How can Australian SMEs improve gender equality in the workplace?

As 96% of the Australian economy, small business has a key role to play in reducing gender inequality in the workplace. With the economic fallout from the pandemic affecting women disproportionately, we look at steps Australian SMEs can take to address inequality — and why from a business law firm’s perspective we believe it makes good business sense to do so. 

What is gender equality in the workplace?

According to the Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), workplace gender equality means people can access and benefit from the same rewards and opportunities, regardless of gender. 

In terms of rewards, most of us are aware of the persistent gender pay gap in the Australian workforce. The effect of that inequality is that women retire with less superannuation than men.

In terms of opportunities, men have less access to parental leave or flexible work arrangements than women. That inequality affects a family’s ability to freely make choices that reflect their priorities, values and financial needs. 

What gender equality in the workplace ultimately aims to achieve is broadly equal opportunities and outcomes for all, rather than the same outcomes for everyone.

Small business concerns

Council of Small Businesses of Australia (COSBOA) chief executive Peter Strong has publicly stated SMEs have an important role to play in shifting workplace gender equality, but is worried that reporting requirements would incur additional red tape.

Under the Workplace Gender Equality Act, only businesses employing more than 100 people have to report annually on gender pay gaps. Technically speaking, Australian SMEs currently have no reporting obligation on the gender gaps in their workplaces.

But with Australian SMEs accounting for approximately 40% of Australia’s workforce, substantial data is missing to construct a true picture of equality in the Australian workplace.

Gender equality in the workplace is good for business

Achieving gender equality in the workplace is a key element of future-proofing the Australian economy. According to the WGEA’s business case for workplace gender equality, eradicating the gender gap would lead to a range of commercial benefits including:

  • improved national productivity and economic growth
  • future-proofing the Australian economy against demographic changes by increasing women’s workforce participation rate
  • stronger organisational performance
  • a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining employees
  • enhanced company reputation

The first step Australian SMEs can take towards gender equality

The Fair Work Ombudsman has this excellent guide to best practice in addressing the gender pay gap.

While acknowledging that achieving best practice will vary among employers because of the industry and number of employees, there is nevertheless a significant first step that any employer should take to address gender pay inequality.

That first step is to identify and recognise gender pay gaps, whether they are:

  1. Like for like (between people doing work of comparable value)
  2. By-level (by people doing comparable work with similar responsibilities)
  3. Organisation-wide (comparing the average remuneration of men to women across the company)

Engaging men a key to achieving workplace gender equality

The way men think, act, and relate to women and other men in the workplace are important factors in sustaining gender inequality at work — and at chipping away at it, according to the Diversity Council of Australia (DCA). 

The top three ways to engage men on gender equality at work

Together with two of Australia’s foremost researchers on workplace diversity and inclusion, Dr Graeme Russell and Dr Michael Flood, the DCA has provided this ten-step framework for Australian SMEs to engage men in effecting lasting change in the workplace. 

Their top three suggestions:

1. Get the foundation right

Involve women and men as active and equal partners in gender equality initiatives.

2. Get the framing right

Address gender equality as a business issue, not a women’s issue.

3. Go wide

Highlight all the areas of workplace gender inequality rather than focusing on one. For example, address personal safety as much as financial security. 


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