The gender agenda – a glass half empty?

| March 5, 2013

In the lead up to International Women’s Day, Dr Diann Rodgers-Healey, Director of the Australian Centre for Leadership for Women, reflects on just how much the gender agenda has evolved and whether we’re taking the necessary steps towards gender equality.

It is apt that the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) is The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum. Gender equality in Australia has gained momentum in that:

  • Nearly one in 10 executive Key Management Personnel in the ASX 200 and the ASX 500 are women
  • Nearly 4 in every 100 CEOs in the ASX 200 and ASX 500 are women.
  • Women hold 12.3 per cent of ASX200 directorships up from 8.4 per cent in 2010
  • Women hold 9.2 per cent of ASX 500 directorships.

It is evident, therefore, that women are certainly present in the ASX 200 and the ASX 500 and in terms of ASX200 directorships, there has even been a 3.9 per cent increase since 2010. To reflect the full picture, however, these EOWA 2012 statistics show that:

  • Nearly 180 executive Key Management Personnel in the ASX 200 and the ASX 500 are men and 20 are women.
  • Nearly 192 CEOs in the ASX 200 are men and eight are women and 480 CEOs in the ASX 500 are men and 20 are women.
  • Men hold 87.7 per cent and women hold 12.3 per cent of ASX200 directorships.
  • Men hold 90.8 per cent and women hold 9.2 per cent of ASX 500 directorships.

The full picture shows that although women are present in the highest echelons, their numbers are far from equal to those of men in leadership and decision-making roles. Gender equality is ‘crawling’, not ‘walking’ and as the glass is not even a quarter full.

But the Australian government’s desire to do something about this is definitely gaining momentum. The new Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 (WGE Act) has gone beyond the 1986 Affirmative Action Act and its subsequent amendments up to 2011 to require private sector employers of 100 or more employees to report against five Gender Equality Indicators (GEIs). These include the gender composition of the workforce and of governing bodies, equal remuneration between women and men, and conditions and practices relating to flexible working arrangements. The WGE legislation enables the WGE Agency to assess, monitor, promote and improve the progress towards equality in Australia.

For the framework to be effective, however, hard decisions need to be made in terms of the scope and depth of data required to properly assess the ‘state of play’ in different industry sectors. Business costs and political contexts will probably tug at how fast momentum is gained by implementing this Act. Still, a new road has been paved in principle and it is hoped the pragmatism that is applied to it shines in equal strength to achieve its purpose.

Principle and pragmatism continue to be the head and tail shadows of the gender agenda’s history. The principle, not to leave behind one gender, underlines many international frameworks such as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Pragmatism is evident in the gender-sensitive indicators being used to assess progress such as The Human Development Index (UNDP) and the Gender Gap Index.

What appears to be missing in this pursuit is a body of values that would allow gender equality principles and actions to focus on the foundational belief that equality is a human right.

To develop this value, we need to see gender relations for what they are – rules in societies and cultures that determine what is considered ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ and the power embedded in these rules, which ultimately lead to the subordination of women.

With such an unprecedented level of international awareness around global gender inequities, the momentum for achieving the gender agenda is gaining and within our reach. As economic productivity becomes an increasingly troubled issue, the argument (and enforcement) of gender equality grows stronger. But greater change will only come about from a shift in values. This would also serve as a more sustainable pathway to equality and to a deeper appreciation (beyond gender politics) of the way women and men can co-exist as equals.

In the present reality, however, the WGE Act, with its evidence based approach, has the potential to be a real catalyst for change. If these evidence requirements are driven by a commitment to achieving equality for women and if business leaders reflect on the evidence and see for themselves why change is essential, then we can expect a real breakthrough.