Keeping Australian Women In The Workforce: 'There's Only So Much Money To Go Around'

Helen Conway. Credit: UWS

The director of Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency has welcomed the incoming Coalition government’s focus on paid parental leave and childcare but warns that more is needed to address the persistently low number of women in the workforce.

Tony Abbott brought parental leave to the fore of the Coalition’s election campaign by announcing a $5.5 billion paid parental leave policy under which the government would pay women’s salaries for six months, to a maximum total payment of $75,000.

The scheme will be funded by a 1.5% levy on profits of companies that earn more than $5 million a year. It replaces a Labor Government scheme; WGEA director Helen Conway said neither required women to return to work after going on leave to be eligible.

Conway has worked with policymakers and companies to boost the proportion of women in the workforce since joining WGEA in 2011 but there has been “very little change” in most companies since then, she said.

She warned that the paid parental leave levy could discourage companies from pursuing other much-needed initiatives, including the promotion of flexible working arrangements for men and women and return-to-work incentives that encourage women to rejoin the workforce after parental leave.

Here’s what she told Business Insider:

It doesn’t matter who’s in government, there will be a limited amount of money you can spend on gender initiatives.

There are a number of things to be worked on and we can’t afford a lot of money for all of them so it’s a question of how we wisely spend the resources that are available to this area to make sure that all those key factors are given some attention.

We look at childcare and how expensive that is, we look at paid parental leave, we look at income. They’re the sorts of things that hit the tax dollar, and we look at what we want companies to do.

There’s a lot that we want companies to do in terms of workplace flexibility but if companies have to pay levies for paid parental leave, then they may not do that.

At Conway’s former employer Caltex, for example, staff receive a bonus of up to 12% of their salaries in the year after they return to work from parental leave.

The company also once allowed Conway’s direct report, Peter Lim, to work for four days a week so he could spend more time with his children. Lim has since replaced Conway as company secretary and general counsel of Caltex.

“When we see a lot of women leaving the workforce, it’s generally around the common childbearing period but that [childbearing] is not the only reason why women leave,” Conway said.

“Women leave because they just hate the culture of [largely male-dominated] organisations … It’s all about leadership; culture changes when leaders drive that change.”

According to ABS data released last month, only about 65.2% of Australian women aged 20-74 were employed or looking for work in 2012-13, compared to 79% of men. EY estimates the gap to cost Australia $8 billion a year.

Conway blamed tax disincentives, the cost and availability of childcare and a cultural perception that women are more likely to do unpaid domestic work – child rearing and housework – for keeping the female participation rate down.

The latter bias is evident even among the country’s leaders: former prime minister Bob Hawke raised a few eyebrows earlier this week when he suggested that Tanya Plibersek was an unlikely candidate for Labor party leader because she was mother to a three-year-old, overlooking the fact that his pick Bill Shorten was also father to a child the same age.

WGEA assesses Australia’s progress towards gender equality against 6 indicators: the proportion of women of the workforce; the proportion of women on boards; the gender pay gap; the availability and use of flexible working arrangements; the availability of employee feedback mechanisms; and “other gender equality matters” raised by the government.

“It’s a very big picture,” Conway said, calling for balanced investment in the area. “You can’t just pick paid parental leave or childcare and say, ‘that’s the nut we need to crack and then we’ll have gender equality’.

“What we’re saying is these are the indicators, these are the things we need to improve, on the journey towards gender equality.”

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