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How to right workplace wrongs

Australian women are working longer hours and for more years than ever before, but it is not resulting in more savings or superannuation. The result is that the longer women live, the more financially vulnerable they become, research has shown.

In fact, Aussie men aged 55 years or older are twice as likely to have a superannuation balance of $100,000 or more compared with women, of whom more than half (approximately 58 per cent) have none at all, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Only 40 per cent of Australian women aged 55 or older are covered by superannuation at all. And only 16 per cent of retired women are currently receiving some kind of pension, compared with 32% of men, (this includes Centrelink aged pensions).  
 
One of the reasons for the gap in superannuation is the difference in pay received by men and women.

A male general manager in Australia is likely to earn up to $856 per week more than a woman of the same qualifications. According to the ABS a male general manager will take home an average of $2,819 a week while female GMs only take home $1,963.90 a week on average (average weekly cash gross earnings before tax).

  

The salary gap is particularly pronounced in the IT sector where a male ICT manager will take home an average of $3,182 a week compared with just $2,284 a week for women, according to the ABS.

Professor Kerry Brown, doctor of industrial relations from Curtin University, told Guardian Australia that women are waiting longer to have children – the average age of first childbirths occurs around age 32-33, according to the ABS.

“If you’re delaying children and they are requiring financial support longer because of university studies and things like that, what you’ve got is quite an incentive to stay in the workforce because you’ve got high levels of bills later on in your life,” she said.

Tracy Chou, an engineer at Pinterest, told Guardian Australia that research has shown that having children is not the deciding factor for most women to leave the workplace, but rather a “death by a 1,000 paper cuts” model.

Chou said there are too many institutional problematics that build up for women – a lack of flexible working arrangements, for example – that by the time they’re preparing to leave to have children, the situation is so untenable that they either don’t feel comfortable negotiating for flexible working arrangements or they give up working all together.

Anecdotally the engineer said she had heard from women within her industry who told her they didn’t feel they had the right to ask for more flexible working conditions upon their return from maternity leave because they didn’t want to be perceived as weak, inferior or demanding.

Professor Brown said Australian workplaces focus too much on “presenteeism” and said workplace performance should focus more on output.

“Do people need to be at the office from 8am to 7pm each day?” she said. “Or is being the last car in the work car-park a sign of loyalty?

“If you actually have flexible work arrangements focused on output outcomes, everyone can know what you’re working on and producing. I don’t think we’ve got this right yet. If you work on an output basis it doesn’t matter where you work, or how that work happens.”

So what can women do to empower themselves and how can workplaces support that?

Professor Brown said middle managers need to learn to be more flexible. She also recommended that women, particularly young women, learn how to advocate for themselves, whether that is through mentorship, taking a class or simply knowing their rights.

Professor Brown said research has shown that men are generally stronger negotiators than women.

“Some of our research shows women are not as good at negotiating arrangements as their male colleagues. That skill would give them more flexibility, but often they just don’t ask, they don’t let people know what is going on, making it harder for them to get those kinds of arrangements in the first place.”

Equally though, the system does not advantage women which is why in 2015 men still out-earn women by up to 36 per cent according to the United Nations, International Labour Organisation, Global Wage Report 2014/15  International Labor Organisation, Inclusive Labour Markets, Labour Relations and Working Conditions Branch (INWORK), 5 Dec 2014.

Tracy Chou told Guardian Australia that male mentorship is especially important for the advancement of women in the workplace.

“Women need advocates, and male executives and senior staff are well placed to provide this,” she said.

Chou, who is one of the most sought after engineers in Silicon Valley, says she was the recipient of male advocacy during her career but says it’s not something she sees enough of.

Mentorship programs and internal advocacy also have the effect of helping both genders speak (or at least understand) each other’s language.