Discrimination – why women really ‘opt out’


We explain why the business case for increasing female participation in the workplace and reducing discrimination makes sense.

The business case for increasing female participation in the workplace and reducing discrimination makes sense. At the national leave, Grattan Institute estimates that a 6% increase in women’s workforce participation could increase the national GDP by $25billion.Australian business agrees, with significant investment continuing into initiatives designed to attract, retain and promote female talent and meet the publicly stated goals. Yet at the point when men and women are entering junior to middle management years (25-34 years), 86% of men work on a full-time basis compared with 67% of women. The gap widening as they age, where men maintain 88% full-time employment, women reduce to 53% – 58%.

While there is a long-term social and economic penalty on women for not fully participating in the workforce, leadership of corporate Australian also suffers as this talented – over 60% of bachelor, graduate diploma and post-graduate degrees are earned by women – female workforce drop out of the talent pipeline, and business repeats the cycle of drawing 90% of leaders from only 50% of the workforce (the male half).

Many leaders currently frustrated by the progress towards achieving gender parity will view the Human Rights Commission’s ‘Supporting Working Parents’ report as a welcome insight, revealing what may be undermining their efforts: discrimination. The report finds that sex discrimination starts at pregnancy, and affects both women (1 in 2) and men (1 in 4), and represents a major barrier to workforce participation and, therefore, economic performance. It also acknowledges that managing pregnancy and working parents can be a vexed issue for employers seeking to balance the needs of the business with the needs of employers, underpinned by a social infrastructure of rights and responsibilities that is not well understood.

But for many, the social infrastructure that underpins an employee and employer’s respective rights and responsibilities is simply too complex to navigate: between the Fair Work Act, Sex Discrimination Act, Paid Parental Leave Act, and overlaid with EBAs, employment contracts, and internal policies and procedures. Add in often well-intentioned senior managers imposing their own experiences and therefore stereotypes of parenting onto new mothers, and an all-too-often narrow business case that rewards employees on the basis of short-term returns and not economic cycles, and creates the perfect storm, or in this culture, within which pregnancy related discrimination can thrive.

While the report details the many different forms through which discrimination is experienced, ranging from negative attitudes to job loss, there was one statistic that revealed how truly ingrained in workplace culture discrimination is: 91% of mothers who experienced discrimination did not make a formal complaint. This tells us that discrimination, particularly around pregnancy and return to work, is a driving force behind a working mother’s decision to opt out from greater participation in the workforce, including what is now commonly referred to as “leaning in”.

Bain & Co’s 2013 findings in their report ‘Creating a positive cycle: critical steps to achieving gender parity in Australia’ supports this hypothesis: “Whereas it is presumed that women do not seek advancement because of family, it is more commonly because they lack support or encouragement from their companies: Mothers retain their overall career ambition but settle in due to the embedded institutional mindset of corporates.

The report also effectively provides the otherwise missing reason for Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s work in “The Confidence Gap”. For working mothers (although not yet fathers), taking maternity leave and having children is a perfectly acceptable reason for working flexibly and “treading water.” But usually underpinning that is a lack of confidence born out of discriminatory behaviours directed towards the individual whether consciously or subconsciously, confounded by their strong instinct to act as “nest protector” – and unwilling to jeopardise their capacity to protect their family: 72% reported that the discrimination impacted on their mental health. Mental health included stress and impact on their self-esteem and confidence. It is hardly an experience women would seek to put themselves through by choice.

So what does this mean for employers? Ultimately, the key to unlocking the potential of this talented workforce is addressing barriers of structure and style that make advancement and participation – in all organisations and all industries – so difficult.

Accountability must rest with workplace leaders who need to re-envision the pathway to equality and address the limiting beliefs that exist around the value of pregnant women and working parents. This requires auditing the impact and effects of discrimination within their own organisation, ensuring there is a clear business case for achieving gender parity, modelling the behaviours and values required to create an inclusive culture, and establishing a zero tolerance policy for discriminatory behaviours.

Practical measures such as up-skilling managers in people management and instilling a talent mindset to be capable of mainstreaming workplace flexibility and managing pregnancy as an event in a woman’s career, are also essential – dimensions which Australian managers when benchmarked against other countries, were found to be significantly lagging world best practice.

Finally, continued investment in working parents – especially mothers – should not be underestimated. Our experience is evidence that trained coaches, using a structured process swiftly redresses the negative impacts of workplace discrimination that affect a woman’s confidence, can inspire her to “lean in” to her professional vision, and by giving voice to her own value proposition, empower her to negotiate the terms she needs to enable the workplace to reap greatest value from her contributions.