Representation and Progress

A Gendered look at Australia’s Health Care System

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There are a number of barriers that women must overcome in the labour market in order to achieve parity: chiefly, equal representation and equal pay. As of August, 2016, women represented 46.2 per cent of Australia’s workforce and based on the numbers it seems as though progress is being made toward employment equity. But further analysis proves that there is still a long way to go…
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The Australian Bureau of Statistics surveyed 19 sectors, and of those, women were considered underemployed in 15 of them. A disproportionate 10.8 per cent of women were considered underemployed in the full time workforce versus 6.9 per cent of men.

The Australian labour market, when considering both sector and occupation, is highly segregated along gender lines. As of 2014, Australia was ranked 16th out 22 countries globally in terms of its gender pay gap: an 18 per cent difference between males and females at the time. In 2015, that number decreased to 17.3 per cent and the following year, in 2016, it was reduced 16.2 per cent.

Though the numbers are not as dramatic as Korea, Japan, and Finland, which posted gender pay gaps exceeding 20 per cent in 2014, much effort remains to be seen in order for women to overcome the multiple barriers they face to become equally represented and equitably compensated in every sector and occupation.

On a national scale, gender pay gaps related to sector and occupation are staggering; the gender pay gap in ASX200 organizations is 28.7 per cent. As of January, 2016, women held only 23.4 per cent of directorships in those organizations. Similarly, women account for only 40 per cent of new appointments to ASX200 boards.

The Health Care and Social Assistance sector gender pay gap is improving, but still has a way to go. In May, 2015, the gender pay gap in this sector was 27.7 percent. The following year the percentage improved to 23.7. Not only do women experience a pay gap, they are also less likely to hold high ranking leadership positions and less likely to be selected for upper management roles.

Women make up an increasing proportion of Australia’s educated workforce. A total of 90.1 per cent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 have attained grade 12 equivalent or higher, when compared to 86.3 per cent of men from the same age demographic. At the bachelor degree level, 39.6 per cent of Australian women in the 25 to 29 years old category have achieved a degree, while only 30.4 per cent of men can say the same. At the post-graduate level, however, 6.1 per cent of men aged 15 to 74 have successfully completed post-graduate studies while only 5.7 per cent of women have achieved the same.

Since the 1970s, the percentage of women enrolled in professional or graduate programs was under 25 per cent; today it has risen to over 50 per cent. This is especially true in the Health Care and Social Assistance sector, where women make up more than half of Australia’s medical graduates.

Regardless of employment figures and education statistics, these are the realities of women in leadership roles: just over 14 per cent of chair positions are held by women, nearly 24 per cent of directorships, slightly more than 15 per cent of CEO positions, and almost 28 per cent of all management positions. The results show serious underrepresentation in upper management and leadership roles.

So what do all of these statistics mean? For one, it shows that much more effort needs to be made in order for women to reach economic parity with men in the workforce. Upon closer analysis, even sectors that are female-dominated, such as Health Care and Social Assistance, reveal that in many cases the industry is still being plagued by inequity in pay and underemployment.

The proportion of women in the Health Care and Social Assistance sector keeps increasing, but the same proportion of women are not being represented at leadership levels. Between 1995 and 2015, female employees in the Health Care and Social Assistance sector increased from 76.4 per cent to 79.2 per cent. A clearly female dominated industry, it still remains a primarily male-led sector.

Of the women who have been able to gain promotions and achieve professional success and advancement in the Health Care and Social Assistance sector, women are often given non-clinical, rather than clinical, positions of leadership.

Australia has clearly had success with its equal opportunity policies to achieve gender parity, especially in the Health Care and Social Assistance sector, so why are women still underrepresented at the leadership level and paid less?

Much of this inequity is rooted in patriarchal ideologies that persist, which influence stereotypes and social norms. Socio-cultural influences often leave women in precarious circumstances related to their employment and ability to ascend the corporate ladder and achieve wage parity. Regardless of how far society has come in this regard, a gender pay gap remains in every single sector.

What is very interesting is that some of the largest gender pay gaps persist in female-dominated sectors, such as Health Care and Social Assistance. In addition to sector-based gender pay gaps, there remain occupation-based gender pay gaps that continue to put women at a financial disadvantage versus their male counterparts who complete the same work.

Australia is an interesting case study. In a labour force study conducted by ABS, out of 19 sectors analysed on the basis of gender composition, employment rates and hiring patterns, the highest representation of women was in the Health Care and Social Assistance sector. Women make up 78.3 per cent of the sector’s labour force. Though these numbers reflect progress, the reality is that in the majority of the sectors surveyed, women comprised less than 40 per cent of full time employees in each sector.

The majority of sectors that were analysed were male-dominated including: Information Media and Telecommunications, Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing, Wholesale Trade, Manufacturing, Electricity, Gas, Water and Waste Services, Transportation, Postal and Warehousing, Mining and Construction.

When considering total workforce, only 25 per cent of women work full time, whereas 44.3 per cent of men find full time employment. Women are much more likely to work on a part time basis, with 21.2 per cent of women holding part time positions, while men working part time totals 9.5 per cent of the total part time workforce. This could speak to the low representation of women in leadership and management roles, as few positions of power exist on a part time basis. Across the world, a trend that is not unique to Australia, women are responsible for most of society’s unpaid care work and as a result often require more flexible employment opportunities which are few and far between.

For every one hour spent by men doing unpaid care work, women are responsible for the equivalent of 1 hour and 48 minutes. Family responsibilities and motherhood can influence women to pursue part time, flexible, or casual work which can also be a determinant in career advancement.

A number of barriers exist for women including: personal barriers, socio-cultural barriers, organizational barriers and structural barriers. These barriers appear in many forms: prevailing stereotypes, incompatible life/work balance, lack of mentorship, lack of respect, and the list goes on and on. Some of these also impact male professionals, but do so disproportionately.

To some degree, perceptions of the self can also prevent women from seeking career advancement. These barriers often have socio-cultural origins and may result in some women underestimating their own abilities, casting self-doubt that prevents career advancement from occurring. There is also the reluctance for some women to self-promote.

These feelings are often justified. In a number of cases, women are not taken seriously as professionals. In these circumstances, many women feel that they must assert their power in order to gain the respect that is owed, which can cause them to become unpopular amongst their peers. Many women become assertive to dismiss the argument that women are not inherently the strong, leadership type.

While these stereotypes persist, there is another school of thought that suspects that the number of women graduating from medical school and from professional programs has just started to reach parity, or exceed it in some cases. Those women are currently making their way up the professional ladder and it is only a matter of time before equity in leadership positions is achieved.

Australia has enacted a number of successful strategies to improve female participation in the workforce, especially with regards to sectors like Health Care and Social Assistance. It is with great hope that the increasing number of graduates and professionals in the field will, in fact, start to reflect in representation at the leadership level, especially in female-dominated sectors.

To achieve equity in representation and in pay in the workforce, across all sectors and occupations, stereotypes need to be overcome. This means that change will have to take place on an individual, organizational and sector-wide basis in order to impart meaningful change: the attainment of pay equity and equal representation for women in Australia and around the world.

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October 17, 2017, 9:10 AM AEDT

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