Transcript: National Press Club Address, WGEA CEO Mary Wooldridge



Speech delivered by WGEA CEO Mary Wooldridge to the National Press Club of Australia in Canberra on 26 March 2024

Video of the full speech: Via National Press Club of Australia


The purpose of WGEA is to promote and improve gender equality in workplaces. In simple terms, we collect and share data and specialist knowledge about workplace gender equality and advocate for and advise about improvement. Our work is accelerating much needed change, for the benefit of workers, employers and the economy.

Let me put that in a tangible way: I recently received a message from Nicola, a part-time employee, mother of three and leader at her workplace. She reached out to thank WGEA for our advocacy for more leadership roles for part-time employees. She described the push back she received from recruiters, employers and even female colleagues who all reiterated that she would not be able to continue in a managerial role, let alone progress in her career, if she chose to work part-time.

WGEA’s message was so important, she said, it made her feel seen and heard as a professional, valued for her skills and contribution to her workplace, and, as a parent, respected and supported for her equally important and fulfilling role raising and caring for her family.

I also recently had an email from Tom, a young man who had taken six months of employer funded paid parental leave to care for his first child. He wrote to me to tell me about the benefits this time had given him, his child, his relationship and his overall wellbeing.

He wanted me to know that challenging employers to implement – and support the uptake of – gender neutral paid parental leave is critical for families. It’s also about creating healthier, happier and more gender equal societies.

I also heard from a leader of an advisory firm, who reached out to tell me that even though they were disappointed with their gender pay gap results, the publication – and the resources we provided – had helped stimulate dialogue with employees about the gender pay gap and how they could work together to fix it.

Just some simple examples of the impact of our work.

Everyone here in this room today will have, or have had, a job.

You know that a job is more than a pay slip. What we do is part of our identity. Our job gives us economic independence, meaning and a way to contribute to our community and country more broadly.

And in doing that work we want it to be worthwhile, we want it to be safe, for our skills and talents to be fully utilised and to be appropriately rewarded for our efforts.

Unfortunately, some of us in this room, and many beyond, will not always have experienced the workplace in this way, and often that can be attributed to our gender.

This is what drives our work at WGEA. We are focussed on the fact that behind every gender pay gap calculation, composition quartile and benchmark comparison, is a person, who, like every one of us, goes to work and hopes for a fair go.

Today I want to talk about WGEA’s work to help drive improvement in workplace gender equality, how publishing employer gender pay gaps was a logical next step to accelerate change and where to from here.

WGEA has a rich history. First established in 1986, the Agency has evolved into a reputable and evidence driven agent for change, collecting comprehensive data on workplace gender equality covering almost five million Australian workers.

In 2012 the model evolved to move from a sole focus on equal opportunity for women to be one encompassing equality for women and men. It also moved to the comprehensive collection of data based on six gender equality indicators.

Gender equality indicators set out what we know to be the key components that drive equality in a workplace – gender composition of the workforce and governing bodies, equal remuneration between women and men, flexible working practices and support for parents and carers, consultation with employees and policies and actions to prevent and respond to sexual harassment.

We now have 10 years of employee data by gender, role and remuneration as well as employer policies and practices across all the indicators. It has been called the world’s most comprehensive workplace gender equality dataset by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership.

And that dataset has been used to drive change in a number of ways:

First and foremost, employers have used reporting data to inform and motivate change in their workplaces. The ability to compare performance, policies and practices to their peers has prompted action – even before the publication of gender pay gaps. For example, parental leave policies are quickly standardised across peer groups when the prospective talent pool can see that one employer has a more generous offering than another.

Secondly, for researchers, the open data set has underpinned examination about what works to drive positive change. WGEA’s research partnership with the Bank West Curtin Economic Centre, for example, in 2020 established a causal relationship between higher numbers of women in the most senior levels of companies and higher company profitability and value.

For individuals the interactive Data Explorer has informed discussions, negotiations and employment decisions. We know that job applicants check our data to see which workplaces are the most inclusive and fair when considering job offers.

And for government it is an evidence base for policy development. Most recently it has been a valuable source for the work of the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce, and for the National Gender Equality Strategy that the Minister for Women, Minister Katy Gallagher, launched in this room earlier this month.

It is so important to acknowledge that throughout the last 10 years many employers have simultaneously analysed, innovated, set targets and invested for change.

Since 2014, we have seen important improvements in the state of workplace gender equality:

  • Women are more highly represented throughout managerial ranks
  • There’s been a dramatic increase in women on Boards
  • Gender equality is now widely embedded in employer policies, recruitment, performance and remuneration
  • There has been a significant expansion in flexible working, especially throughout the pandemic via working from home
  • More companies are offering paid parental leave, and more are offering it universally, with no distinction between men and women or primary and secondary carer
  • And as a result, the total remuneration gender pay gap has dropped 6.9 percentage points to 21.7%

These are important and meaningful gains that have changed the face of Australia’s corporate sector.

There has also been a shift in understanding, culture and expectations.

Back in 2012, the Workplace Gender Equality Act had a rocky start – passing the House of Representatives with just a 2-vote margin, and a number of the key business groups said the approach was unworkable. Since then, there has been a substantial shift in support for the approach and valuing of the knowledge and change WGEA generates.

Measures such as support for workplace flexibility, equality in care-giving, and access to professional opportunities for growth and progression are no longer seen by many employees as nice to have, but essential to have.

But change has been frustratingly slow.

That’s why in 2021, the then government undertook a review of the Workplace Gender Equality Act which resulted in 10 recommendations to improve it. They agreed to and funded the implementation of the recommendations in the 2022-23 budget.

In 2022, the new government under Minister for Women Katy Gallagher, then committed to implement all the recommendations and got on with the legislative reforms to publish employer gender pay gaps, require reporting to Boards, expand gender equality standards for larger companies and broaden coverage of the Act to include the Federal Public Sector.

In a mark of the shift in the times, there was unanimous support across the Parliament and broadly in the business community for these amendments.

The highest profile reform was the move to publish gender pay gaps on an individual employer level.

For ten years WGEA has published the national gender pay gap, pay gaps by industry and provided employers with confidential specific information. With the slow rate of change, a further catalyst was needed.

We knew from the UK experience, publishing employer gender pay gap creates some healthy competition among peers, equips employees and prospective employees with useful information and informs investors, all of which helps ensure companies keep a focus on gender equality.

On the 27th of February, WGEA published the gender pay gaps and workforce composition by pay quartile for almost 5,000 Australian private sector employers. The key headlines were that half of employers have a gender pay gap over 9.1%, nearly a third have a gender pay gap in the target range of + or -5%, and that men are nearly twice as likely to be in the top earning quartile, while women are 50% more likely to be in the lowest.

The response to published employer gender pay gaps has been phenomenal.

While there was widespread coverage, importantly, there was a clear sentiment shift in the way we talk about workplace gender equality.

We have largely moved from a conversation about equal pay for equal work to a deeper discussion about the structural and cultural inequalities that drive workplace composition differences as well as pay – and this is what the gender pay gap measures.

It is the overall difference in pay across a workforce and while equal pay is a component, it is also critically driven by the composition of the workforce in higher and lower paid roles.

For the first time, that message has started to permeate. Not with everyone of course – but in the broader discourse, where it counts.

Those employers who tried to claim they didn’t have a gender pay gap because they paid men and women the same for the same job were promptly corrected.

Those employers who acknowledged their results and the drivers of their gender pay gaps were rewarded. I think the CEO at the A2 Milk Company, with the highest gender pay gap in the ASX200, was a good example of a leader who earned respect for his interview on ABC’s 7.30.

The conversation encouragingly did not linger on the number but has been about how employers are coming to terms with their number and what to do about it. This is exactly what is needed and what was intended.

Everyone – even those with smaller gender pay gaps – recognised there was more work to be done.

The media – many of whom are in the room today – played an essential role in this shift.

One of my favourite examples was an article in the AFR in which a tech company CEO claimed that their high gender pay gap was an unfair portrayal of gender equality in his organisation and that there simply weren’t enough women in tech to recruit into high paying roles. The journalist published his comments, followed by breakdown of gender composition by quartile at his company and those of his peers. Showing the contrast, that the peer companies – all with lower gender pay gaps – had managed to find women for senior positions.

What the publication of gender pay gaps, and the commentary around it, showed was that there are ways to solve for barriers to workplace gender inequality if an employer is informed and motivated.

Overall, the message for employers is clear: “The time for inaction and excuses is over.”

It is worth noting that the data we published this year is reflective of workforces before the 2023 amendments were enacted and will be a baseline for each employer. The data for the second round of published gender pay gaps covers the period from when the legislation was passed to now – April 2023 to March 2024. This timing was intentional, encouraging employers to start taking action, even in advance of gender pay gaps being published.

We are seeing companies being proactive. Action now is preferable to excuses later.

WGEA performance and benchmarking reports are now required to be presented to Boards.  I know from our work with the Australian Institute of Company Directors that this is creating new opportunities for conversations at the highest level about gender equality performance and strategies, where often there have been none.

Over 1,000 employers submitted a voluntary Employer Statement, a weblink to which was published alongside their gender pay gap. Employers with higher gender pay gaps were more likely to develop a statement and they used it to thoughtfully provide context to their results, detail their plan to address the gaps and articulate the link between taking action on gender equality and their overall business values and strategy.

I have had feedback from HR professionals within organisations that ideas and proposals that have not been prioritised for consideration, are now being debated and approved by executive teams and boards. One example was a Head of People who had been advocating for paid parental leave for years to no avail, until the finalisation of the Employer Statement when the CEO agreed to introduce the policy.

Recruitment firms are already saying prospective employees are asking questions in interviews about a company’s gender pay gap.

And Investor groups are having discussion about the “S” in ESG and how the gender pay gap results can be incorporated into the social pillar.

All the indicators are showing that now is the time for action.

To continue the momentum, gender pay gap reporting will be expanded in the next round of publication.

With CEO salaries included for the first time this year, we will publish gender pay gaps by average as well as median.

Measuring gender pay gaps by median, as we did this year, allows us to understand the remuneration experience of the typical employee. The average gender pay gap is a good measure of the collective remuneration of a group. As the average can be skewed by exceptionally high or low salaries, publishing these additional results will show if earnings are particularly concentrated for one gender, for example, more men in higher earning positions.

We will also publish gender pay gaps for individual companies that report to us, instead of grouped by the way they submit their data. We expect this will mean results for over 7,000 employers will be published.

Both of these extensions to publishing will further increase transparency and be an ongoing catalyst for action.

The challenge now is for employers to identify and focus on the actions that will improve gender equality within their workplace and, as part of that, reduce their gender pay gap.

The WGEA team has expanded to add a small number of gender equality specialists who are delivering educational resources, webinars, masterclasses and a direct advisory service. This supports employers to undertake the analysis, develop their action plan, and build their internal capability. There is no-one-size-fits-all solution. Each workplace has its own drivers of inequality and therefore needs to develop and implement their own action plans.

That being said, there are some common themes that we think are useful when determining the next set of actions for a workplace, industry or occupation.

In their Employer Statements and in their responses to the media, CEOs consistently cited workforce gender segregation (both in different industries and roles) and unequal caring responsibilities as their primary challenges to achieving gender equality.

We know that to tackle these factors, employers cannot continue with business as usual. They require inspired leadership, new thinking and in some cases working collaboratively to solve broader Industry wide challenges.

The strategy consulting industry is a good example of this. A recruiter in industry was quoted in the media saying that men dominate senior level roles because: “The industry doesn’t, and can’t, change for anyone. You have to serve clients on their terms.”

But when you look at the numbers for leading firms, the proportion of women in the top pay quartile ranges from 29% to 50%.

Some firms have found solutions, which to others seemed intractable.

In too many industries and workforces, we can’t see an alternative to leadership that doesn’t look like a person who works 8am to 8pm, is available 24/7 and on call to travel at a moment’s notice – let’s call that person “a man”, burdened with less unpaid work and caring expectations than a woman.

To get more women into leadership roles, company executives have to reimagine what it looks like to be a senior manager or a leader.

We know there are companies that are doing this successfully.

For example, law firm Lander and Rogers have job sharing partners who have effectively worked together for the last five years to the benefit of their clients and their colleagues.

More part-time and job-sharing roles in leadership not only benefits women, it benefits the whole workforce.

With 22% of non-managers working part-time but only 7% managers, there is a clear message – if you want to progress at a senior level, you have to follow the full-time, always-on approach.

This largely excludes from management anyone (women and men) who cannot – or do not want to – work full time.

Further, many industries are dominated by one gender or have a pipeline issue, particularly in line related roles.

Some employers are tackling and addressing this.

For example: Kimberly-Clark has seen marked shifts in the number of women in manufacturing roles by revising their hiring practices and redesigning and retooling their factories. Taking a forklift driver’s license requirement off the job description was a critical first step.

Sometimes it requires industry wide initiative. In the male-dominated construction industry, major companies have pledged, via the Australian Constructors Association, to transform the culture of the industry to help address current workforce shortages and position the industry for the future. To do this, collectively they are embedding flexible work practices, attracting new talent and have set a target for 75% of members to achieve the WGEA Employer of Choice for Gender Equality citation.

Viva Energy has been proactively addressing their composition issues in frontline positions – their CEO proudly tells of a woman who was a cleaner who successfully retrained as a refueller, a much higher paying role. Not only has this improved her family’s economic situation but is also serving as inspiration for her children as they think about their careers.

Actions like these can help fundamentally shift stereotypes about men’s and women’s roles across all jobs, not just at senior levels.

Part of this is just a workforce necessity. The 2023 Inter-generational Report projected that the demand for care workers is expected to double over the next 40 years. We cannot fulfil that demand in this currently highly female-dominated workforce if we are only recruiting from half the population.

As we shift stereotypes about work, we also need to shift stereotypes about care.

There is a strong push to get men to take on more domestic and unpaid caring responsibilities, but society and employers often still send a very clear message – it is risky to take time off work, just look at the cost to the career of your female partner, or sister, or colleague. There is a strong interdependence in this area and more men will not take parental leave until the penalties for doing so are removed for women and men.

We want all employers to have a good, gender neutral parental leave policy that equally supports both parents to take leave.

But that, in itself, isn’t enough.

Employers need to actively encourage men to take it and create a culture where it is expected and celebrated. Further, return to work from parental leave needs to recognise that for the employee the world has changed, and it requires them to be able to work differently, flexibly, to manage new competing responsibilities.

Reforms like these to stereotypes, roles and the approach to care will make workplaces and families, more equal.

So, what’s next?

WGEA reporting enhances an employer’s knowledge of their performance and how they compare to their peers. But we know that knowledge is not enough – we need more employers to move from knowing better to doing better.

And to help them do that, employers should prepare for further bold changes coming from another key recommendation from the 2021 review – that there will be a new legislated requirement for larger employers, with 500 or more employees, to commit to and achieve targets against the gender equality indicators.

As the Minister announced as part of the National Gender Equality Strategy, the Government will introduce this requirement and, as with all aspects of the Workplace Gender Equality Act, compliance will be required to access federal government procurement opportunities over specified thresholds.

Targets work for gender equality. They bring a focus to specific areas for improvement and require companies to monitor their data frequently, which has been shown to accelerate the reduction of gender pay gaps.

We have been consulting with employers on the design of this new requirement.

Our expectation is that large employers will have to choose three targets from a menu of options and will have three years to achieve them.

The menu is informed by evidence on what improves gender equality. It includes both numerical targets such as reducing the gender pay gap or improving composition in various roles or occupations and also action-based targets, such as introducing a paid parental leave program if there is not one or enhancing the suite of flexible work offerings.

Because the menu is based on data and information employers already report to WGEA, their effort can be focussed on the actual achievement of the targets. Progress will be monitored through our annual census and included in the WGEA reports that CEOs must provide to Boards.

Employers will set the targets based on their particular circumstances and what will make a difference in their workplace.

Targets are about accountability – both internal and external – and seeing meaningful progress over time.

The timing is obviously in the hands of the Government, and I’m advised the intention is to legislate later this year.

I am sometimes told that I want everyone to be the same, to do exactly the same jobs and that every role at every level needs to be filled by an equal number of women and men.

This could not be further from the truth. Gender equality is about choice.

It’s about men and women having genuine choice about how, where and when they work and how they balance that with their other commitments.

For too many people in today’s workforce, these choices are greatly constrained.

If you are being harassed or bullied at work, and it’s not addressed, you don’t really have a choice, but to leave.

If there’s no part-time roles at your level, a mother who needs to, or wants to, work part-time, may only have the choice to be underutilised or languish in junior roles.

If you can’t see anyone like you in jobs – male nurses or early childhood educators, women on the tools in manufacturing or piloting the planes – those careers are much less of a realistic choice.

Or if there is just nowhere safe and private to go to the toilet and get changed on a construction worksite – those high paying jobs are not a choice.

These situations are still all too common.

Employers have a choice. Employers can work to create genuine opportunities for men and women to access the full range of roles and careers.

Employers who make this choice are seeing the benefits. They see a happier, more productive workforce. And, as our data from Australian employers has proven, it is also good for the bottom line.

Employers can also choose not to take action on gender equality. But they risk being highlighted for their gender pay gap and missing out on contracting opportunities. But most importantly, they risk failing to attract the best talent.

I’ve spent a lot of time today talking about employers and employees – but they are not 2 distinct groups. Employers are made up of employees.

We are all people who go to work, then go home to a household, to a community.

Experiences at work are not separate to our experiences at home or in our neighbourhood – in fact, they are vitally linked.

When a child sees their dad working flexibly so he can do school pickup, or mum going to work in a high-vis vest, a woman fixing your plumbing, or a man tending to a loved one in the nursing home – this breaks down traditional gender norms, with the workplace as the catalyst.

That’s why WGEA’s mandate is so vital. And why we are working so urgently to achieve it.

To my many correspondents, including Nicola and Tom, who I detailed at the beginning of this speech, who want a genuine choice in their careers – I can assure you, the business case is clear, sentiment is shifting and employers are moving from building their knowledge to taking action to enable it to occur.

To employers – you are not being asked to do this alone. Australia’s new Gender Equality Strategy articulates a range of actions government is taking to drive improvements in gender equality broadly and in relation to the workplace and WGEA is here to work alongside you to help understand the opportunities and to build your capacity to drive and achieve positive change.

It’s time to lift our sights, be proud of our progress, but commit to accelerate change. Together we can ensure that all people are fairly represented, equally valued and rewarded in the workplace.