AmCham WA Women in Leadership breakfast - Do we have a work place culture of gender discrimination?

WA Equal Opportunity Commissioner Allanah Lucas | July 27, 2015
AmCham pic
General Manager WA AmCham Penelope Williamsonm WA EO Commissioner Allanah Lucas and Chair AmCham's Women in Leadership Committee WA Lyn Beazley

Do we have a work place culture of Gender Discrimination?

150 years of advances

Women have come a long way in the last 150 years.

In 1899 women in WA were given the right to vote. It was the second state to allow women to vote following SA in 1895.

 In 1902 women were able to vote federally and be elected to Parliament - Australia was the first country in the world to allow both these things to happen.

In 1903 four women stood for election, none were successful, but they were the first female candidates for any national parliament in the British Commonwealth.

In 1920 women won the right to sit in Parliament in WA and Edith Cowan was the first woman to enter any Australian parliament when she won the WA Legislative Assembly seat of West Perth in 1921.

In 1943 Dorothy Tangney was elected to Commonwealth Parliament when she won a Senate position to represent WA and Enid Lyons was elected to the House of Representatives in the seat of Darwin Tasmania.

In 1945 the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations affirmed the rights of women in the statement "faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women".

In 1966 The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights specifically bound ratifying States to ensure that women and men had equal enjoyment of all the rights they establish.

However, the fact of women's humanity proved insufficient to guarantee them the enjoyment of their internationally agreed rights, so in 1979 the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the UN General Assembly.

In 1984 the Federal Sex Discrimination Act was established, it was the same year our own Equal Opportunity Act came through parliament with its own grounds of sex discrimination and sexual harassment which aim to provide gender equality in WA.

All of these achievements were hard fought and incredibly important to gender equality at a state, national and international level – and Australia, and Western Australia in particular, has a history to be proud of.

Workplace gender equity today in WA

So why, with all the hard fought political and legal achievements of the last 150 years, is female representation on boards and in leadership roles in Australia –and this state -so low?

And why is the pay gap still so wide – particularly in WA?

When it comes to workplace gender equality, Australia has fallen behind.

In 2012, 16% of board directors in the United States were women compared with 12.3% in Australia.

In South Africa 5.3% of board chairs were women compared with 3.0% in Australia, and in Canada, 6.1% of CEOs were women compared with 3.5% in Australia.

It's not just in the corporate world where gender equality in Australia is lagging. When comparing women in national parliaments internationally, Australia's ranking has slipped from 21 to 38 over the past decade.

Here in WA, there are less than half the number of female directors, less than one third of the number of board chairs and less than half the number of female CEO ’s than the Australian national average (which as I mentioned previously, is not very high).

And while according to the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Gender Gap Report Australia ranks 63 out of 143 for wage equality for similar work, Western Australia’s pay gap is the worst in the country at 25 percent!

63 out of 143 is not a good result, and the most puzzling thing about that is that Australia is ranked number one (along with several other countries) for educational attainment for women.

Of course we know that women in Australia are well educated.

Since 1985 women have been graduating from universities at higher rates than men and since the year 2000 comprise 55 percent of all graduates.

That is consistent across critical disciplines such as business and law where female graduates in 2011 comprised 50 and 60 percent respectively. However the same cannot be said for STEM fields where, engineering in particular has only 15 percent female graduates.

Never-the-less educated women are graduating from engineering studies with strong qualifications.

According to the Women in Engineering’s 2012 Statistical Report, in 2001, 12.5% of women commenced three year bachelor’s degrees compared to 15.0% of men.

 Over the decade both shares fell, but the fall was higher for men (from 15.0% to 8.9%) than for women (from 12.5% to 10.7%).

The share of men who commenced double degrees was relatively stable, changing only marginally from 25.6% to 26.4%. However, proportionally more women commenced double degrees in 2001 (32.4%) and over the decade even more preferred this format increasing the share to 35.6% in 2010.

Role of culture in workplace gender equity

All the vital legal, political and educational infrastructure is in place for women, not only in Australia but in many places around the world, so why is this not translating into equality once women hit the workforce?

The heart of the matter is cultural and while direct forms of sex discrimination still exist in the workplace and sex discrimination and sexual harassment have remained consistently in our top five number of workplace complaints over the last three years – cultural  ‘norms’ ,  customs and practices and outdated stereotypes are still embedded in our psychology,  unconsciously or consciously. 

From generation to generation we pass down and repeat a belief and customs system that often does not match the legal and educational framework surrounding us.  Our ‘norms’ are systemic and often much harder to winkle out and to address.


Right from when a child is born it is sexualised through the toys given, the activities it is encouraged to take part in and the language that is spoken to it.

It is often hard to imagine that these seemingly insignificant gestures can influence a society’s workplace culture, but it can and it does.

Those children hopefully grow up to one day be a part of the workforce and when they do they will bring with them learned behaviours from a very young age.

The differential treatment of boys and girls in traditional Western society when it comes to the ability to take risks in childhood play, promotes less self-confidence and self-esteem for women in work contexts (Pallier, 2003; Sahlstein & Allen, 2002; White, Cox & Cooper, 1992).

Additionally, males are expected to confront and act with competitiveness, whereas females are expected to act communally with interpersonal sensitivity (Eagly & Johannesen-Schmidt, 2001; Phelan, Moss-Racusin & Rudman, 2008).

Girls and Women’s choices limited by customs and expectations

As I mentioned STEM fields - and engineering in particular - are an area where female participation is low.

Why, if STEM subjects are a prerequisite for all of the State’s top 20 priority occupations, are young women not flocking to these subjects?

Recent studies show that, despite low numbers of girls undertaking STEM subjects, it has been consistently shown that girls have no less aptitude for these subjects.

Rather they form attitudes towards their suitability to undertake STEM subjects, or careers related to these subjects, based on the input from parents and teachers.  (Buday,Stake & Peterson, 2012; Butler, Clarke & Simon, 2014; Else-Quest, Mineo & Higgins, 2013).

Diffidence is also more socially acceptable for females, which reinforces this behaviour as being appropriate at the expense of self-confidence or assertive behaviours, the latter being  associated with leadership. (Doey, Coplan & Kingsbury, 2014

These stereotypes then continue throughout a woman’s life so that not only will she choose to study humanities over STEM subjects, when she gets into the workforce she will choose to behave in a certain way which could affect her career projection.

Double bind

In the workplace a double bind is placed on women, where they are viewed negatively if they act in the assertive, competitive manner associated with leadership roles. They are viewed as aggressive, yet if they are not assertive they may be passed over as not being strong enough to lead.

However, because of our pre-existing cultural attitudes towards men, their assertive behaviour is not viewed negatively.

This is not the only way that workplace limitations are placed on women through gender stereotypes.

The stereotypical view of women having better people skills will often mean they are placed in management roles of teams or organisations in crisis.

The glass cliff

Dubbed ‘the glass cliff’, this phenomenon can impinge on the career advancement of women as it can set them up for failure. (Ryan & Haslam, 2005; Ryan Haslam & Postems, 2007) Basically it describes the way women are given an ‘opportunity’ to lead and resolve a difficult situation that has a high risk of failure.  If they don’t succeed then the impact is far greater.

Caring for Children

Though many men are working in parity with their women partner s the inequitable sharing of childcare and household responsibilities continues. Women with children suffer the most workplace disadvantage and have greater difficulty advancing to higher positions (Corrigal & Konrad, 2006; Hoobler, et al., 2009; Pinnington & Sandberg, 2013).

Evidence supporting this can be found in statistics relating to taking breaks from employment among degree qualified people.

Where 43% of women with children took time away from careers, only 24% of men took time away. The primary reason for women to take time off work was for family, while for men it was to change careers (Hewlett & Luce, 2005).

This phenomenon is true of most countries.

Men rarely if ever have to make a choice between career and family, whereas women with children nearly always report that family responsibilities are such that they often feel they have to make a choice between having a career and having a family or giving up something in order to meet family responsibilities. (Kokot, 2014; van Veldhoven & Beijer, 2012; Nemoto, 2013)

Parenting pressures are most intense among women with the most career potential. They are most likely to be exposed to extra working hours, as well as being the most self-critical of their own parenting (Bianchi et al., 2006; Groysberg & Abrahams, 2014; Maume & Houston, 2001).

Because of parenting and career juggling act, women with children are generally far more likely to suffer physical and emotional exhaustion and burnout (Reichl, Leiter & Spinath, 2014).

And organisational norms about the value of work and work roles do not help this.

Flexible work arrangements

This is important for everyone and if we can get it right for the majority of the population who are women then we will be doing a great favour to all.

Just under half of Australian organisations have flexible work policies, but only 13.6% have strategies in place for their implementation, which is surprising given that in Australia, through the Fair Work Act, an employer cannot refuse, except on reasonable business grounds, a request by an entitled employee for flexible work arrangements.

Although the majority of employees to take up flexible working hours are women with family responsibilities, it has been reported that when implemented flexible work arrangements have resulted in lower absenteeism, reduced tardiness, reduced staff turnover, higher work commitment, greater job satisfaction, higher performance and enhanced brand image as an organisation (Perry-Smith & Blum, 2000; Stone, 2014)

However organisational culture and managerial discretion have been identified as the two greatest obstacles to maximising flexible working outcomes.

To a degree, workplace culture influences manager decision making in negotiating workplace flexibility agreements. Culture is a key factor explaining why there are large gaps between organisational policies around flexibility and their implementation (Blair-Loy & Wharton, 2002; McDonald, Brown & Bradley, 2005; Paustian-Underdahl & Halbesleben, 2014).

Cultural barriers

Some of the cultural barriers identified as inhibiting policy implementation include:

  • expectations to be physically seen at work over extended periods of time (Perlow, 1995;Thompson, Beauvais & Lyness, 1999)
  • prioritising work above all other responsibilities (Perlow, 1995)
  • human resource administrator commitment and teamwork management (Kim, 2001)
  •  level of ‘social support’ (Thompson, Jahn, Kopelman & Protas, 2004) and transition support (Sherer & Coakley,1999) available to assist employees using flexible work arrangements
  • peer support (Kossek, 1999,Teasdale, 2013; Whitehouse & Zetlin, 1999)
  • gender of supervisors (Brescoll, Glass & Sedlovskaya)
  • gender and status of employee requesting flexible work arrangements (Brescoll, Glass & Sedlovskaya, 2013; Haas & Hwang, 1995)
  • formal and informal communication of work-family policies(Kirby & Krone, 2002)
  • ·overall family-supportive organisational perceptions (Allen, 2001)
  • career consequences (Conway & Sturges, 2013; Durbin & Tomlinson, 2014)

So you can see that women in the workforce are not only subject to unsubstantiated and outmoded l ideas about behaviour, but also the cultural practices within organisations, how they should be run and what makes an ideal employee fit for promotion.

These ideas allow for the systemic discrimination of women in the workplace.

Senior male employers bring all of their biases about gender and workplace stereotypes when it comes down to choosing between a highly qualified man and a highly qualified woman.


Laws only go so far

As you can see sex discrimination and sexual harassment laws can only go so far when cultural change is needed to progress equality.

Yes, the hard fought achievements of the last 150 years have provided invaluable infrastructure for gender equality and they are vital for guiding community standards.

However gender equality will stall if we do not address cultural change in ourselves firstly and outside in our own behaviour, in our workplaces and through policies and practises that target systemic discrimination.

Culture change starts with children

So let’s start with our children-  in the toys we buy them, in the games we play with them and the language we use when we speak to them and most of all in removing any thought of ‘gender ‘When we support them in making important choices in their lives.

Workplaces and leadership

 Let us support each other and those who manage organisations to develop strong flexible workplaces.

Let’s think outside the square when promoting an employee – can you imagine how well a person who successfully manages a team of irrational children on a daily basis would be at managing a team at work? Anyone who has done both would know that the latter can often be comparatively quite easy.

I’m not saying that cultural change is easy, it is an inter-generational process that will take some time, but hopefully I’ve provided some starting points for you all today.