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It’s the Australian Paradox. In terms of women’s educational attainment, no country does better, according to the World Economic Forum. But when it comes to women’s participation in the economy, this nation of 26 million ranks 70th on the WEF’s list — behind Kazakhstan, Serbia and Zimbabwe. As recently as 2006 it sat at No. 12.

Political and economic life here is dominated by men to an even greater degree than in the United States, the United Kingdom or Canada — Australia’s cultural kin. And Down Under, as elsewhere, the pandemic is making inequality of all kinds even worse.

Four years after #MeToo shook American power centers from Wall Street to Hollywood, Australia is trying to play catch-up. In September, the government formally adopted six recommendations from the Australian Human Rights Commission aimed at reducing workplace harassment. Equality advocates wanted 55.

The price of inaction — nationally, as well as for individuals — is significant: Sexual harassment is costing the economy an estimated $2.75 billion a year.

The numbers from corporate Australia over the past year are equally sobering. Only one of the 23 new chief executive officers appointed to a major company was a woman. Among the top 200 businesses, the number of female CEOs has fallen to 10, down from 14 in 2018. That compares with 33 in the U.S., or around 6% — a slightly higher level of representation than in Australia, according to Bloomberg calculations. The gender pay gap rose almost 1 percentage point to 31.3% when taking into account total full- and part-time salaries and overtime. In the U.S., where the gap is calculated differently, it stayed steady at 16%.

At the cultural core of gender inequality in Australia is “mateship,” a concept that traces its history back to the country’s penal colony roots and through its participation in various far-flung wars.

The term connotes a sense of shared sacrifice, duty and loyalty — and largely applies only to men operating in a man’s world. While the U.S. has “bro” culture and Britain has its lads, mateship is singularly antipodean and applies predominantly to men — that is, those who tend to hold the power.

“It has no translation into a feminine view of the world,” said Sam Mostyn, president of women’s leadership advocacy group Chief Executive Women.

Privately, and occasionally publicly, Australian executives concede that women’s careers are blunted by mateship and the exclusionary culture it fosters. Some executives have used the pandemic as an excuse to avoid promoting women to top roles, says Mostyn, who also serves on the board of Citigroup locally and of toll road company Transurban Group. She says they argue that women present a “risk” in uncertain times.

“Australia has a cultural problem with women in leadership,” Mostyn said. “There is a lack of respect for women at work, there is a very high tenor of safety issues for women in their homes, and Australia hasn’t taken advantage of the advances made in women’s education.”

Some executives have used the pandemic as an excuse to avoid promoting women to top roles, said Sam Mostyn, president of women’s leadership advocacy group Chief Executive Women. | BLOOMBERG
Some executives have used the pandemic as an excuse to avoid promoting women to top roles, said Sam Mostyn, president of women’s leadership advocacy group Chief Executive Women. | BLOOMBERG

While 54% of all finance workers are female, more than two-thirds of the sector’s key management executives — and 90% of its CEOs — are men. (Shemara Wikramanayake, who turned Macquarie Group Ltd.’s asset management business into its most profitable unit before taking the top job in 2018, is a noteworthy exception.) The earnings gap in the financial services industry was 24.1% as of May, second only to professional and technical services.

At investment banks, the lack of senior women in client-facing roles is so dire that corporate and government clients are starting to push back.

When some of the biggest banks presented to the government of Victoria state for a mandate to help sell its $1.3 billion motor registry unit earlier this year, they were told they would be assessed not only on diversity within their deal teams but also firm-wide policies and initiatives addressing gender equality, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Morgan Stanley won the mandate. A Victorian government spokesperson said that all public sector suppliers must demonstrate progress on gender equality in the workplace and the community following the implementation of new state regulations earlier this year.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. was in the crosshairs earlier this year after sending an all-male team to pitch a deal to Telstra Corp., Australia’s biggest telecommunications company. At the time, Telstra complained that no women were included. A spokesperson for Goldman declined to comment on the incident.

“Definitely the large majority of the investment-banking teams that I have dealt with have been pretty much all male, or male by a large majority,” said Vicki Brady, chief financial officer of Telstra.

“But in the last few months we have made it very clear to the investment banks that one of our requirements is to see how they bring to us diverse teams to bring us the best advice. The more the diverse the team, the better the advice.”

Telstra, Australia’s 10th biggest listed company, is stepping up its own efforts as investors sharpen their focus on environmental, social and governance issues. About 30% of the executive leadership team is currently made up of women and the firm has promised all new recruits will be hired from a gender-balanced pool. BHP Group PLC, the world’s biggest miner, property group Stockland and Sydney Airport are among companies that have not only set ambitious gender diversity goals but have made progress in the past year, with women making up at least half of their executive leadership teams.

Perhaps because they face more scrutiny, large companies tend to have better representation and more aggressive goals for improvement. Most of the country’s top 100 companies have set some kind of goal for increasing female representation, and only 25% have no target. In the top 300, some 43% haven’t set a target.

Security software firm Nuix Ltd., which made its debut on the stock market in December, is one of them: Just 11% of its executive leadership team is female. A Nuix spokesperson said the company wants to promote more women and has a dedicated awareness-raising group inside the business. It’s also aiming to lift the proportion of women on its board to 30% from the current level of 20%.

Optimists had hoped for more in 2021. First Grace Tame, an activist and sexual assault survivor, was named Australian of the Year. Then thousands of Australians marched for change after Brittany Higgins, a former legislative aide in Parliament, accused a senior colleague of raping her in the defense minister’s office.

But for many people, Prime Minister Scott Morrison inadvertently embodied the country’s sexism problem when he said publicly that he hadn’t understood the seriousness of Higgins’ claims until his wife asked him to imagine the victim was one of his daughters.

The second nation in the world to grant women the right to vote and the first to let them stand for Parliament, Australia now lags not only cultural peers like the U.S. but wealthy nations more broadly, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The Australian Club in Sydney. In June, members voted to maintain a ban on letting women join. | BLOOMBERG
The Australian Club in Sydney. In June, members voted to maintain a ban on letting women join. | BLOOMBERG

Rae Frances, professor of history at the Australian National University and dean of its College of Arts and Social Sciences, points to an obvious reason for the country’s women problem: “A very strong old boys’ network.”

She says that in addition to Australia’s historical commitment to traditional nuclear families, the prevalence of single-sex schools has fostered sexist and exclusionary attitudes that carry over into industries likes finance and law. Some 16% of Australian students attend single-sex schools, compared to 7.5% in the U.K. and just 2.8% in the U.S.

The persistence of those exclusionary attitudes was laid bare earlier this year by the Australian Club — the oldest gentlemen’s club in the southern hemisphere, with a membership that reads like a Who’s Who of the Australian elite. In June, members voted overwhelmingly to maintain the 183-year-old ban on letting women join the club.

Some of the men expressed concern that they might be seduced out of their marriages by new female members or that they would no longer be able to behave in a “boorish” way if women were allowed into the space. A representative for the Australian Club declined to comment.

“That’s about elites and a certain section of the elites,” Frances said.

Meanwhile, more than half of Australian workers are employed in industries that predominantly employ one gender, such as mining or nursing. That dynamic has remained stubbornly persistent over the past 20 years, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. And because wages tend to be higher in male-dominated industries than ones that employ a lot of women, the pay gap hasn’t changed much either. It hardly helps that men hold almost two-thirds of all full-time jobs.

Bridging the difference between male and female employment rates alone could provide an 8% boost — $114 billion a year — to the Australian economy, according to 2019 estimates from Goldman Sachs.

Mary Wooldridge, director of the government agency set up almost a decade ago to improve gender equality in the workplace, said discrimination remains the biggest issue for professional women. Career breaks to have and take care of children affect the pay gap, too. Even though Australia, unlike the U.S., has mandated parental leave policies, the cost of child care is relatively high and few men take up flexible working options.

Of course women aren’t the only ones facing prejudice. One in two Indigenous Australians experienced discrimination or harassment in the workplace in the previous 12 months, according to a 2020 study by the Diversity Council of Australia — twice the rate of non-Indigenous workers. Disabled employees and LGBTQ staff also faced significantly higher rates of harassment than their colleagues.

On the gender front at least, change seems to be coming, albeit slowly. The Australian Human Rights Commission concluded — unsurprisingly — that sexual harassment tends to be worse in male-dominated industries. BHP in August said it had fired 48 workers at remote mining sites in Western Australia since July 2019 over instances of harassment. For its part, Rio Tinto reported 29 instances. And in the same month all-male boards disappeared from the nation’s top 200 companies for the first time.

Kate Jenkins, Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner and architect of the human rights commission report that found 1 in 3 people experienced sexual harassment at work, says the nation has finally reached a turning point.

“Up until the last few years, the general view by many leaders has been that this isn’t a big problem, that this is a thing of the past or that it doesn’t cause harm or cost,” Jenkins said in an interview.

“The attitude has changed with the realization that this isn’t just a few bad blokes, this is systemic risk that industries need to manage.”

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