– Naomi Wilson writes…

The QLD Government recently released their latest research into gender equality.  It is packed with statistics relevant to both the workplace and home life.

To be honest, I find the ones about home life and in particular, domestic abuse, the most heart wrenching; but working in the field that I do my thoughts turn to gender equality in the workplace and the practicalities of how and why we will see a shift.

A couple of standout statistics first: 

  • The gender pay gap in QLD is 15.8% i.e. males are paid, on average 15.8% higher than women
  • This varies between industries with only a 6% gap in accommodation and food services and nearly 30% in professional, scientific and technical roles
  • Women represent 18.3% of CEO placements and 32.5% of key management roles
  • 30.2% of boards have no female Directors

The thing is (and I know this might be an unpopular opinion amongst my female peers), I am not interested in being on a Board to make up a quota, or receive a promotion so the company statistics look good when applying for tenders, and I don’t want to be called a female business owner.  I want to be on Boards, promoted to positions and simply called a business owner because I. Am. Good. At. What. I Do.  If I don’t achieve it on merit, it isn’t worth having.

Does that mean I don’t think there needs to be change? Absolutely not.

My point is that change driven purely by numbers is not true change. And change driven by imposing rules on private enterprise is bound to backfire. Every time there are changes to things like more generous, more flexible or longer parental leave; whilst welcomed by every planning-to-be-parent, creates a new wave of concern in business owners as they worry about what that might look like if they lose a key player for an indefinite period, or are trying to figure out how they might allow for part-time arrangements. That change should happen, and it gradually is; but I believe that it also creates a sub-conscious (and sometimes conscious) bias in the minds of managers and owners against females who continue to be stereotypically, the primary care giver and therefore most likely to be away from work or seeking flexible arrangement.

I think that a shift needs to come through primarily in our family and societal norms.

Think about how we have historically tended to raise our different gendered children.  Boys were (and perhaps still are) typically encouraged to be active, play sport (compete), we buy them Lego and technic sets, teach them how to change a tyre, and build their survival skills while camping.  Girls were (and again, perhaps still are) typically engaged in more nurturing activities, we buy them barbie dolls and craft kits, and get them involved in baking.  All loving and engaging pursuits and all well intentioned; but already starting gender stereotyping.  And as parents, we also feel safer about giving boys more freedom from a younger age than girls because rightly or wrongly, the risks for young females seems so much higher.

In this environment, it is no wonder that there are certain occupations which are dominated by one gender or another.  Female employment is much higher in health/aged/disability care, hospitality, retail, education and childcare and administration roles.  They are under-represented in the trades, technical and blue-collar roles.  Interestingly, when I catch up with my mates in the building trades, I often hear them talk about the ‘female apprentice’ that they’ve just hired, talking amazement about how even though they aren’t as physically strong, they are putting their male counter parts to shame with willingness to learn and ability to pick things up.

The traditional family model also impacts here.  The bulk of parental leave is typically taken by the ‘Mum’.  This has a flow on effect in a number of ways.  

Firstly, it means that if I had 2 children, it is likely that I have 2 years less experience that a male who started in the same role at the same time.  There is a slow shift happening in society with more males taking on the primary carers role, or splitting it down the middle; but we also have to be honest with ourselves and ask whether, if the option presented itself, would we chose to go straight back to work or would we opt to stay home a little longer with our children.  The answer will differ for everyone and there is no right or wrong (nor judgement from me!) What is important is that there is a choice. And with all choices, we make them knowing that there are consequences of that choice.

Again, it might not be a popular opinion, but when I put my business owners hat on, I will argue any day of the week that with all other factors being equal, someone with 6 years’ experience is likely to be more valuable to a company than someone with 4 – and the reason for the 2 years difference is irrelevant, be it due to parental leave, being younger, having taken time off to travel the world or care for a parent.  So if I chose to take a period of maternity leave then I am statistically more likely to be on a lower salary than a male of similar age to me.  

Secondly, it increases the likelihood of females wanting flexible work arrangements.  In fact, females are 2.2 times more likely to be working part-time than males.  In a business world where there has always been a mentality that Supervisors, Managers, GMs and CEOs need to be present 100% of the time, this of course seriously limits the ability to rise through the ranks; even if gender bias is not present. The events of 2020 may just be the catalyst needed to shake these long-held beliefs about senior roles needing to be full-time and on site.  We all had our eyes opened to the possibilities of working and managing remotely, being more flexible, and adapting our work practices in ways we never thought previously possible.

My final point is that I also feel the shift needs to come from us (as females).  I personally get frustrated by the energy we use up talking about glass ceilings, gender inequality and quotas.  I am not saying the inequality doesn’t exist – but for me it is simply a case of not letting it exist for me.  I am well aware that I am a particularly determined, stubborn and driven individual and that impacts on my choices, but that aside my choice is not to allow limitations to be placed on me.  When I reflect on my career, I can see that there were times where someone may have tried to limit me because I was female, or more accurately, because of things like my parental choices.  But the response for me is simple – I make a different choice, one that serves me, one that respects me.  

If I could wave a magic wand, it would be to create an environment where we all had the confidence to choose, the opportunities available to pick from, and the peace-of-mind that comes with accepting the outcomes of our choices.  My daughter is one of my biggest inspirations. She is a fierce 10 year old who is not afraid to be who she is, and won’t compromise her respect for self. She tells me that when she grows up she is going to be a vet, a librarian, a teacher, a Mum and an artist and if you ask her, she has a detailed plan about how she is going to follow each one of her passions. I for one am not saying anything to squash those dreams. Who knows what her generation will achieve.