Significant gaps between working women's career goals and reality

6 March 2018
Australian workplaces are not ready to meet young women's career aspirations or support their future success, according to a new national report by University of Sydney researchers.

“We are talking more about robots than we are about women in the future of work debate – this must change,” said co-author of the report, Professor Rae Cooper.

Launched today, the Women and the Future of Work report reveals the gaps and traps between young working women’s aspirations and their current working realities.

“There are significant gaps in job security, respect, access to flexibility and training,” said Dr Elizabeth Hill, co-author of the report.

“Government, businesses and industry need to step up and take action so that our highly educated and highly skilled young women are central to the future of work.”

The team of researchers from the University of Sydney’s Women, Work & Leadership Research Group, surveyed more than 2000 working women aged 16 to 40, who were representative of the workforce nationally.

The report is the first of its kind and found that young women were generally not concerned about job loss as a result of automation and economic change.

“Almost two-thirds of the women we surveyed said they didn’t fear robots coming for their jobs in the future,” Professor Cooper said.

“Our national debate about the future of work is too often a hyper-masculinised, metallic version of work.

“For young women, their picture of the future workforce is quite different: they see themselves balancing family and work commitments, and having long, meaningful careers. For this to be a reality, we need mutually beneficial flexibility in all workplaces.”

Respect and access to flexibility critical for women

The survey found being treated with respect and having job security were critical to ensuring young women’s future careers.

Despite 90 percent of women identifying access to flexibility as important, only 16 percent strongly agreed that they have access to the flexibility they need.

“Young women workers are generally optimistic about work and ready to contribute,” Dr Hill said. “But they find themselves caught in gaps between what they need and what the workforce offers.”

The majority of working women report that developing the right skills and qualifications is important for success at work (92 percent). However, only 40 percent said they can access affordable training to equip them for better jobs.

“Public policy settings, while improving, remain inadequate,” Dr Hill said. “Projected growth in feminised, low-paid jobs in health care and social assistance suggests an urgent need for government action to ensure these jobs meet the criteria of decent work.

“Current trends toward fragmentation and the contracting out of employment are undermining many of the criteria of decent work, making this a pressing policy issue for gender equality in the future of work,” Dr Hill said.

More women than robots in future workplaces

The survey also indicated young women often feel ‘disrespected’ by senior colleagues and supervisors because of their gender. This was the case both for highly paid professionals and low‐paid workers.

Ten percent of respondents said they were experiencing sexual harassment in their current workplace. Some groups of women reported higher rates of harassment including:

  • women currently studying (14 percent compared to 8 percent who are not studying)
  • women living with a disability (18 percent compared to 9 percent not living with a disability)
  • women born in Asia or culturally and linguistically diverse women (16 percent compared to 8 percent who are not culturally or linguistically diverse).

“Employers need to commit and act to create workplaces where women are respected and valued for their expertise,” Professor Cooper said.

“There will be more women than robots in the future of work. It’s time that households, government, businesses and employers listen to them.”

Dr Hill said: “We are urgently calling on the government to facilitate and implement a public policy framework that supports young women’s career aspirations.

“We need to work towards a future where women are valued in the workplace and for their work.”

The study was funded by the University of Sydney’s Sydney Research Excellence Initiative 2020. It was authored by the Co-Directors of the University’s Women, Work & Leadership Research Group, Professor Marian Baird and Professor Rae Cooper, with Dr Elizabeth Hill, Professor Ariadne Vromen and Professor Elspeth Probyn.

The data collection and analysis for this research focused on working 16-40 year old Australians, and was undertaken by Ipsos Australia. It was collected in September-November 2017, and includes: a nationally representative online survey of 2,100 women; a survey of 500 men; a booster survey of 50 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women; and five in-person focus groups of working women.

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