Australia leads the United States in women at work

5 October 2016

Australia has caught up to - and on some measures surpassed - the United States in female labour force participation and in relation to women's representation in senior and strategic organisational roles, according to new report from the United States Studies Centre. 

A close up shot of a female typing on a laptop.

"The findings painted a complex picture of women in the workforce," said co-author of the report, Professor Marian Baird.

While both countries still have a long way to go to close the gender gap, the report from the United States Studies Centre reveals the progress made and looks at some key differences between the two nations in parental leave policy, gendered distribution of paid and unpaid work and corporate management structures that could help improve outcomes for women on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

Co-author of the report Associate Professor Rae Cooper, who is the associate dean at the University of Sydney Business School, says the report offers a unique snapshot into the working lives of women in the United States and Australia.

"Both the US and Australia are a very long way from reaching gender equality in work and leadership and concerted effort by government and business is needed to achieve such an end," she said.

"But while Australia has lagged behind the United States for much of the past quarter century, thanks to proactive policy making, we are now leading the way in some areas."

Professor Marian Baird, chair of the discipline of Work and Organisational Studies in the University of Sydney Business School and co-author of the report, said the findings painted a complex picture of women in the workforce.

"When compared to the United States, this research indicates that a number of key policy initiatives in Australia around paid parental leave and transparency in corporate management structures have contributed to increasing high-level representation and overall participation," she said.

"There is still much work to do in families toward sharing the care load which is a critical frame for what happens in the labour market, but this report gives us a better sense of how we can tackle these challenges."

Both the US and Australia are a very long way from reaching gender equality in work and leadership.
Associate Professor Rae Cooper

A major difference revealed by the report relates to full-time and part-time work. In Australia, female employment is characterised by part-time (or casual) work, in both actual and ‘preferred’ working hours, especially for women returning from maternity leave. In the United States, full-time employment is both the actual and ‘preferred’ norm, even among women with young dependent children.

Associate Professor Cooper says that, while cultural factors such as family models play a role in this differences, institutional factors are critically important. 

"The linkage of key benefits such as health care, paid leave and retirement packaging to full-time employment in the United States helps explain why nearly two-thirds of American women work more than 40 hours a week."

Key findings:

  • Australia has witnessed an 8.4% growth in the maternal employment rate in the decade to 2014 while the United States experienced a fall in the proportion of employed mothers during the same period.
  • The share of women holding board directorships of major Australian companies was 17.3% in 2013, doubling from 2009 levels, while the US only increased from 15.2% to 16.9% in the same period.
  • Women in Australia and the United States both have high and growing levels of education but are still underrepresented in the fields of computer science, engineering, mathematics and statistics.

Max Halden

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