Address to Diversity Council Australia on Glass Walls

11.00am | August 21, 2017


21 August 2017

Glass ceilings and glass walls

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I acknowledge that we meet on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people.

I’d like to start off by thanking the Diversity Council Australia for the opportunity to be here today.

There is a broad cross-section of people here from senior management and human resources, analysts and advocates. I’d like to acknowledge the importance of the work that you do in developing the ideas, information and strategies to increase workplace diversity & inclusion.

This work will make a difference in our lifetime. Our children will reap the benefits of fairer workplaces that draw on and reward the expertise across the whole population.


Over the last couple of years, the gender pay gap issue has become international news. 

The star power of Jennifer Lawrence put the issue on the front page worldwide, after the Sony Hack revealed huge differences between her salary and that of her male co-stars. It possibly did more to raise awareness with young women about pay inequality than any government information program.

Patricia Arquette raised the issue in her 2015 Oscars speech.

More recently, an inquiry into the BBC revealed that the pay for female presenters was significantly lower than male colleagues doing similar jobs.

These are all examples of plain old discrimination, and it is wonderful that a light is being shone on inequality in a way that so many young people can relate to.

However its not the whole story. By itself it only describes part of the gender pay gap. To be precise, Susan Ferrier’s excellent research for DCA shows that it explains about 38% of it.

A further 30 percent can be explained by industrial and occupational segregation.

These are the ‘glass walls’ that divide male and female workers in Australia. These are the walls that see 60% of Australian industries dominated by one gender or another. These same walls mean that 74% of clerical and administrative workers are women, while nearly 90% of machinery operators and drivers are men.

And the walls are thicker and higher in Australia than elsewhere. Australia has some of the most gender segregated workplaces in the world.

Unlike the glass ceiling, these glass walls don’t grab headlines, and there are few celebrities to help raise awareness.

This was the main reason I was so keen to see the Senate look at this issue in a focussed way.

Because segregation translates very directly into pay outcomes.


Women in female dominated sectors receive significantly less pay than women in sectors with a greater gender balance.

And even within industries that have a more even gender mix overall, like the finance sector, occupational segregation helps explains a persistent and very large pay gap within those sectors.  Women are pushed into a limited sub-set of roles that can be undertaken part time, or for other reasons are considered more suitable for women.

 The issues are particularly acute in caring professions. It seems that the more closely work resembles the work performed at home by women for free, the less likely it is that the market will objectively value it, in a way thats consistent with the skills and expertise that are actually required to perform the work.

The shorthand for this is ‘emotional labour’. Emotional labour involves regulating your own feelings and emotions so that you’re able to deliver a service. It requires both skill and effort. But neither the market nor the industrial relations system has generally seen it in these terms. Instead, there is an assumption that these behaviours are just natural for women; not a skill set that deserves reward.

Its extremely frustrating for the skilled staff who work in these industries.   The inquiry heard from union members from the childcare sector. Its worth reading out her testimony in full.

 “At the moment, we are penalised for taking on vital roles that involve caring. We should not have to wait for men to join the sector for our wages to rise to a level that reflects skills and qualifications, nor should our pay be determined based on the presence of men in the sector. In fact, raising wages in the early childhood sector might be the way to decrease segregation rather than the other way around.”

Many of you here today, or listening to the event from other parts of Australia, know this first hand.

The big question is ‘how do we respond’?

To state the obvious, gender segregation is a complex problem that requires complex solutions.  We need coordinated initiatives across education and career advice; reform of legislation and most importantly - national responses by government and industry working together.

The inquiry made a series of recommendations, and I’ll step through them briefly.

The importance of long-term strategies through education and career advice

Looking at the glass walls women from male–dominated sectors, the issues are just as challenging as they are in the female dominated sectors.

Technology is one of the main drivers of future growth in our economy and will transform all workplaces, and have broad ranging social impacts as well.

Women should have important contributions to make to this transformation - but on current trends, thats not where we’re headed.

ABS data shows that the gender pay gap in STEM roles is wider than most occupations:

  • in 2015 the gap was 22.2 per cent, almost 5 per cent wider than 17.3 per cent for all occupations.
  • The committee also heard that only 12 per cent of women working in Science Technology Engineering and Maths are in the top income bracket of $104,000; while almost one-third of men the sector will receive this income or higher.

There are complex reasons for low numbers of women in STEM and their absence in leadership positions. Career decisions are influenced by ideas formed at an early age, by role models, by education and by attitudes toward different occupations.

Shifting these entrenched ideas and future trajectories is hard.

To start with need to understand what is working and what isn’t. Lots of organisations are doing terrific things - but there’s not really a co-ordinated approach.  The committee recommended an evaluation of all programs working to increase numbers of girls in STEM education, to provide benchmark data and best practice guidelines.

That information should feed into an overhaul of education and careers advice.  The inquiry heard that for the most part, career advice is no delivered with any awareness of unconscious bias or gender.

This is a missed opportunity. We recommended that the Department of Education and Training update the National Career Development Strategy and the Australian Blueprint for Career Development address gender-segregation. 

The importance of flexible workplaces to help women break the glass walls into sectors with higher pay.

Access to flexible work arrangements across occupations and industries is the sledgehammer needed to help break the glass walls. One of the strongest messages coming from the public hearings and through the submissions was that both men and women should be able to access flexible work.

However, at the moment, there is huge disparity between industries and occupations. And its completely related to gender.

In organisations where male employees predominate, 83 per cent work full time and just 17 per cent are part-time or casual. Where the workforce is predominantly female, 35 percent work full-time and 65 per cent of the workforce are part time or casual employees.[i]

This uneven distribution of flexible and part-time employment opportunities reinforces gender segregation. And in turn it impacts on the gender pay gap. Male dominated industries may have higher pay - but if you want to work part time, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

It blows apart the argument that these outcomes are merely a product of choices that women make. A more accurate description is that the uneven distribution of part time work opportunities funnels women into particular industries and sectors.

In allowing this to continue, we strengthen glass walls that segregate men and women in the workplace.

And it has broader implications. Our economy misses out on expertise and effort when women take part-time or casual work ‘below their skill level’ to have the flexibility that family responsibilities require.

Pay adjustments

Pay adjustments are part of the solution for undervalued pink collar occupations.

The Fair Work Act includes a mechanism that allows the Commission to review the pay of workers and to consider whether particular roles have been historically undervalued as a result of gender.

These provisions have been used successfully once, and community services workers received an adjustment. The committee heard evidence from the women who benefited from that decision - saying it was essentially the only thing that allowed these skilled, highly trained workers to remain in the industry as they moved into mid life and mid career.

However the evidence more generally was that this mechanism is too cumbersome and slow, and is unlikely to be an effective mechanism for the majority of women workers.

The committee has made a series of recommendations for reform of this mechanism. We need to ensure that pay benchmarks based on expertise, rather than gender, are used in the gender segregated sectors such as education and care.

What can we do?

Many of you here today represent the existing commitment by the business sector, public sector and not-for-profit sectors to initiate change. Many of you are showing leadership by reviewing remuneration practices and developing programs to address systemic issues. We won’t get to a solution to pay inequity without you. We need to draw others in and raise awareness about the problem and the reasons why things need to change.

Government and industry have a shared responsibility to address unequal pay and remove systemic barriers in the workforce. Apart from being an equity issue, we know it will deliver strong benefits to the society and the economy:

  • PWC’s Women in Work Index report estimates that closing the gap between male and female employment and productivity has the potential to boost Australia's GDP by 11 per cent
  • The Grattan Institute estimates that an extra 6 per cent of women in the workforce, could contribute to $25 billion to Australia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).


Its not something that can be addressed through just one measure. We need legislation to support pay equity, a framework to prevent discrimination, education opportunities for girls, and effective arrangements for childcare and parental leave.

My view is that we need a more co—ordinated approach. Its great that we measure the pay gap so thoroughly - but its now time for a robust and determined response.

I’m very pleased that the Committee recommended just that.

We recommended the development and implementation of a national policy framework to achieve gender pay equity in Australia. The framework should set a pay equity target date, provide an advisory structure to guide implementation, provide a roadmap for achieving pay equity in Australia.

Targets are important because they increase visibility and accountability. We’ve all seen that the voluntary target set by the Australian Institute of Company Directors for 30 per cent representation by women on ASX 200 boards by 2018 has made a difference. In 2009, women made up only 8.3 per cent of ASX 200 boards. Now, they now make up 25.4 per cent of directorships. Their 30 per cent target is in sight.[ii]

I’m open to what kind of target we might set ourselves. I’m open to feedback about how ambitious it should be and in what time frame. And I’m interested in your views about what steps we’d need to take to make progress.

It’s unlikely that anyone will mention workplace gender-segregation in an Oscars speech, or an Australian AACTA award. It’s unlikely that gender-segregation and its impact on women’s economic equality will be celebrity click-bait. This work will take years to make a difference and there are many social, economic and cultural barriers to address.

However  I will finish on a note of optimism. In my adult life, I’ve never experienced a period like this. Where once, only women were interested in this issue, now men actively champion gender equality. There is widespread recognition that things have to change. This is our moment to make a difference. We should seize it.


[i] Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Submission 22 to Senate Inquiry into Gender Segregation, p. 10,

[ii] what-gets-measured-gets-done-boards-that-set-and-measure-gender-diversity-targets-have-more-women-20170703-gx3hkh