When it comes to women at work, are we on the cusp of real change or real disappointment?
Spring has sprung. The mornings are getting more bearable, and we’re changing over our wardrobes (goodbye thermal leggings). But it’s not just the pollen and the sneezing, with everyone talking about women and work, it truly feels like there’s change in the air.
The attention that women at work received at the nation’s Jobs & Skills Summit has thrown some real momentum into our strides, while news that it could take 100 year for corporate Australia to achieve CEO gender balance reminds us how much work is ahead.
It’s also been a month, where some of Australia’s most poorly paid workers – early childhood educators- have taken to the streets to call for better working conditions. You can read more about why we supported them, in my latest article written for Women’s Agenda.
So what does all this mean for women at work? Are we on the cusp of real change, or real disappointment?
Firstly, it’s important to think about where we’re coming from. As the Conversation pointed out recently, the last time an Australian Government hosted a national jobs summit (in 1983), there was only one woman present -Susan Ryan, a minister in the Hawke government and the architect of the Sex Discrimination Act.
This year, half the participants were women. After the opening keynote address from economist Danielle Wood, the first panel session was dedicated to equal opportunities and pay for women. The scheduling demonstrated the seriousness with which the Government views the issue, and encouraged a gender focus to be interwoven into all further discussions.
However, we know that having an equal seat at the table, and being on the agenda, are probably the bare expectations for most of our readers, so in terms of actual outcomes, let’s do a quick recap:
Paid parental leave
Business, unions and advocacy groups joined forces at the summit to push the Government to consider a new policy on paid parental leave.
The Government has expressed some hesitancy around introducing a new paid parental leave policy, citing the deficit, but it’s so significant to see so many different groups come together to call for it in a united and powerful way.
One of the confirmed outcomes of the summit is an update to the Fair Work Act, which will include stronger access to flexible working arrangements and unpaid parental leave.
We’re left waiting to see if there will be any prioritisation of the all-important area of my leave, particularly for men.
Early childhood education and care
There was plenty of discussion at the Summit about the Government’s proposed changes to subsidies for early childhood education and care due in July 2023, and the possibility of these changes being brought forward. The Government has mostly ignored these requests because there isn’t a sufficient workforce and capacity to meet expected increased demand.
Which brings us to… better conditions for child care and early education workers.
In early September childcare workers and early childhood educators undertook a day of industrial action to call for better working conditions and fair pay.
In its outcomes document from the summit, the Government said it will: “Develop through National Cabinet, a long-term vision for early childhood education and care reform to better support parents’ workforce participation as a national priority.”
“The Government will work with the sector, including philanthropic foundations, to create a whole of government approach to improve early childhood development and education.”
Overall that sounds a little wishy-washy, but does provide reason for hope that the minimum wage may be lifted for this under-recognised cohort of (mostly women) workers.
Thinking about the needs of diverse women
As Yasmin Poole, the youngest participant to attend the summit, made clear, we’re still at ground zero when it comes to understanding many of the issues impacting women that were discussed at the Summit. For example, she highlighted that data on the gender pay gap is severely lacking an intersectional lens, and we are without any data as to how women of color, Indigenous women, culturally and linguistically diverse women, women with disabilities, and LGBTIQ people are faring.
So will this be the Spring Uprising for women?
Perhaps the greatest outcome from the spring of all things women and work has been the focus on systems change.
In some ways it’s as though a lightbulb has been switched on, and the Government for the first time can see the importance of all that data sitting right in-front of them. There’s now a solid understanding that improving women’s workforce participation is not just one, but perhaps the most important, economic lever of our time.
And when Chief Executive Women released a report after the National Jobs & Skills Summit, highlighting that if nothing is done to change the status quo, it will take about 100 years for corporate Australia to have at least 40 per cent of CEO positions on the ASX300 filled by women, at least our Government and industry leaders now have a shopping list of what changes need to be implemented.
Similarly, when child care workers and early educators marched in the streets this month, there was no denying the value of their service to our entire economy – and how challenging and critical the work is that they do is.
There’s some very serious policy work that needs to be done, and we mustn’t allow the Government to squander the attention that the role of women in work now has.
Spring has sprung, and after a long cold lost decade of minimal progress on women’s workplace equality, it’s time for real change.
Picture:Verve Super CEO & Co-Founder Christina Hobbs and Daughter Maya at the Early Childhood Educators Rally in Melbourne
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