Facing raw realities in regional Australia

Regional Australia is often years behind in the push for equality in women's pay and career opportunities. But women can take matters into their own hands, writes Neal Vaughan.

A recent 2015 study by Charles Sturt University found women’s pay gaps are higher and harder to bridge in many regional companies due to more non-award pay agreements and management differences.

A 2015 study by the University of New England (UNE) goes further, saying outdated workplace attitudes actually hold women back.

UNE pro vice chancellor (academic) Alison Sheridan says her research confirms the CSU study and what many regional women see in their day-to-day working life.

"The Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency found women contribute 50 per cent of the economic output of regional areas, yet most still hit the glass ceiling where their city counterparts have broken through."

After recently completing a detailed UNE study into the obstacles facing professional women's careers in rural Australia, Sheridan says women often become invisible in regional businesses. Their need for workplace flexibility is widely seen as a problem by business, not a feature that can improve productivity.

Co-authored by Sujana Adapa and Jenny Rindfleish, the UNE study focused on the accounting profession. It revealed a gap in status and rewards such us bonus payments in regional accounting firms, despite women generally being better qualified than men at the start of their careers.


Region-by-region number crunching confirms this. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2014) figures reported for the Clarence Valley show an average gender pay gap of 18.8 per cent compared to the national 17.1 per cent – equating to women receiving $300 a week less than men on average.

On the plus side, the UNE study's results for micro-businesses showed much better outcomes in both pay and seniority for women, thanks to more empathy with their abilities and workplace needs.

This highlights a major reason women struggle to advance their careers in many larger regional businesses. The UNE team found a profound lack of understanding of the needs of women with families and surprisingly conservative attitudes in general. Sheridan outlines how a senior male executive said women couldn't be trusted with sensitive information.

It was like an episode of Mad Men; a comment you might have heard in Sydney 25 years ago.

"There is a pronounced lack of women in senior roles compared to the big cities. A lot of talented women settle for lower-level career outcomes or leave. The roles are there but there are barriers rarely found in cities these days," Sheridan says.

Outdated management attitudes, which lead to lack of workplace flexibility, compounded by fewer childcare resources in rural areas (particularly long day care) are some of these barriers.

Take control

These issues are echoed by Australian Women in Agriculture president Elizabeth Brennan. But she notes a lot of progress is being made and that women's attitude, particularly their own self-confidence, is playing a big role in this.

“I work in the wheat belt north of Perth and men do understand the issues. Things are evolving, but women in other industries need to follow agriculture's example, to network more and set their own agenda," Brennan says.

One way to do this is for regional women to know their worth in the job market and to build networks with other female professionals in different industries. Brennan recalls selling her own skills short: "I know that I've undersold myself when going for jobs – it's the old adage men only need to be 80 per cent sure while women want to be 120 per cent sure."

She believes the power of women's networks is transformational and that technology is the key. This includes opening up wide-ranging support to build self-confidence, as well as providing practical solutions such as developing alternative childcare networks, or simply being armed with salary comparisons before a job interview.

One big issue in Brennan's view is that regional communications infrastructure is slowing progress and she urges women in senior positions to press for better country internet services.

UNE’s study also points to how women can improve their own position. Building on the findings that women do better in micro firms of five staff or less, Sheridan says “in smaller firms the problem of invisibility largely solves itself as everyone works closely together and stereotypical gender roles and work practices are broken down”.

She suggests the same can happen in larger businesses, but women must have the confidence to draw attention to the problems they face. They need to support each other and raise their profile on regional professional and government bodies, "so women's issues are addressed beyond the big-city corporate boardrooms".

If you're working in regional Australia and feel your career and pay are being compromised, visit the Fair Work Ombudsman’s website which sets out award pay rates and conditions. Also consider private job comparison sites such as PayScale. To become more involved in local business and professional groups, contact your local chamber of commerce.

Neil Vaughan