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Time to consider women for non-traditional roles

Sex Discrimination

(An edited version of this piece appeared in The Australian on Tuesday 21 May 2013 under the title ‘Room for women in all workplaces’.)

There is much said about talent shortages and the lack of skilled workers in Australia today, but so often we are not interested in looking in our own backyard to find these people. Too often we fail to learn from businesses that have made successful strides in tackling this conundrum.

With a little coaxing, self-examination and sharing of information we can find solutions right under our noses and turn things around to become masters of our own success.

For many years, women have not been associated with, or considered for, jobs in male-dominated industries.

We are one of the most occupationally segregated countries in the developed world. We assume that ‘women’s work’ is to be found in areas such as healthcare, education and retail.

For many women and girls who are trying to make a decision about where they wish to develop their career, the idea that they could work in technical or operational fields such as mining, construction or utilities, or one day be a part of the senior leadership in industries dominated by male executives, is simply out of the question. You can't be what you can't see.

Australia ranks fourth in the world in talent shortages, well above the global average. 45% of Australian employers are having difficulty filling key positions in their organisations - particularly skilled trades people and engineers, both of which have remained at the top of the local skills shortage list since 2006.

Given this ‘war for talent’, some organisations in the mining, utilities and construction industries are advertising off-shore to attract employees. This is despite a large pool of talent, namely women, available in Australia.

Why aren’t we capitalising on this obvious and little tapped market?

For one, there is empirical evidence that girls are discouraged from developing their skills in maths and science from a young age.. 

This is in large part associated with gendered stereotypes. The Harvard Implicit Associate Test, which tested more than half a million people globally, found that 70% of the test takers associated ‘male’ with science, and ‘female’ with the arts.

This stereotyping can be reinforced at home, where it is rare to find female role models encouraging the other women and girls in their families to consider careers in mining, construction or utilities - or demonstrating their own paths in these fields. It is hard for women to find information about possible career paths in male-dominated industries as the conversation about such a career is rarely directed at them.

There are also a lot of negative perceptions of these jobs and anecdotal feedback about unfavourable workplace environments that are ‘blokey’ and have a high tolerance for bullying and discrimination. Add to these the negative perceptions about women in the workplace, their commitment and the nature of the work women can perform and it's not surprising we find so few. 

This needs to change. Such under-representation of women continues to affect gender equality, industry performance and our nation’s economy.

According to a Goldman Sachs report, narrowing the gap between male and female employment rates would increase Australia’s GDP by 11%. The country’s overall economic activity could be boosted by up to 20%.

The flow-on effects for the wider community could include increasing pension sustainability, lifting household savings, and increasing the government’s tax revenues.

But look a little closer, and you will find things are changing … slowly.

Some companies are recognising the need to develop an integrated and targeted strategy to increase the number of women in non-traditional roles - strategies for attracting more women, for inclusive and rigorous interview and selection processes, for retaining them in more gender inclusive environments, and for formal and on the job development opportunities.

This is why the Australian Human Rights Commission, with the support of the Minister for the Status of Women and FaCHSIA, brought together members of these industries to gather information on their experience and knowledge.

Today we are launching ‘Women in male-dominated industries: A toolkit of strategies’. It is not just a report and toolkit – it is an online platform to facilitate an interactive dialogue about how to increase women’s representation in male-dominated industries. It provides an opportunity for employers, employees, government, community, and unions to think about the contribution women can make and share strategies for how best to attract, recruit, retain and develop women in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Successfully bringing more women into non-traditional roles will require cultural evolution - it will require a determination to utilise all the talent Australia has to offer - it will require us to challenge the stereotypes about men and women's work.

Smart businesses are recognizing this - recruiting more than their their fair share of female talent - and in so doing, are not just building stronger and more profitable businesses but a stronger national economy.  Other male-dominated industries have much to learn from them.

Published in The Australian