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Gender equality: what it means for today’s graduates

Jaymes Carr

Careers Commentator
Graduate careers are affected by gender equality in more ways than one. Find out about Australia's progress in gender equality and how it affects you.

Defining gender equality

The Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency was founded in 2012 with the goal of helping Australian employers achieve gender equality. It notes that “workplace gender equality is achieved when people are able to access and enjoy the same rewards, resources and opportunities regardless of gender”. However, it also acknowledges that, while Australia has made great strides towards the achievement of gender equality over the past decade, it still has a long way to go.

The state of gender equality in the modern Australian workplace

The basic facts:

'The gender gap in the Australian workforce is still prevalent; women continue to earn less than men, are less likely to advance their careers as far as men, and accumulate less retirement or superannuation savings. At the same time, men have less access to family-friendly policies such as parental leave or flexible working arrangements than women.'
Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 2018

In 2017, McKinsey released the results of its Women in the Workplace study, which, by drawing on data from 222 companies employing more than 12 million people, was the largest study of its kind ever conducted. Unfortunately, the news wasn’t hugely encouraging: women accounted for just 17 percent of corporate-board members and 12 percent of executive-committee members in the top 50 listed G-20 companies, despite earning more college degrees than men for 30 years (and counting).

One year later, the University of Sydney completed its ‘Women and the Future of Work’ report, providing an update on the status of women in Australian workplaces. Again, the results were troubling: across all industries, only 31 percent of women believed that men and women were treated equally at work (compared to 50 percent of men). While four in five women ranked ‘being treated with respect’ as an important factor in the workplace, one in ten had experienced sexual harassment on the job.

If there were any doubts left about the cruel realities of gender inequality in modern Australia, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2018 Gender Equality report should dispel them once and for all. It found that the average full-time weekly wage for a woman is 15.3% less than a man’s; that Australian women have to work (on average) an extra 56 days a year to earn the same pay as men for doing the same work; and that more than half of women aged 18 or older have experienced sexual harassment during their lifetimes.  

Signs of change

So what’s the good news? Fortunately, the AHRC report did include some positive developments. For example, the number of women on the boards of ASX 200 listed companies has grown from 8.3% in 2009 to 26.2% in 2018 (it remains the case, however, that such women are outnumbered on the ASX 200 boards by men named John, Peter, or David).

Cultural attitudes are also shifting bit by bit: for example, in 2018, 90% of men and women believed that both parents (regardless of gender) should be equally involved in parenting. (Even if, in practice, it’s 50 percent of women who experience discrimination as a result of pregnancy).

The WGEA’s most recent ‘gender equality scorecard’ (November, 2017) notes that the number of Australian businesses with gender equality policies has grown consistently since 2013 with benefits including improved access to flexible work arrangements, and an increase in the rate at which females are being promoted to leadership roles.

Three ways that gender equality impacts today’s graduates

1. Male graduates are paid more than female graduates across most industries

If you think the forces of gender inequality don’t affect graduates starting their careers today, the truth may surprise (and disappoint) you. A February 2018 report by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (‘Higher education enrolments and graduate labour market statistics’) showed that although women outnumber men in higher education completion rates, a graduate salary gender pay gap exists in favour of men across 17 out of 19 fields of study and across nine out of 13 industries.

The largest gender pay gap (by area of study) was found in dentistry, with male graduates earning 20.6% more than female graduates. The largest gender pay gap (by industry) was health care and social assistance in which, despite being a female-dominated industry, male graduates earned an average of 8.7% more than female graduates.

The male-dominated study fields of architecture, science, and maths had the largest differences in postgraduate starting salaries with men earning on average 15.3% and 10.0% more than women.

2. The gender pay gap starts with the first few promotions

Let’s say that male and female graduates began their careers on equal footing (which is, of course, strictly hypothetical because, as we’ve seen, they apparently don’t). How quickly the gap between them would widen still! At the first critical step up to manager, reports McKinsey, women are 18 percent less likely to be promoted than their male peers. This gender disparity has a dramatic effect on the representation of women: if entry-level women were promoted at the same rate as their male peers, the number of women at the SVP and C-suite levels would more than double.

3. Female graduates have fewer role models in business leadership positions

Given that only 16% of CEOs and 27% of key management personnel in Australia are women, it’s no surprise that female graduates have fewer women to look up to when they start their careers. The good news (in addition to the growing rates of female board members) is that various organisations now exist to address this issue by connecting female career starters with experienced women from the same industry. These include:

Does gender inequality only affect women?

No. Social, historical, and cultural forces have led to women being disproportionately disadvantaged by gender inequality. However, there are also situations in which gender inequality disadvantages men. For example, men are far less likely to take advantage of parental paid leave arrangements (though this appears to be largely because they’re more likely to earn a higher salary, making it economically preferable in heterosexual partnerships for men to remain at work).

Gender inequality has also been convincingly linked to the increased pressure on men to assume the role of ‘breadwinner’, with its associated taboo on the expression of ‘weakness’ or ‘stress’. This has been identified as a key factor in the disturbingly high rates of mental illness among young men in Australia, with suicide the leading cause of death for males aged 15-24.

Gender inequality has also resulted in stigma surrounding male participation in traditionally female-dominated industries (such as early childhood education, in which men account for only 5% of the workforce).

Gender equality affects graduates throughout their careers. To find five organisations that value gender equality, check out our article at GradAustralia.