How Top Australian Women Tackle Workplace Gender Gap

The gender gap in business has narrowed in the past 20 years, but there are still challenges to tackle before women are afforded the same treatment and career opportunities as men.


Australian women today can follow any career path they choose, but social norms and organisational structures do not aid their success. That was the key message from the Women In Business 20:20 panel discussion held this week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Telstra Business Women’s awards.

The panel was moderated by Melissa Doyle and featured leading Australian women, including Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick and CEO of the Sydney Opera House Louise Herron.

“Women can do anything in Australia now, there is no job that isn’t open to them,” said Broderick, citing the first female Prime Minister and first female head of Royal Military College Duntroon as examples.

A doubling of the number of women on Boards in recent years (from 8 to 18 per cent), a reduction in the rate of sexual harassment of women in workplaces, and the introduction of the national paid parental leave scheme, were also listed as ways Australia has progressed.

“Occasionally I sit there and I think, are we making any progress? It all seems so glacial. But when I look back over a 20 year period, we’ve come a long way,” said Broderick.

Women have also come a long way in fostering a culture of support, not competitiveness, in the workplace, according to Louise Herron. “If I think back to 20 years ago, it felt like I was fighting against other women. Now I feel like I’m fighting the field, not the women,” said Herron.

Jodie Fox, co-founder of the online design-your-own-shoes retailer Birds of Prey, feels there are more opportunities than ever for women to start a business. However, current structures make it difficult for female-led startups to grow from small to medium sized businesses and beyond.

“Recently I was speaking to another female co-founder. She’d been to 50 meetings to raise capital for her business, and in all of those meetings, she only met one female,” said Fox.

Broderick has a name for this sort of embedded structural inequality in business – gender asbestos.

“In terms of overt discrimination, we don’t see it so much. What we’re seeing now is gender asbestos – it’s built into the walls, the floors, the ceilings, the structures and practices of organisations. There is something that is reproducing disadvantage for women, but because we can’t touch it, it’s difficult to solve,” said Broderick.

Another hidden form of inequality needing to be tackled is the gender pay gap, according to Rhonda Brighton-Hall, the Executive General Manager of Organisational Development at the Commonwealth Bank.

“If there is a gap in pay between two people doing the same job, it needs to be rectified. The fact that as a society we put up with this inequality is quite extraordinary. We have to look the issue in the eye and not be okay with it,” said Brighton-Hall.

How to bridge the workplace gender gap

When asked what changes they would like to see to tackle the challenges of workplace gender gap faced by women in business, the panelists were not short on ideas.

  1. Cynthia Whelan, Group Managing Director of Strategic Finance at Telstra, wants the childcare debate taken off the table, so that everyone has equal access to affordable and available childcare. “We’re miles away, but that would be my dream,” said Whelan.
  2. Broderick wants to shake up the social norms that constrain both men and women. “Increasingly, men want a bigger role in caring, and the stereotype which says they have to be the breadwinners and they have to be tough, is very constraining on men – in the same way the stereotype of women being the caregivers is very constraining on women,” said Broderick.
  3. Fox agrees with the need to change social norms, including our default gender biases. “There was a study done where exactly the same CV was given to a room of people with a man’s name and woman’s name. Howard was described as a ‘wonderful boss to work for’ while Heidi was considered, let’s just say, not very nice,” said Fox.
  4. Brighton-Hall dreams of changing the way Australians view work-life balance. “If we stop thinking about work as eight hours a day, five days a week, and start thinking about it balanced out with family, friends and community work – a portfolio way of living – we’ll end up with different role models, and they will break the gender biases we speak of,” said Brighton-Hall.
  5. As for Herron? She wants changes made from an early age. “Girls don’t leave school with the same sense of ‘I can do anything’ as boys. There must be something we can change in the education system and family set up to make women feel just as empowered and confident as men,” said Herron.

Elyse Gorman

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