Gender equality in the workplace is still a big issue

By Mary Wooldridge 

Like many Australians, I took the opportunity this summer to catch up on some holiday reading. One of the books I read was the hugely popular Lessons In Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus.

The book chronicles the life of a chemist, Elizabeth Zott, in 1960s California.

It documents the appalling gender discrimination she faced in the workplace and the success of her ensuing TV show, nominally a cooking show, more a female empowerment chemistry lesson.

As I was reading, two things struck me in equal measure.

The first was how far we have come in workplace gender equality since the 1960s.

While the book is set in California, the conditions are parallel to many women's experiences in 1960s Australian workplaces.

There are now important legal measures in place to protect women in the workplace. The Sex Discrimination Act introduced in 1984 made it unlawful for anyone to be discriminated against based on sex, marital status, pregnancy or family responsibility and protects employees from sexual harassment.

Elizabeth, therefore, could no longer be fired for being pregnant.

Elizabeth would also no longer be an anomaly in the workplace.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency's latest Gender Equality Scorecard shows that women now make up 51 per cent of the Australian workforce. The idea of working parttime or flexibly in the 1960s, particularly for men, was unheard of. We now see that 82 per cent of employers have a formal policy on flexibility for their employees. Over three in five employers offer employer-funded paid parental leave and 92 per cent of those offer it equally to men and women.

It is now not only acceptable but normalised that a woman can, and would, choose to have a career.

But the second thing that struck me was how much of what Elizabeth experienced persists in Australian workplaces today.

We may read accounts of Elizabeth's horrific experiences of sexual harassment and think that would never happen in Australia today, but it happens all too frequently.

In 2022, the Australian Human Rights Commission's national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces found that one-in-three workers had experienced workplace sexual harassment in the last five years. The survey found that only 18 per cent of incidents are reported.

In the fictional Hastings Research Institute, Elizabeth is the only professional female staff member and is commonly mistaken for a typist or a secretary.

While the number of professional women has dramatically increased, women are still under-represented in management and over-represented in lower paying support roles.

In Australia in Elizabeth's industry of professional, scientific and technical Services, women make up only 37 per cent of the management roles, but 76 per cent of clerical and administrative staff.

Perhaps most importantly, men, on average, are still paid far more than women - $26,600 a year to be precise. Across every industry and at every level, men are still valued more than women in our society.

There is a temptation to read a book like Lessons In Chemistry and think that the problems that women faced in the 1960s are solved and we don't need to care about them anymore. The opposite is true.

In reading Lessons In Chemistry, we need to remember that the struggle for workplace gender equality goes on and that this work is as important now as it was for Elizabeth Zott in 1960s California.

This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph on Friday 13 January 2023 and has been shared with permission. 

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Find out how you can improve gender equality in your workplace

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Get the latest data on the state of workplace gender equality in Australia.