How can Australia boost women’s workforce participation? Associate Professor Susan Harris Rimmer tackles the topic head on, and urges us to take action right now!
On International Women’s Day this year many Australian women were inspired by Anne Summers releasing a manifesto for action.
It is no longer enough for us to call ourselves feminist. It is no longer enough for us just to list our grievances and to call for redress. We need to be very specific about what we want and we have to make it happen. And we have to do it now.
Heeding her call, I want a plan of action that will meet our G20 goal of increasing female labour participation. Going beyond that I want those jobs to be quality jobs, and implemented so that women are not shouldering the double burden of unpaid care work at the same time.
Under Australia’s G20 Presidency in 2014, leaders agreed to the goal of reducing the gender gap in participation rates by 25 per cent by 2025. Achieving this goal could mean around 200,000 additional women in the Australian labour force.
In 2017, women comprise 46.2% of all employees in Australia. As a proportion of all employees, 24.8% are women working full-time and 21.4% are women working part-time. Women constitute 71.6% of all part-time employees, 36.7% of all full-time employees and 54.7% of all casual employees. The workforce participation rate for women is 59.3%, and for men is 70.4%.
Progress so far
The Australian Government is taking action to boost women’s workforce participation by a variety of measures, including improving child care; supporting businesses to create more diverse workplaces; ensuring women have the skills and support to work in growth industries; implementing the Jobs and Small Business package; investing $13 million in women in STEM; addressing pay equity through the Workplace Gender Equality Agency; and endorsing the Australian Public Service Gender Equality Strategy.
These are all positive measures. However, Treasury projections published in the Intergenerational Report in 2015 show Australia is not on track to meet our G20 target even in 40 years. The current gap of 12.4 percentage points is projected to narrow to 11.3 percentage points by 2055.
Even if you don’t care much about the equal rights of women, you should care about this. Lifting Australia’s female participation rate to that of Canada would increase the size of our economy by $25 billion a year.
So what can Australia do to accelerate progress? Here are three actions the Australian Government can take right now
1. Commence a parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s plan to meet our G20 Brisbane Action Plan pledge to reduce the gap in women’s labour force participation by 25 percent by the year 2025. Alternatively, the Minister could call a tripartite summit to generate solutions and socialise the goal with unions, industry and state governments.
2. Include more women and more female-led Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) on Australian trade delegations. We can do so much more to invest in women in businesses who want to do more overseas and at home. Australia has had great success with the role of Ambassador for Women & Girls. It could make more use of the Special Envoy mechanism and consider a Special Envoy for Female Entrepreneurs and/or Women in Trade, or more generally Economic Empowerment to assist Dr Sharman Stone, Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls. The model began in Sweden and now the EU has designated Female Entrepreneur Ambassadors. Every Premier and the Trade Minister should have ‘binders full of trained-up women’ when getting ready for trade missions.
3. Agree to a target that would triple the amount of government procurement going to SMEs ‘owned and controlled’ by women by 2025, and agree to reach 25% of all government contracts going to women by 2030 and 50% by 2050. Governments need to rethink procurement policy as a strategic lever to accelerate gender inclusive growth through government spending power, whilst maintaining rigorous governance standards. Procurement policy has ease of implementation and government control of process, scale and quickimpact. The evidence is that such reforms will reap an immediate ‘diversity dividend’. Public procurement is estimated to comprise as much as 10–15% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in developed countries. Australia should give precedence to horizontal considerations in formulating public procurement policies as a tool to unleash the vast economic potential of women entrepreneurs and female-headed SMEs.
This does not mean compromise on traditional government objectives, it simply means investing in smart policy design to ensure equal opportunity and equal treatment; which all the current economic research agrees is good for macroeconomic growth.
This is all the more important as we see the digitization of government procurement roll-out. The modernisation of processes is important – but statistics that estimate only one to two per cent of government procurement contracts awarded to women out of trillions of dollars of business (ITC 2015) is a statistic that belongs to a previous century.
We could accelerate change by giving preferential treatment for companies with rigorous gender equality and diversity policies and gender equality reporting. Australia could also introduce a government requirement that firms bidding for procurement contracts disclose information about their gender pay equity. Australian women should invest in the ITC Procurement Map, a free, online database that includes a country-by-country breakdown of roughly 100,000 public tenders.
The ITC notes that getting information on such tenders can be particularly difficult for SMEs in emerging economies, and so such a tool will make the public procurement market more inclusive. Australia has government processes to encourage indigenous procurement through https://www.supplynation.org.au where you can search for indigenous businesses in different fields. Why not invest in a similar site for women-owned businesses?
Whatever we do to meet our 2025 target, it has to be measurable, it has to have some serious policy heft and it has to have some scale. And we have to do it right now.
Susan Harris Rimmer