Australian women are chalking up some wins in the workplace – yet our male leaders remain out of touch Emma Dawson

March 8, 2024

Do the men running most businesses even understand the contribution women make to the economy?

This International Women’s Day, ladies, put out your cupcakes for the 9-to-5 white collar working week. Recent changes to Australia’s industrial relations laws and public sector bargaining agreements suggest we just might be achieving some real progress towards more gender-equal workplace structures – and the blokes who have run the economy for the last 150 years are having a collective fit of the vapours.

First came the “right to disconnect” legislation as part of the government’s agreement with the Greens to pass the closing loopholes bill. This, according to the business lobby, will “kill” workplace flexibility. Apparently, if workers don’t want to answer their telephones or respond to emails when they are having dinner with their families or reading bedtime stories, they can forget about going to the dentist or picking the kids up from school, because “flexibility cuts both ways”.

Really? Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of workers who have worked permanent shifts on casual contracts for years, or to parents who have been forced back to the office after finally achieving some semblance of a work-life balance in the wake of Covid lockdowns.

Last week’s data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) revealing the real gender pay gap in Australia’s largest companies showed that a huge part of the reason women suffer an income penalty of up to 30% compared with men is that the big money goes to those who can outsource their unpaid domestic work to others (almost always their wives) and work long hours in the office in a full-time role. That’s how you climb the ladder to senior roles in the “white collar” industries that pay high salaries.

A vast proportion of women don’t even try to work in offices once their children come along. Despite more Australian women than men now graduating from university, they still make up the majority of workers in the grossly underpaid and casualised retail, hospitality and care workforces, as these are the jobs that can most easily be fit in around the domestic work and care responsibilities that still fall overwhelmingly to women in heterosexual partnered households.

When women do work in offices on a 9-to-5 schedule, they are much less likely to be promoted to management and executive roles, primarily because they “choose” to work part time. This choice, of course, is due to the fact that schools operate from 9am to 3.30pm and women are still the most likely to be doing the drop-offs and pick-ups. They are also more likely to do the grocery shopping, cook meals, do laundry and take on the mental load of running a household. And as they get older, they are the ones who take time out again to care for ageing parents or other family members who are sick or disabled.

Do the men running most of Australia’s businesses get this? Do they even understand the contribution women make to the economy?

Comments by the business lobby about “those who have no choice but to be at work – truck drivers, plumbers, teachers, paramedics, factory workers, chefs, doctors” suggest not. Other than teaching, every one of those professions is dominated by men. Women often choose teaching because it fits with their kids’ school hours. They don’t “choose” the other jobs in this list because the structure of those workplaces makes it impossible for them to look after their families.

Yet more evidence that the highly paid men who dominate both business and our economic discourse utterly fail to consider the needs of women came in an astonishing piece by former deputy chief medical officer of Australia Nick Coatsworth this week. Working from home, he said, is “likely to be bad for your health” because it leads to more stress and a sedentary lifestyle – no walking or cycling to and from the office or the train, less movement while working because you only have to get up to go to the toilet, and you can’t exercise at home on company time.

Again, who is out of touch here? Any working woman with responsibilities at home will tell you we don’t have time to walk or cycle to work – we have to drop the kids on the way to and from the office, so we are rushing, often in the car. When we do work at home, we get up from our desks multiple times a day to put on a load of washing or unload the dishwasher or greet the grocery delivery driver at the front door. (Each of these tasks, by the way, takes five minutes: less than you’d spend on the “water cooler chat” that Coatsworth thinks so valuable.)

As for time to exercise, don’t make me laugh. There’s a multitude of evidence showing that women don’t exercise because they don’t have the time, and if they get any time, they are too exhausted after pulling a double shift – one in the office and one at home.

The UN theme for International Women’s Day this year is “Invest in women: accelerate progress”. If the stale, pale males who represent the interests of big business and employers in this country can’t keep up with the long-overdue progress in workplace practices that is finally under way then, frankly, we’ll all be better off when they accelerate into retirement.


Originally published in The Guardian Australia, March 8 2024