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What more could business be doing to secure gender equality?

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Libby Lyons

Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency

Like any great tale about a journey, there is always good news and bad news, or rather “not so good news”. The story so far in our journey towards gender equality is no different. Being the eternal optimist, I’ll start with the good news. Gender equality is moving in the right direction in Australia’s workplaces.

Our data now shows that 70% of Australian employers now have strategies or policies to support gender equality and promote flexible work. Additionally, over the last five years, we have seen a strong increase in employer action to address gender equality. As employers have taken action, gender equality outcomes have improved and the gender pay gap has declined. There has also been solid and steady growth in the number of women moving into management roles. Women now comprise 39.1% of all managers, with 43.3% of manager appointments going to women.

But our data also clearly shows that Australian business could be doing more:

  • Accountability is crucial in achieving change. We know this from the last two Gender Equity Insights Reports produced in partnership with the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre.
  • Access to parental leave has stalled. More than half the employers who report to the Agency do not provide any paid primary carer’s leave in addition to the government scheme.
  • Most senior roles, especially at the CEO level, are still dominated by men. The 2019 BCEC Report found that women will not reach parity at CEO level until 2100.
  • There has been practically no improvement in the number of women around our boardroom tables.

This year’s report shows that implementing formal flexible work arrangements and reporting this to the board significantly increased the number of part-time female managers

Another insight from our data is that the business sector needs to close its gender equality action gap. Companies have policies and strategies in place but not enough of them have initiated action plans for engagement. Although more employers are analysing their pay data, over 40% of those who did took no action. Despite more than seven in ten employers having a flexible working policy or strategy, just one in 20 set targets for employee engagement in flexible work.

The best way to close these action gaps is by being accountable. Last year’s BCEC report highlighted the importance of accountability in closing gender pay gaps. Actions to correct pay gaps were three times more effective when the results were reported to the executive or Board. This year’s report shows that implementing formal flexible work arrangements and reporting this to the board significantly increased the number of part-time female managers. We had always suspected that the normalisation of flexible work was crucial in getting women into management roles and keeping them there. Now we have some solid evidence to support this.

Two other key findings of the 2019 BCEC report show that paid parental leave and increased representation of women at CEO and board levels also improved the representation of women in management. Female managers are twice as likely to return to work if their employer provides 13 or more weeks of paid parental leave. Companies with a female CEO reported an increased number of women managers, as did those organisations who moved from all-male to gender-equal company boards.

It’s clear from our data and these reports what actions business needs to take to secure gender equality in Australian workplaces. Take action by normalising flexible work, providing parental leave and getting more women into management and leadership roles. Set targets. Measure your progress. Hold managers, senior leadership and boards accountable for the results.

Business has an opportunity to make a difference. By taking action now, together we can all create a better future.


Libby Lyons was appointed Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) in October 2015. She oversees the statutory reporting process that gathers gender equality data from more than 12,000 employers, covering more than four million employees. Prior to joining the Agency Libby had a distinguished career in corporate affairs and government relations, including heading up BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam corporate affairs division, as well as senior roles at Atlas Iron, CITIC Pacific Mining, Alcoa Australia, the Western Power Corporation and Telstra.