7 August 2019

We agree that diversity in the workplace is desirable from ethical and economic standpoints. Achieving it, however, is not as simple as treating everyone exactly the same.

Effective diversity policies focus on equivalent outcomes, rather than equal actions. Think of an office that refuses to offer a wheelchair ramp or elevator. It would be absurd to argue that someone who uses a wheelchair is being treated equally because they have access to the same stairs as their able-bodied colleagues, right? But this is what we argue when we ignore outcome in favour of action.

Since men and women experience the workplace differently, they need different accommodations to ensure equality of outcome. To identify what those accommodations are, it’s important to understand the structural barriers that women face in – and out of – the workplace.

Inequality at work

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency has found that in 2017-18, women only held 13.7% of chair positions and 25.8% of directorships. Only 17.1% of CEOs in Australia are female.

A common explanation for this discrepancy is ‘personal choice’. However, it is nonsense to argue that women simply don’t want highly paid, prestigious positions.

In reality, workplaces and the related concepts of ‘merit’ and ‘choice’ evolved in male-only environments. ‘Choice’ happens within highly constrained social structures and environments. The extra burdens women shoulder place them in a difficult position of ‘choice’ and often hold them back in the workplace, playing into stereotypes around men being more suited to leadership.To address inequality, we must recognise these effects and try to counteract them.

Inequality at home

The latest report on gender indicators from the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggests that women spend almost double the amount of time on housework as their male partners and do almost three times the amount of childcare.

Professor Lyndall Strazdins from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health told the ABC, women are “straining to squeeze themselves into a paid employment system that was not built to support them”.

This pain is being felt by women at all levels of workforce as Terrance Fitzsimmons of the Australian Gender Equality Council found when he conducted forensic interviews with 120 female CEOs. Almost without exception, they nominated childcare as the main impediment to their career trajectory.

Women make up the vast majority of primary carers. They’re more likely to source childcare, take time off with a sick child and do the school pick up. This hinders their ability to attend relationship-building social events, travel, attend conferences or pursue extra learning.

The cumulative effect is that men are able to leapfrog their female colleagues in the workplace, because they are perceived as more dedicated or better suited to their chosen careers.

While it would be ludicrous for employers to try and dictate how their employees divide their domestic load, they still have a part to play. By recognising the impact of a constrained environment for choice and an unequal domestic load on female staff, employers can help in finding solutions.

Let’s not lay this all at the doorstep of the employer. Family members, spouses, colleagues, friends all have significant roles to play. We can all encourage men to take parental or carers leave. According to the ABS, 95% of employees who took primary parental leave were women. The report notes that “primary parental leave is the type of leave most likely to affect people’s career trajectories”. If more men are encouraged to take primary parental leave, women can come back to the workplace sooner after birth and some of the imbalance may be redressed.

Another way that we can address this inequality is to reduce the stigma associated with caring roles. Both men and women report that they feel judgment from colleagues if they take time off to attend their child’s assembly or care for them when sick. We can all do a lot to counteract this by establishing a culture that accepts caring duties.

Don’t judge a colleague who leaves at 5pm, they may be no less dedicated than the peer who stays until 9pm every evening. This disproportionately penalises workers with domestic responsibilities, many of whom cannot stay late. Trust employees with their own schedules and prioritise outcomes over physical time in the office.

Until we address inequality at home, it will continue to be a vexed issue in the workplace. Tackling it requires major social and behavioural change – recognising the issue is half the battle won.