Australia must take action to address worsening gender segregation in critical industries such as construction, technology, health and education, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) has found.
In a submission to the Federal Government’s Employment White Paper, CEDA finds occupational gender segregation – where a job is done by either mostly male or female workers – remains at a high level in Australia, despite the growing proportion of women in the workforce.
“There is still a low proportion of women in traditionally male-dominated industries such as: construction; mining; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); and manufacturing,” CEDA chief executive Melinda Cilento said.
“Conversely, there is a low share of men in female-dominated industries, such as health care and education, and some of these occupations have become even more segregated over time.
“This limits job mobility, stifles labour-market flexibility and keeps a lid on productivity.”
Workplace Gender Equality Agency figures show in 2018, just 12 per cent of construction workers were women, down from 14 per cent in 1998. Meanwhile, the proportion of female workers in health care and social assistance rose to 79 per cent in 2018, up from 77 per cent in 1998.
And even in female-dominated industries, men still disproportionately hold more leadership positions.
“While many social, historical and economic factors have driven this segregation, many of the remaining barriers to change are cultural – whether at the government, workplace or individual level,” Ms Cilento said.
“We must tackle these entrenched cultural barriers wherever they exist.”
One significant cultural barrier is access to flexible work. Rigid workplace structures and cultures that insist on fixed hours, locations and modes of attendance further entrench occupational segregation.
Since the pandemic, flexible work arrangements have become the highest priority for Australian jobseekers, overtaking compensation.
Further, Australia has had one of the least generous and most unequal paid parental leave schemes in the OECD, with 99.5 per cent of parental leave taken by mothers.
The Federal Government expanded the scheme from 18 to 26 weeks in the October 2022 Budget, starting in July. The expansion also introduces much-needed changes including greater flexibility around the timing of leave taken by both parents.
It will be critical to reserve a greater share of leave for secondary carers (mostly fathers) and ensure this is paid generously enough to enable greater take-up.
More must also be done to encourage more women into STEM fields. Men are still 1.8 times more likely than women to be working in a STEM field five years after completing their qualification.
The proportion of women studying and working in STEM has barely changed since 2015. This worsens the gender pay gap, as these fields are typically highly paid. These jobs are also expected to remain in high demand. Yet in key occupations such as software programming, the proportion of women has gone backwards.
The skilled migration system also adds to the problem, as female migrants are more likely to be secondary applicants to their partner’s visa, and to work in lower-paid occupations.
“In the current tight labour market, gendered workforces contribute to labour shortages in critical occupations such as construction and aged and health care,” Ms Cilento said.
“We must break down entrenched barriers in the jobs market, including getting more people into the jobs they want to do, regardless of their gender.
“People of any gender should be able to do the job they’re most suited for and most interested in.”
To improve gender segregation, CEDA makes seven recommendations.
- Strengthen family-friendly policies including:
- Make paid parental leave more gender-equal, with more leave reserved for secondary carers under a ‘use it or lose it’ system;
- Reduce high effective marginal tax rates for primary caregivers;
- Increase access to affordable high-quality childcare and monitor how much this improves workforce participation.
- Strengthen corporate disclosure, compliance and reporting under the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012:
- Enable the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to publish key data such as gender wage gaps by employer;
- Strengthen compliance through standards to qualify for grants and government procurement; and
- Improve data collection by supporting digital solutions and government reuse of data.
- Require data for women-in-STEM programs to be made public as a condition of federal funding.
- Shift the focus of women-in-STEM programs to mentoring and leadership, from school to work.
- Formalise access to flexible work and tackle other workplace culture barriers to participation.
- Tackle gender discrimination by adopting blind hiring, standardising interviews and setting targets in heavily gendered occupations, with greater transparency on gender balance.
- Update the corporate governance principles to require a minimum 40 per cent male and 40 per cent female representation on company boards.
“Major structural shifts including digital transformation, the energy transition and an ageing population will require a much more agile labour market than we have now,” Ms Cilento said.
“If economic and social barriers prevent flexible movement between occupations, we will not be able to respond to these changes.”