paid what they are worth, they are seen as pushy, unlike men who are seen as simply asserting their rights. No wonder some women give up trying.

While they earn less than men, women are also less likely to hold senior positions. Another report by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency found that women hold just 26 per cent of the jobs in the top three layers of the management hierarchy.

Despite 40 years of anti-discrimination legislation, women still face discrimination when they are pregnant and when they return to work after having children. A review by the Australian Human Rights Commission last year found one in two mothers experienced discrimination in the workplace. This included negative attitudes and comments, lost opportunities for training and promotion, reduced pay and conditions, as well as redundancy and job loss.

The review's findings align with the experience of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. Last year we received more than 200 complaints of employment discrimination because of pregnancy or parental or carer status. Typical complaints include women being demoted when they return from maternity leave. Others are denied flexible or part-time work. Some are made redundant.

Old prejudice and unconscious bias linger in workplace cultures that obstruct equality. Women and their families suffer through a loss of earnings, motivation and self-esteem. Their employers suffer a loss of talent, excessive staff turnover, lower productivity and lost profits.

Men can only accept this if they are also willing to accept that their wives, partners, sisters and daughters are worth less than they are.

The good news is some employers and business groups recognise this is a problem. The Australian Stock Exchange and the Australian Institute of Company Directors have policies to increase the number of women on boards and in senior positions. As a result, the percentage of women on boards has consistently risen over the past four years. Even so, women occupy just 9.4 per cent of board seats.

As for the number of women chief executives in the top 200 companies on the ASX, this has barely changed in 10 years – 96.5 per cent are still men.

Overcoming this entrenched discrimination isn't just women's work. There are plenty of good men of goodwill who recognise inequality is not only bad for women. It's bad for them, too, and for the nation.

I want to tap into that goodwill. That's why later this month I am gathering a group of men for the Victorian Male Champions of Change – men in leadership positions who are committed to improving the role of women in the workplace.

A similar group formed by federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick aims to ensure women are properly represented in leadership roles. As one of the federal male champions puts it: "Let's not pretend that there aren't already established norms that advantage men. Men invented the system. Men largely run the system. Men need to change the system."

International Women's Day on Sunday is a day not just to celebrate women's achievements. It's also a day to acknowledge their unfulfilled aspirations. It's time men joined the party.

View this article on The Age website.

 Follow Kate Jenkins on Twitter.

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