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Opinion: It’s time to listen and build inclusive workplaces

3 min read

When I reflect on ‘Cracking the code: innovation for a gender-equal future’ – this year’s theme for International Women’s Day – I think about the achievements of countless women before us and the sacrifices they have made.

It is thanks to their advocacy and research that we now understand the drivers of gender inequality, including the patterns of behaviour that discriminate against women and other marginalised groups. We have also established data collection systems (such as the Workplace Gender Equality Agency) that pinpoint where inequalities exist.

What does the data tell us?

Women are highly educated, graduating from university at a higher rate than men. Yet, only 62.3% of women are in the workforce, compared to 71.1% of men. Women are also concentrated in low-wage ‘essential’ work while being excluded from high-paying and leadership roles. When a family member or friend needs looking after, women are expected to step back from their careers to provide unpaid care, only to be rewarded with poverty in retirement.

Consider the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) sector, which is regarded as a key driver of future innovation. It is also one of the most gender-segregated sectors. Women make up 36% of university STEM enrolments, but only 15% of people in STEM-qualified occupations and 8% of CEOs in STEM-qualified industries.

It’s a sign that we haven’t created environments where workers of any gender can thrive. Many organisations still lack gender-responsive policies and practices. Here are three things employers can do to change that.

Introduce transparency and structure in recruitment

Most organisations don’t include a salary range in their job advertisements, expecting candidates to self-advocate for better pay. This practice disadvantages women, who are less likely to ask for higher salaries and tend to be penalised when they do. Being upfront about salary will not only make it easier for women to get fair pay, it’s good for employers too. Jobs posted with salaries attract more suitable applicants, saving time in the recruitment process.

Whether they realise it or not, people have a tendency to favour others who look and act like them or come from similar backgrounds. If your organisation lacks diversity, this increases the risk that you’ll end up hiring more of the same. Using standardised interview questions and evaluation criteria, case-based interviews and work sample tests will make hiring decisions less prone to personal biases.

Related: Opinion: It’s time to accelerate women’s equality and end exploitation

Normalise flexible work in leadership roles

Most management roles are full-time, limiting career progression opportunities for the many women who work part-time. Surely STEM organisations, who pride themselves on disruptive innovation, can find alternatives to this outdated idea of how leaders must work?

The solution could be as simple as offering part-time management opportunities. If a role absolutely requires someone on board for 40 hours a week, consider job-share arrangements, where the work is divided between two or more part-time employees.

For some women, having access to flexible work options is enough to negate the need to work part-time. By formally giving managers options to telecommute and work flexible hours or compressed work weeks, organisations can increase their share of women in management, which in turn improves company performance. It’s a win-win.

Measure quality, not quantity

Someone who has taken career breaks may not have led as many projects or published as many papers as their peer who had an uninterrupted full-time career. And the impact is not limited to the time not worked. Consider a company that holds a weekly 1-hour team meeting. If you work 5 days a week, this meeting occupies 2.5% of your work hours, but the same meeting takes up 4.2% of a 3-day week. Less time means fewer opportunities to work on core business tasks.

Instead of comparing how much each person has accomplished (which is mostly a measure of time spent in the workforce), we should look at the quality of their achievements for a more accurate reflection of the skills they bring to the organisation. This practice is commonly used in the higher education sector. When academic staff apply for grants or promotions, they are given the chance to explain how their track record was affected by factors beyond their control, such as health conditions, access to facilities, unemployment, caring responsibilities and community obligations. Factoring this context into assessment has helped produce more equitable outcomes – not just for women, but for part-time and casual workers in general, people with disability, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people too.

Ask, listen and act

These three actions will improve gender equity in any organisation, but they are not the only changes we need to make. If you want to know how you can make your organisation more inclusive, start by asking your employees. Make the effort to understand the experiences of women and people from underrepresented or marginalised groups. And when they tell you, make sure you respond to their needs and concerns. Only actions will show that your organisation genuinely cares about gender equality.

Related: Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) appoints New CEO to lead Science

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Janin joined Science in Gender Equity Australia (SAGE Ltd) as its CEO in December 2022. SAGE is the only transformational gender equity, diversity and inclusion program of its kind in Australia. It enables institutions to achieve meaningful systemic, structural and cultural change through the internationally recognised Athena Swan accreditation and awards framework. 

Janin began her career as a nurse in Germany. However, coming from a rural, low socioeconomic background, her true passion lay in tackling economic inequality. She went on to study economics and immigrated to Australia in 2006. She completed her PhD at the University of Sydney in 2019, comparing precarious employment in academic labour markets in Germany and Australia.

Since then, Janin has worked in various education, data and policy roles. Most recently, she led the research and education branch of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), where she was responsible for data management, analysis and benchmarking.


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