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Rapid workplace change an incentive for gender equity

Opinion

Working from home and flexible hours have quickly become the new normal. It’s now time to recognise that flexible work arrangements should be embraced so that women are encouraged to remain in the workforce and attain leadership positions, argues Andrea Michaels.

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We’ve been talking about improving gender equity in the workplace for ages, but the pace of change is glacial.

The World Economic Forum estimates it will take 99.5 years to achieve anything close to gender parity. Of course, we have other things on our minds at the moment (and rightly so), but we have to consider these issues going forward because diversity in organisations makes them perform better.

We can’t keep leaving women behind. Yet the latest unemployment stats are showing women are losing work in a higher proportion to men, and most boards and senior decision-making roles are still largely dominated by males.

If we want a thriving economy, those C-suite executives need to stop talking and start taking real action – starting with demanding changes for working parents and caregivers.

With COVID-19, many women have been getting a chance to work flexibility even if they couldn’t before, but they are also taking on even more of the childcare, schooling, housework and eldercare.

The only bright side of this is that workplaces no longer discriminate against men who now need to work from home as well. That means more help at home in theory. After all, we are all in this together. Right?

Let’s just hope some of the ‘flexible work for all’ mantras and men sharing the load sticks long term, because without it many women really struggle to get an equal footing in the career stakes. Some company CEOs like Jack Dorsey from Twitter have already announced flexible and remote work will be here to stay after COVID-19 so there is hope. I am waiting to see if others follow his example and really commit to changing the culture.

Why we need change

The fact is most workplaces are failing to represent 50 per cent of our population. Australia ranks 50th in the world on the number of females in federal parliament (31%). The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 ranks us at 44 for things like equal pay, education, and political and economic participation.

Despite more women than men having a university degree, we have a leaky pipeline of female leaders as women drop out of careers after having children. It’s not because they are less skilled, or unable to work hard; they just need to be supported with more flexible work options, and have their male partners follow suit. The Workplace Gender Equity Agency (WGEA) figures show although most employers now have a flexible work policy, few set targets to implemented it. Others just put it on a shelf to gather dust.

As a woman in law and politics (and a single mother), I have experienced all kinds of gender bias and inflexible work practices which made climbing the ladder so much harder. This just shouldn’t happen. Employers must genuinely and meaningfully embrace (not exclude) females in the leadership pipeline by encouraging women at key points in their lives to stay and thrive, not slip out the door.

A new vision for workplaces

At this time in particular we really need more women in key decision-making roles, because they can make a very important contribution to planning the economic recovery out of this crisis. Every voice should be heard.

I’m looking for a new paradigm of work. One where ‘work-life balance’ is seen as essential – not a bludge – where flexible work for both men and women at all levels would be the norm. Managers would enable people to complete their hours and tasks around their own schedule. If the work was done appropriately, it wouldn’t matter where it happened.

It would be normal for men to share the care of children by taking parental leave and working part time. A woman (or man) working flexibly or part time would get the same pay rises and career promotions as everyone else (and wouldn’t be expected to do double the work in less hours). 7am meetings and working in the office after 7pm would be a thing of the past.

In such a place being a parent or carer would be just part of life, not something to keep to yourself for fear of the consequences.

We must take these calls for change seriously to achieve more diversity in decision making, better female representation in government for sound policy making, and more women on boards. This will normalise women in positions of power and make it easier for others to join the ranks.

COVID-19 has shown us rapid change is possible. So now let’s do something to even the playing field. We simply can’t wait another century for progress.

Andrea Michaels is the managing director of NDA Law and the Labor MP for Enfield.

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