Workplace opportunities for women in Australia have changed dramatically over the last half century. In 1966, 31 percent of Australian women between the ages of 30 and 34 were employed. In 2016 that number was nearly 72 percent.1 Today Australia boasts the top rank in women’s education according to the World Economic Forum and a 71 percent labor participation rate for women overall.2 While opportunities for women in the workplace have grown, Australia still reports some highly segregated industries and a stagnated gender gap. Like many countries around the world, Australia continues to move towards gender parity in many areas of the economy through shifts in cultural norms and legal policies.
Australia’s female literacy and education rates are among the highest in the world. As of 2016, literacy and primary education rates were nearly 100 percent with women outpacing men in many areas of education. In 2016, the Australian Government Department of Education and Training reported that women made up 58 percent of enrolled college students and about 51 percent of higher-degree (masters and doctorate) students.3
Although women are more likely to get a bachelor’s degree than men, they are not necessarily studying the same subjects or disciplines. Women are more likely to get degrees in management, culture, health, and education, while men are more likely to have completed qualifications in engineering, architecture, and information technology. Women were three times more likely to have degrees or certifications in health and four times more likely in education. Men on the other hand, were ten times more likely to study architecture and construction, with only 1 percent of women graduating in this field.4 These differences in education choices in turn affect career choices, which can be seen clearly through the trends in the workforce.
Labor Force Participation
More women of all ages have entered the labor force in the last half century. However the nature of the work women perform continues to vary significantly from the type of work men do. Women are more likely than men to work part time, hold casual jobs (jobs without paid leave entitlements), and work in certain professions, especially if they have young children.
Of employed women, 44 percent hold part-time jobs. When considering only employed mothers with children under six, this number rises to 61 percent. For men, only 16 percent of employed men work part time, and 8 percent of employed fathers with children under six work part time. Women who do hold full-time positions also report working fewer hours than men in full-time positions. For families with children in 2017, about 25 percent have both parents working full time. For about 35 percent of families with children, one parent is employed full time and the other is employed part time.5 About a third of employed women work in casual jobs, compared to about a quarter of employed men. Both men and women are more likely to hold casual positions when they are younger (under 34) and hold more formal positions when they are older.
For many industries in Australia, the workforce is fairly evenly divided, but some industries have remained noticeably gender segregated. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the four largest industries for women are retail trade, healthcare and social assistance, education and training, and accommodation and food service. Women dominated some of these areas, the most significant being aged care services, where women make up 84 percent of the workforce. In contrast, men made up more than 70 percent of the workforce for construction, mining, manufacturing, and public utilities.6 Other industries were much more even, with financial and insurance services being the closest at about 50 percent for each gender.
Men and women have nearly equal unemployment rates (4.8 and 4.6 percent, respectively), but women are nearly twice as likely to be underemployed (9.4 and 5.8 percent, respectively).7 These trends, especially when considering the labor participation rates and underemployment rates, shed some light on the gender wage gap that still exists in Australia.
The Workplace Gender Equality Agency reports that the current national gender pay gap is 14.6 percent. Over the last few decades, it has hovered between 15 and 19 percent without major change. The causes of gender pay gaps are often complicated and hotly debated. One of these is occupational segregation, where women generally work in lower paying industries. However, every industry has an unfavorable pay gap for women, even in female-dominated industries. Another factor is a lack of women in leadership. Fewer women hold higher-paying jobs, in part because senior positions often offer little flexibility. Part-time workers, the majority of which are female, also often have fewer opportunities for additional training and promotion.
Discrimination and bias are also factors, although the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 (Act) strengthened legislation promoting gender equality in the workplace. The Act requires businesses employing more than 100 people to submit a report to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. The aim of the Act is to eliminate barriers to workforce participation equality, reduce gender and family discrimination in employment, and promote the productivity and competitiveness of Australian businesses through gender equality in the workforce.8 The Workplace Gender Equality Agency provides businesses with resources to promote workplace equality, including recommended best practices. As new laws take effect and business practices shift, it is likely that the existing pay gap will continue to decline.
As business traditions change and more women enter the workforce, the nature of and compensation for the work women do will continue to change. More educated women are entering the workforce, and for Australian women, flexibility is a must. New laws are promoting flexible options for employees, which will likely improve female participation rates across many industries and reduce the national gender wage gap. These continuing changes will shape the Australian economy and help Australian businesses compete in the global marketplace.