International Women’s Day has come and gone for another year. For me, IWDs have come to be like birthdays – wonderful opportunities for celebration and reflection tinged with the dread of having to face up to harsh realities.
Hard-won achievements towards gender equality are nothing to be sniffed at. However, the messages that stood out most for me on the day were mainly negative. The all-too-familiar story is that women’s participation and voice as decision makers lags behind men’s; women remain significantly disadvantaged in the workplace; and women’s financial position lags behind men’s at all stages of life which makes them far more vulnerable, particularly in old age.
This is despite Australian women clearly having the potential to compete with men; as reflected in educational achievement where women outperform men across the board. To state what should be the obvious, it simply makes no sense in the information age for one group that consistently outperforms another in education to be consistently outperformed in the workplace and in positions of power.
So why is progress in gender equality proving so slow to achieve? A major reason is, of course, the different behaviours towards workplace participation associated with entrenched gender roles. Women are the principal carers and performers of domestic duties and, quite simply, this is ruining our careers and prospects later in life.
With men shirking their responsibilities in the time-consuming and career-distracting processes of early child-rearing, caring and domestic duties, they have the advantage over women in pursuing their career; which in turn provides them with higher salaries and eventually higher superannuation pay-outs. Left to juggle family and career, women are remaining seriously disadvantaged.
Many organisations are trying to make a difference in this area by introducing parental leave and flexible work arrangements that provide the opportunity for a greater sharing of parental and domestic responsibilities between men and women. However, I know from experience in my own organisation that very few male employees in practice take advantage of partner leave provisions and many men are reluctant to take on flexible work arrangements – even though the evidence is that more men than we might think would like to do so.
Part of this can be explained by entrenched gender roles that tend to be accepted as cultural norms. However, workplaces themselves also contribute to creating these outcomes that ultimately impact negatively on women. The very real gap in pay between men and women tends to make it more favourable economically for the male rather than the female partner to spend more time in the workforce.
But other factors intrinsic to the prevailing workplace culture also come into play. For example, while parental partner leave policies and flexible workplace arrangements may provide opportunities for partners to share the responsibility and burden of parental care, it is common for men to feel that they will be disadvantaged career-wise, if they opt for these arrangements.
Their concerns are supported by surveys indicating that men are more likely to have flexible work hours requests rejected by employers on the basis that these arrangements were seen as being there more for women and there is evidence that both men and women are discriminated against when they return to work after parental leave.
Clearly, the attitudes of employers need to change dramatically in this regard.
It is important to appreciate that workplaces don’t have to operate this way. For example, there is a greater acceptance of flexible work arrangements in Scandinavian countries, suggesting that change here is possible.
Organisations really must set the pattern – with senior managers needing to serve as promoters and role models for changing views and encouraging staff to take advantage of the progressive workplace arrangements that are becoming available.
To sum up, gender equality in the workplace requires changes in workplace attitudes, policy and culture. But changes in the workplace alone will not be sufficient for gender equality in the workplace to be achieved. In our rapidly changing society, nothing less than cultural change across society is required – particularly, changed attitudes to gender roles.
Importantly, gender equality is not a women’s issue and achieving it is not a question of “getting men on board”. Men and women must be equal partners in this process.
What is the stimulus for change? We must all ask ourselves what kind of society we want to create. Do we want a society, and for that matter an economy, where half of our human capital are insecure, disadvantaged and underutilised?
Words by Professor Jan Thomas of the University of Southern Queensland
Full title of op-ed: Sharing the caring: cultural change needed to address gender inequality in the workplace