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What if the future workforce is female?

Why government should prepare for a gender flip in the workforce

· Catriona McNaughton,Workforce,Analysis

In June, Deloitte released their report ‘The path to prosperity: Why the future of work is human’. At the time, media coverage focused on their primary narrative that increasing automation is not being accompanied by an increase in unemployment – essentially that robots aren’t taking away jobs and are instead creating at least as many jobs as they displace. Another finding of the report which did not receive the same attention was that this displacement could create a female dominated workforce.

“Women currently dominate the fastest growing jobs – the non-routine jobs of the head. While men dominate the jobs most susceptible to automation – manual occupations involving repetitive tasks.”

In addition to the changes we can predict as a result of automation, gender proportions in the workforce are being driven by current government policy including Australia’s commitment as part of the G20 to reduce the gender participation gap by 25% by 2025. An Australian Government strategy (‘Towards 2025 An Australian Government Strategy to Boost Women’s Workforce Participation’) outlines five areas of continued action:

  • Ensuring affordable, accessible and flexible childcare
  • Improving workplace diversity and flexibility
  • Supporting women to innovate, succeed as entrepreneurs and thrive in jobs of the future,
  • Strengthening women’s economic security, and
  • Enhancing financial incentives to work.

These policies are focused driving participation, which by its nature includes creating an environment in which women want to work, rather than necessarily planning for a more gender balanced (or in fact gender flipped) workforce. Caring for children is the most common barrier to the participation of women in the workforce, particularly the cost of childcare and childcare availability, a topic previously covered in this blog. Interestingly, it is the only barrier to workforce participation captured by the ABS for which women are disproportionately represented. However, the design of laws, regulations and even building temperatures have centred on those using them, which in the past was predominantly men. So, what needs to change to accommodate a women-centric workforce?

Paid parental leave in Australia is a minimum payment from government granted by default to the mother and is transferred to the father only in special circumstances and while ‘Dad and Partner Pay’ is also available, it only covers two weeks. Both payments require the employer to grant the individual leave to be able to access the payments (but a minimum entitlement is outlined in the National Employment Standards for those that have been with the same employer for 12 months or more). By comparison, the OECD average paid parental leave entitlement for fathers is 8.4 weeks and as much as 8.7 weeks at 65% of pay in Germany.

In addition to biasing towards women being the primary care giver, and therefore not accommodating for the growth in mother’s returning to work, the paid parental leave scheme also provides pay at minimum wage rather than the wage of the mother (although top-ups may be provided by the employer). In the 2013 Review of the Paid Parental Leave Scheme this was raised as having the potential to discriminate against women with high incomes, including those that were the primary bread winner, as it would increase pressure for that cohort to return to work compared to mothers on minimum wage. If we can expect a growth in female-dominated industries, we can equally expect that there will be more mothers earning above minimum wage looking to offset their lost income post-birth.

Workplace flexibility is another critical issue for a women-centric workforce. While the Government’s Towards 2025 strategy promotes flexible work it remains predominantly at the discretion of employers. Women accounted for nearly three quarters of people working fewer than 35 hours who did not want to work more hours, and nearly half of women said the ability to work part time hours was very important (compared to less than a third of men). This indicates that a women-centric workforce may need more flexible working arrangements which could be supported by a review of the current restrictions to requesting flexible house or upskilling of both employers and employees in negotiating and offering non-standard contracts.

Last month, UK Conservative MP Helen Whately introduced a flexible working bill saying:

“The 40-hour, five-day working week made sense in an era of single-earner households and stay-at-home mums, but it no longer reflects the reality of how many modern families want to live their lives”. Much like Australia, while flexible working is an option in the UK it is primarily at the discretion of employers and there is no real incentive for them to offer it. The Bill “is about shifting the norm” and putting the onus on the employer to determine aspects of the job that are not flexible, reducing the number of over-skilled people in low paying jobs because of the need for flexibility and creating an environment where parents can contribute to childcare and income more equally outside of the 9-5 working structure.

While continuing the important push towards a gender balanced workforce, governments should also look to the broader changes needed to account for and accommodate the ongoing change to our workforce make-up. In particular, creating gender and income balance in paid parental leave and establishing standard flexible work structures should be a focus for responding to increasing female participation in the workforce.

Catriona McNaughton is Manager - Communications at FPL Advisory.

FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change.