The 100th year of International Women’s Day was celebrated in 2011, making it a century since 15,000 female textile workers marched in New York City demanding better pay, voting rights and shorter hours.
Marking the anniversary three years ago, then-Australian sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick remarked at how far Australia has come since those days, yet how far it still has to go.
Talking at the Gender Equity Summit, she said: “100 years after women first marched in the streets demanding equal pay and four decades after the first federal pay case, the gender gap still exists in Australian workplaces.
“Even more alarming is that, over the last four years. The gender gap in pay has actually widened to 17 per cent.”
Ms Broderick asserted that a concerted effort by governments, businesses and the community is needed to overcome the gender divide, particularly in relation to female representation at decision-making levels.
In the two years since she spoke on the issue, how much has changed in Australia? And how far has the country come in ensuring more women are appointed to high-level organisational positions?
Australian women in senior management
Unfortunately, recent research would suggest that Australia hasn’t come far enough – certainly when compared with other advanced economies.
A report by Grant Thornton, titled Women in Senior Management: Setting the Scene for Growth, outlined how the gender divide is playing out on the global stage.
And, according to the results, Australia is underperforming in this area, with just 22 per cent of senior management roles filled by women, two percentage points lower than the global average of 24 per cent.
Fewer women reached the top positions in Australian organisations than their counterparts in New Zealand (28 per cent) and Europe (25 per cent). China topped the table with a whopping 51 per cent of its senior leadership roles held by women.
What may be more concerning is that Australia dropped on the table of countries with the highest percentage of females in high-ranking jobs when compared with last year.
Bucking the trend
Despite these results, there are plenty of positive signs for female leadership in Australia.
A separate report – GMI Ratings’ 2012 Women on Boards – claimed that the country is actually only second to France in terms of overall growth in female representation at senior levels.
In the space of two years, the number of women directors has jumped 5.4 percentage points in Australia, which GMI Ratings described as “remarkable” due to the fact it was not mandated by legislation.
The organisation put forward a number of reasons for this trend, including the fact that ASX-listed companies are now required to report on their diversity policies.
This is likely to have encouraged them to improve female representation in leadership positions to have ‘good news’ to announce, the firm added.
“Whatever the reasons for change, the proportion of female directors in Australia now stands at 13.8 per cent,” the report said.
“Over 68 per cent of ASX 200 companies have at least one female director.”
The road ahead
Politicians and campaign groups may welcome this improvement, but federal minister for the status of women Julie Collins recently said there is still some way to go before the gender divide is closed.
“In Australia, we know that increasing the participation of women in the workforce could increase our GDP by as much as 13 per cent,” she stated last month.
“We are driving strong reforms aimed at removing barriers to women’s full, equal and meaningful participation in the workforce.”
Meeting the skills needs of business and industry is a vital component of this, Ms Collins continued, ensuring that women can forge a way into under-represented sectors such as construction and resources.