Landmark research brings workplace equality within reach for women

Research into workplace barriers for women to make a big impact
Professors Marian Baird and Rae Cooper are giving policymakers the evidence they need to transform women’s workforce rights.

Professors Baird and Cooper are co-directors of the University’s Women, Work and Leadership Research Group, a national trailblazer in identifying the building blocks needed to achieve gender equality in the workplace.

The group’s unique research spans occupations, industries and organisational hierarchy to understand the everyday working realities of women and then translate those findings into positive workplace change.

The recent publication of their Australian Women’s Working Futures Survey provided a watershed moment in workplace gender equality. It was the first time women aged between 16 and 40 years – in a nationally representative cohort – were asked about their own working futures.

The survey challenges entrenched bias that shapes current workforce policy and offers surprising insights into what women want in the workplace for the long term. As Professor Baird points out, economists have traditionally based their workforce models (which have a major influence on policy) on analysing past behaviour and patterns, with the assumption that lifelong careers should be reserved for men only.  

Previously, research has taken the same approach, analysing data that focuses on past and present realities. The survey results confirm a seismic shift in career ambitions for Gen Y women and millennials.

“Women are saying they are going to work until they are older than 60. That is a huge shift,” Professor Baird, the University’s Professor of Gender and Employment Relations, says.

“Prior to that, women left work or weren’t thinking about staying at work. So all our policies are built around men staying in the workplace for the long term, but not around women doing that.”

Flexible work pays rich dividends

Broadening our vision of the future of work to include both men and women means considering policies such as flexible work, and the benefits for both sexes. The Women, Work and Leadership Research Group has already provided compelling evidence about the substantial and widespread impact of organisations ‘mainstreaming’ flexible work arrangements. That impact reaches across employee engagement, attraction and retention, productivity, profit and career advancement.

The group continues to collaborate closely with government, business and other non-government partners to yield a rich and comprehensive suite of research, and important findings on:

  • processes and outcomes in feminised sectors
  • women’s work and careers in male-dominated areas
  • low-paid women and women in leadership
  • policy, legislation and practice in organisations. 

Their ultimate goal is to provide the evidence and impetus to shape the policy changes required to advance gender equality and support women’s long-term career ambitions.

$A41.2 trillion potential

Workplace gender equality makes sound financial sense – in fact it could become an extremely lucrative driver of global economic prosperity. If paid work became a level playing field where women participated identically to men, annual Global Domestic Product would increase by $A41.2 trillion by 2025, according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report.

Women have already made headway on that front; Professor Baird’s previous research shows that in recent decades, women’s workforce participation has risen steadily in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea. Australian Government workforce statistics support those findings. As at January 2019, 5,983,900 women were employed in Australia, a 2.4 percent increase over the last year.

The gap between the sexes is narrowing. But there’s more work to do. For example, policymakers must factor other convergences into future changes. The Working Futures findings – based on survey responses from more than 2000 women and 500 men – also show a ‘gender convergence’ between men and women on workplace flexibility and career duration.

“Young women who are mothers and young men who are fathers are starting to think much more alike about work,” Professor Baird says.

“Women are seeing work as a lifelong career. Young men want more flexibility at work and to take more career breaks, so there is a gender convergence happening.”

Professors Baird and Cooper are respected globally for their pioneering work in gender equality. Both have been awarded an Order of Australia in recognition of their outstanding contribution to higher education, gender equality in employment relations and workplace policy. Professor Baird was named as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in gender policy for two consecutive years.

While the group’s main focus is on informing government policy and advancing gender equality in Australia, it also plans to extend its work to other countries across the world. The group is now seeking an international industry partner to support a comparative study in Europe, the United States, Asia or elsewhere.

Find out more about the Women, Work and Leadership Research Group.

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Professor Marian Baird AO
Professor Marian Baird AO
Academic profile

Professor Rae Cooper
Professor Rae Cooper AO
Academic profile



Increase in female employment in past year



Percentage of women who see job security as key influence in employment choice

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