Calling all women

QUOTAS, targets, pay audits and mainstreaming flexible work hours are some of the tactics being floated to help abolish gender inequality in the workplace.
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Liz Ritchie

Lauren Barrett

It comes as talk around the under-representation of women in traditionally male-dominated industries such as mining, utilities and construction continues to heat up.

And it’s no wonder, with the issue having wider ramifications for the industry and economy.

Recent figures suggest increasing women’s employment rates could boost Australia’s growth domestic product by 11%.

The Australian Human Rights Commission recently released a report titled Women in male-dominated industries: a toolkit of strategies.

Along with a website, the toolkit is designed to encourage dialogue, engagement and sharing of approaches about increasing women’s representation in male-dominated industries.

According to the commission, women represent almost 46% of employees in Australia’s general workforce. But in the construction, mining and utilities industries, they account for just 12%, 15%, and 23% of employees respectively.

The figure is even lower for managers in these fields, with the Workplace Gender Equality Agency reporting in 2011 that about 33% of managers in reporting organisations were women.

Speaking to MiningNewsPremium following the release of the report, Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said there was no denying that males ruled the mining scene.

“It’s just a very male-dominated industry,” she said.

“We’re not seeing as many women coming into the industry.”

Ingrained stereotypes and biases were perhaps the biggest roadblocks preventing women taking on roles in male-dominated industries, and the preconceived ideas started at a very young age.

“Women are making choices at Year 9 that won’t take them to mining as a potential career,” she said.

Outdated perceptions on workplace culture and environment were also working against women.

“Often the workplaces are perceived to be very blokey,” Broderick said.

“That will be the perception, but not necessarily the reality.”

Committee for Economic Development of Australia WA director Liz Ritchie said there was a notion about women having to be extraordinary.

As well as being judged on their performance, they were being judged on looks, how they acted and how they engaged.

“It’s been said in many roundtable boardrooms that I’ve been in or conducted that women who are in senior leadership roles feel that they have to be extraordinary, otherwise they feel this ‘imposter syndrome’,” she said.

The imposter syndrome was a feeling of being fraudulent and a sense they were underserving of a senior position.

Ritchie said this pressure did not transfer to men in the same way.

“They [males] can fly under the radar because they are not a minority,” she said.

“Once you get critical mass you are no longer a minority and that changes perceptions on how we are viewed because there is critical mass.”

Ritchie said it was important the business case around the gender economic framework be understood at a wider level.

“Yes, the people having conversations in the boardroom, they’re getting access to the information, but is it filtering through to their organisation? Is it filtering through to schools, is it in the community groups?” she said.

“It’s not enough just to speak about it in a business context.”

Engaging the issue with men was also a key factor.

“We need to talk about it not as a women’s issue but as an economic and a productivity issue,” she said.

Iluka managing director and advocate for board gender diversity David Robb said the advantages of having more women in the workplace were staring us right in the face.

“The business case for gender equity on boards is proven, it just needs to be integrated and championed within business,” he said.

“Research proves having more females in senior leadership positions and on boards results in greater shareholder return and this is Iluka’s key objective.”

Robb cited a 2007 Catalyst report that found that Fortune 500 companies with more women on their boards achieved better financial performance on average than those with fewer female directors.

Robb, who recently spoke at CEDA’s women in leadership lunch, said his encouragement of gender diversity in the workplace was a result of the challenges he had witnessed in his personal and professional life.

Robb said while much of the resource industry still had a long way to go, a combined effort by boards, CEOs, managers, researchers and investors was needed to ensure the advancement of women in organisations and onto boards.

“Senior business leaders in those industries [mining and resources] need to champion the breaking down of gender stereotypes, and drive business policy and practice to recognise the value of attracting women into their industry and then retaining and developing them over time,” Robb said.

As chair of Iluka’s diversity committee, Robb oversees its focus of supporting development programs to encourage diversity.

Some specific initiatives undertaken by the committee include gender equity pay audits, paid parental leave, flexible work arrangements for both genders, formal performance and salary review processes highlighting the diversity agenda in terms of senior management objectives, and placing an importance on value and behaviour-based recruitment rather than a focus on skills and experience only.

While Robb sees advantages in fit-for-purpose initiatives and targets to improve the gender imbalance, he swiftly rejects the concept of quotas.

“I dismiss externally imposed and enforceable quotas on the basis that, based on my career experience, including conversations with many very capable women, such quotas produce sham progress, tokenism, and fearful unwillingness to address performance problems and self-serving compliance rather than commitment,” he said.

However, some were more open to the contentious concept.

With quotas being adopted in many countries around Europe, Broderick said it was too early to write quotas off completely.

“Initially at this stage I think we need to continue with targets, but I wouldn’t put quotas off the table,” she said.

While Ritchie said quotas worked in gaining critical mass, which could help break down stereotypes, she said forcing change wasn’t the right way to go about it.

“The negativity can have a big impact, whereas self-imposed change comes from a different place and has the potential to maybe have a longer-lasting impact,” she said.

While there is no quick fix solution to the gender imbalance in boardrooms, wide-ranging strategies such as introducing pay audits and mainstreaming flexibility are being talked about as good starting points.

Ritchie said increasing flexible work options was about getting creative and rethinking roles within the business.

“Businesses need to be actively evolving and that means evolving what work looks like,” she said.

“If you’re recruiting for a role that’s traditionally been 9am to 5pm, ask does it have to be 9am to 5pm or can that role be done equally as well from a different set of parameters around timing?”

Meanwhile, Broderick said the commission was working on breaking down gender barriers in schools.

“I think some of the most interesting work we are doing here at the Human Rights Commission is with a national school curriculum,” she said.

“That involves building the principle of gender equality into the school curriculum in subjects such as maths, english and geography.”

The program will be part of a national school curriculum when it is rolled out next year.

Broderick believes responsibility to instigate any sort of change needs to be an industry effort.

“The industry has the role in attraction, but individual organisations partially have a big role to play when it comes to retention and development,” she said.

“The first step is how do we attract them to the industry, then secondly how do we recruit them in and thirdly how do we retain and develop them once they’re recruited in?”