Pillar 1: Economic opportunity and advancement
Across their lifespan, women and girls may participate in education, enter the workforce, take leave for parental and other caring responsibilities, retrain, transition to other careers and retire. Women face barriers at each of these life stages, which affect choice and opportunity.
This pillar aims to shape workplaces that make it safer and easier for women to be heard, to progress in their career and to advance their economic opportunities. It also aims to increase pathways into work, foster ambition in young women and boost career choice and earning potential. Importantly, it aims to share parenting responsibilities more equitably between men and women by positioning childcare as a parenting issue, supporting additional childcare places and encouraging men to play a greater role in parenting and the early development of their children. Ensuring financial security and capability for women across their lifespan is also key.
Theme 1: Increasing women’s opportunities in the workplace
Women’s workforce participation in NSW has increased over the past 2 decades from 54% of women (15 years and over) in 2001 to 62% in 2022. This can be attributed to:
- gender discrimination policies
- wider access to paid parental leave and childcare
- changing societal attitudes
- strong growth in female-dominated service industries
- increase in part-time and flexible work options.20 21
However, women continue to work fewer hours than men; they are more likely to be underemployed and spend longer periods of time out of the workforce.
Unequal division of household tasks and caring responsibilities, as well as unequal sharing of paid parental leave, all continue to drive the workforce participation gap.22
Alongside benefits for individuals, there are economic and social benefits to driving women’s workforce participation:
- The NSW economy would increase 8% by 2061 if women in NSW participated in the paid workforce at the same rate as men over the next 20 years – the equivalent of increasing household income by $22,000 per annum (in 2019–20 dollars).23 If the gap between women and men’s labour force participation in Australia halved, Australia’s gross domestic product would increase by an estimated $60 billion from 2018 to 2038.24
- In general, ‘the higher a person’s socioeconomic position, the healthier they tend to be – a phenomenon often termed the “social gradient of health”’.25 As well as providing a more productive workforce, healthier populations reduce the fiscal burden of healthcare on governments.
Workforce participation rates of women from focus communities
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have a considerably lower workforce participation rate compared to all women. In 2019, the average workforce participation rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in NSW aged 15 to 64 was 62%, compared to 73% for all women.26
The average level of labour force participation for women aged 15 to 64 who speak a language other than English at home was 66%, below the average for all women aged 15 to 64 (73%) and considerably below the 83% rate for men who speak a language other than English at home.27
Research shows that people with disability have higher retention and attendance rates in the workplace; however, women with disability also experience lower rates of workforce participation (51%) compared to men with disability (56%).28 29
In 2019, women aged 15 to 64 with low socio-economic status had one of the lowest absolute rates of workforce participation in NSW, at just 54%.30
Some of the signs of gender inequality
- Women are less likely to be in paid work than men. Even with the significant increases since 2001, the women’s labour force participation rate in July 2022 of 61.6% is substantially lower than men’s, at 70.5% (for people aged 15 years and over).31
- As of May 2022, the gender pay gap in NSW was 12.4%, reflecting a pay difference of $233 per week.32
- Men are more likely than women to be promoted and be in management positions. For example, in healthcare and social services, the management gap in 2020 was 6%. Nationally the management gap is 7%.33
- Only 19.4% of CEOs in Australia and 18% of board chairs are women.34
Many women face sexism and harassment at work. A national survey conducted by the AHRC in 2018 found that nearly 40% of women had experienced sexual harassment at work in the past 5 years, compared to 26% of men.35 Many women report experiencing sexual harassment multiple times, which further deteriorates women’s safety and ability to progress at work. It’s important to note that many women don’t report their experiences of sexual harassment out of fear of the repercussions and impact on career progression.36 A workplace fostering or ignoring sexual harassment can have negative effects on all workers, potentially impacting productivity, employee morale and staff turnover rates. It is estimated that workplace harassment costs the Australian economy $3.5 billion per year.37
The Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (2020) made 55 recommendations to address workplace sexual harassment, including primary prevention initiatives, resources, education for young people and the establishment of a Workplace Sexual Harassment Council.
The Women’s Budget Statement for the 2022–23 Federal Budget notes that the Commonwealth Government has fully implemented or fully funded 42 of the 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report, with over $66.5 million committed to date. The NSW Government continues to work with the Commonwealth Government to implement the agreed recommendations.
In addition to gender, there are other factors that increase the likelihood of sexual harassment in the workplace. Workers who report having experienced sexual harassment at higher rates include:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women (55%)
- people of diverse sexualities (52%)
- women with disability (52%)
- people aged 18 to 29 (45%).38
During the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, the AHRC heard from women that there is little existing research on why some women, including those from diverse communities and backgrounds, are more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace and that further research is required to better understand this.39
In addition, there are other risks to safety and wellbeing in the workplace that women may experience, such as occupational violence, psychosocial hazards and inappropriate equipment and uniforms.
A key commitment of the NSW Government is the requirement for all government agencies to develop women’s action plans. These plans will require agencies to develop a strategy to improve delivery of services to women and outline how they will address gender equality and women’s economic outcomes within their own workforce, including the gender pay gap.
‘We have to stop paying less for perceived women’s work.’ Young Aboriginal woman, rural NSW
‘I worked in software development for 2 years but switched because of the horrific culture of sexual harassment and treating women badly. I didn’t notice it was making me sick until I realised I had to leave.’ Young woman, forum participant
‘Conversations need to be started, unsafe and unrespectful behaviour needs to be recognised and called out. Accountability for perpetrators and support services in place to assist with any issues. We have to make sure there are preventative measures such as training and seminars.’ Survey respondent, Sydney
The gender pay gap measures the difference between the average earnings of women and men in the workforce. The three key drivers of the pay gap are:
- Gender discrimination: 36% of the pay gap is due to sexual harassment; discrimination in hiring, training and promoting women; and sexism.
- Care, family, and workforce participation: 33% of the pay gap arises from expectations of women as carers and parents, time out of the workforce, and unpaid work.
- Type of job: 24% of the pay gap is related to fewer women in management roles and segregation
in industries, women not entering fields where they are under-represented, and lower wages in
industries where women are strongly represented.40
Pay gap reporting by individual organisations, in both the public and private sectors, encourages employers to track progress and take practical steps to improve pay equity.41
The Women’s Opportunity Statement commits the NSW Government to work towards closing the gender pay gap by tackling gender discrimination and industry and occupational segregation, which sees women working in lower-paid industries.
In NSW and internationally, flexible work is becoming the new standard. Organisations are recognising that it increases diversity in teams, supports innovation, and respects and encourages people to take on interests and activities outside of work.42 Many workplaces have shown that flexible working arrangements increase productivity and profitability.43 These workplaces are more attractive to employees as they give them time to manage their own health and wellbeing, projects outside of work, and family and community commitments.
The COVID-19 pandemic helped normalise remote and flexible work arrangements in Australia. Prior to COVID-19 only 20% of Australians worked one day or more a week from home. By September 2020 this had more than doubled to 46%.44 A survey of Australian employees found that almost 80% reported having maintained or improved productivity, engagement and achievement while working from home.45
Women are more likely than men to have flexible working arrangements, such as working part-time hours or in casual roles.46 Many women feel they are less likely to be promoted and more likely to be excluded from meetings and other opportunities if they work flexibly.47 Where they cannot access flexible work arrangements, women may accept jobs at a lower skill level or other lower-paid, less secure options, inhibiting their career development. Critically, by shifting work culture to support and encourage men and women to take advantage of flexible work, the bias against women who work flexibly can also be tackled.
Leave arrangements that accommodate unique circumstances faced by women can also play a vital role in supporting women’s participation in the workforce. For example, NSW public sector employees are entitled to miscarriage and pre-term birth leave and leave for fertility treatment, as well as domestic and family violence leave.
‘Men can work unlimited hours, but then women have to juggle work and caring. There’s a perception issue in the workplace that women don’t work as hard as men.’ Regional NSW woman
Theme 2: Transitions between careers and life stages
Childcare and the gender pay gap
Current Commonwealth Government settings for childcare rebates along with the gender pay gap mean that childcare affordability has a greater impact on secondary earners, who are typically women. Since the level of childcare subsidy is based on household income, and women are more likely to earn less than their male partner, there are financial incentives for women to be the partner that leaves the workforce or reduces hours worked to get a higher childcare subsidy. This becomes a disincentive for women to return to work if their work is seen as ‘not worth it’.
Workforce disincentive rates vary for each household depending on its specific characteristics, including the income of each partner and the number of children. Recent NSW Treasury modelling found that under the current childcare subsidy levels, a woman in a low-income household with 2 children in childcare – where the father (or primary earner) earns $70,000 per year and the mother (or secondary earner) earns $50,000 – would only retain around 25 cents of each additional dollar earned if when she works more than one day a week and would only take home 21 cents for each dollar earned if she worked a fifth day. The cost of childcare can have a long-term impact on women’s career opportunities and progression.
Access to appropriate childcare is a challenge for many families, particularly in locations with limited childcare placements, for families who require care outside of school hours or flexible hours of care, and for children with disability, for whom care may need to be specialised and extend throughout their high school years.
Workforce shortages and thin markets have led to ‘childcare deserts’ where access to childcare is scarce. Research by the Mitchell Institute shows there is limited availability in lower socio-economic locations, including regional NSW, South-West Sydney, and Western Sydney.48 The higher marginal costs of providing early childhood education and care on a small scale mean that potential suppliers are unwilling to enter the market, particularly in remote and regional areas. The demand for childcare can be difficult to gauge in local markets, exacerbating difficulties in meeting demand. Early childhood educator shortages are also impacting the availability of early childhood education and care.
The Commonwealth bears greater responsibility to address workforce disincentive rates through better access to childcare. However, the NSW Government is also working to help shift the dial for many working parents through recent commitments to improve access to early childhood education and care. Key investments include:
- $5.8 billion over 10 years towards introducing universal pre-kindergarten
- $1.3 billion over 4 years in fee relief for preschool
- up to $5 billion over 10 years to boost accessibility and affordability of childcare.49
NSW families will save up to $4,000 per year for children aged 3 to 5 who attend community and mobile preschool, and $2,000 for children aged 4 to 5 who attend long day care, in addition to existing fee relief.50
‘When my job pays less than my husband’s, it ends up being me who has to sacrifice my career and superannuation when someone needs to stay home.’ Woman with disability, metro area
Childcare as a parenting issue
The conversation is starting to change around parenting and childcare. There have been some shifts in attitudes that support men and women as equal partners in parenting and caring. More men taking parental leave and taking advantage of workplace flexibility allowances supports more equitable sharing of domestic responsibilities and paid work. Despite these shifts, progress has been limited, and women still continue to perform a greater share of caring responsibilities than men.
In NSW and internationally, equal parental leave is seen as benefiting both women’s economic opportunities and gender equality. In some countries, like Sweden, around 45% of people who take parental leave are men, compared to Australia, where less than 12% of men take parental leave.51 52
At different stages of women’s lives, they may seek to return to work after time out of the workforce, whether for parenting or caring responsibilities, for health reasons, or if they are new migrants or refugees. Other women may enter the workforce later in life or may transition from one industry to another when leaving the Australian Defence Force (becoming veterans) or stepping back from their career as they approach retirement.
Some women may need to update or refresh their skills if they are entering a new field or if they have been out of the workforce for some time. Covering the costs of returning to work – including childcare, getting to and from interviews, and accessing a computer – can be a barrier when women aren’t earning an income.
Women from CALD backgrounds are more likely to experience additional barriers when returning to work. This is particularly relevant for women who are newly arrived migrants, or who have refugee or refugee-like experiences. Barriers may include lower levels of English proficiency, unfamiliarity with existing structures and systems, and lower workforce participation.53
These disincentives and barriers can further delay women’s participation in the workforce and can magnify the challenge of returning if their skills, networks and knowledge are not current. The hurdles associated with returning to work mean that a proportion of women, potentially up to 30%, never re-enter the workforce.54
In 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NSW Government provided $10 million in funding for the Return to Work Program to help women get back into the workforce. The program provides support to women including grants to help overcome financial barriers to returning to work. In 2022–23 the NSW Government announced that it would build on the success of this program by investing a further $32 million.
Caring responsibilities have significant impacts on carers’ mental and physical health, their ability to participate in the workforce and their lifelong savings and financial security. When carers seek opportunities to return to work, they often need support to address specific barriers including accessing the internet, balancing caring responsibilities with work commitments and finding training pathways to
refresh their skills.55
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women from CALD backgrounds are more likely to be carers and provide care to multiple people within their families and communities due to embedded cultural practices and kinship structures.56 The challenges experienced by carers, including time out of paid work, are often amplified for women in these focus communities.57
Women who are carers often report being isolated, partly because workplaces and the wider community aren’t aware of carers’ issues.
Workplaces with policies that support flexibility and managers that recognise caring responsibilities can have a significant impact on carers’ wellbeing and their ability to stay connected to the workforce.
Theme 3: Pathways into work and careers
Small businesses are an important part of the NSW economy. Small businesses create employment opportunities, foster innovation, provide critical goods and services and create vibrant communities. In 2017–18 there were 765,387 small businesses in NSW, which accounted for more than 95% of businesses in the state.58
Women entrepreneurs and women-led start-ups are starting to receive greater attention and investment in Australia, with new university-led initiatives and government funding. This includes a $12 million commitment by the NSW Government towards the Carla Zampatti venture capital fund for women-led start-ups and private investments focused on boosting women founders.59
Despite the prevalence of small businesses in NSW and the increased growth in female-founded start-ups, only one-third of small businesses are owned by women. Women in small business and entrepreneurial roles face a range of challenges impeding growth and success.
Women business owners and entrepreneurs have fewer formal business growth networks. Women are less likely than men to know other women business owners or entrepreneurs, or to have access to sponsors, mentors or professional support networks.60
Women also experience greater challenges than men when trying to access finance to start a business.61 When they do access finance from investors, women are often provided with less funding than start-ups led by men – despite evidence that women-led start-ups perform better.62
NSW has a highly gender-segregated workforce, with women either under-represented or overrepresented in certain industries. Gendered outcomes are also present in average pay levels and job security. The factors driving gender segregation include work conditions, workplace culture and perceptions of certain work being suited to one gender.
In NSW, one-third of employed women work in education and health-related industries.63 Women comprise 78% of the healthcare workforce and 72% of the education workforce, but only 13% of workers in construction and 17% in mining.64
The industries where women are over-represented have lower average wages and poorer job security. Employees with a university degree in industries where women are over-represented earn up to 30% less than people with similar qualifications in industries where men are over-represented.65 Women-dominated industries are also more likely to have casual roles and part-time roles with, on average, only 35% of roles being full-time, while in men-dominated industries 84% of roles are full-time.66
Occupations are also gendered. Women are less likely to be in management and technical roles. The proportion of managers who are women is still only 39%.67 While the proportion of women in clerical roles has slightly declined by 3%, it remains high at 73%.68
In 2020, 37% of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates were women.69 Between 2015 and 2020, university STEM course enrolments increased by 24% for women, compared to a 9% increase for men.70 The proportion of STEM enrolments by women increased by 3 percentage points (37% compared to 34% in 2015).71
Women’s employment in STEM-related occupations continues to increase, rising by approximately 50% between 2016 and 2021, but remains low overall (15% in 2021).72
Improving the proportion of women in male-dominated industries and roles is important to drive female workforce participation and improve workplace cultures.73 Achieving better representation of women
in these industries requires a coordinated effort from education and training providers, industry and governments. The NSW Government is committed to reducing gender segregation and attracting more women to male-dominated industries. In 2022, it set a goal of 15% of women in trades and non-traditional roles in the construction industry by 2030.74 To achieve this, the NSW Government has committed $20.2 million to skills, training and industry-led initiatives, working with the sector to attract and retain more women in the workforce.75
The NSW Government’s Women in Trades Strategy also includes key actions to increase the representation of women in non-traditional trades.
Cultural norms embedded in early childhood education and school settings play a role in shaping the career aspirations of girls and young women. They can work to both challenge and reinforce gendered stereotypes around women’s participation in the paid workforce.
Girls perform well academically, with secondary school completions 15% higher than that of boys, yet gendered segregation by industry and occupation persists, as does lower representation of women in leadership and management roles. Women in business are eager to create pathways for young women and girls to be ambitious and to consider diverse career pathways.
Encouraging more young women to forge careers in STEM occupations and industries will foster ambition and encourage diverse career pathways while addressing critical labour force needs. Despite significant improvements in the rate of high-school-aged girls and tertiary-aged women studying STEM subjects, women and girls are less likely than men and boys to study STEM in years 11 and 12 and as undergraduates.
It is equally important that women have opportunities for career advancement through diverse vocational education and training pathways. The NSW Government's Trade Pathways Program aims to encourage more women to work in trades, which will help increase women's economic security while addressing critical skills shortages. The program aims to do this by providing supported pathways to trades jobs and increasing awareness of gender discrimination in trade workplaces.
Research into barriers to women choosing and progressing in engineering as a career found that the barriers start early, with most girls not even considering engineering as an option.76 Young women who do study engineering report feeling less supported to continue with engineering, compared with those in other STEM fields.
Engineers Australia recommends long-term approaches to improve pathways into engineering for girls and engaging with girls early in their schooling about opportunities in engineering.77
‘Why is it girls do knitting and textiles while boys do metalwork and woodwork?’ Schoolgirl
Theme 4: Financial security and wellbeing throughout life stages, including retirement
Lifetime financial security means that people can meet changes in their life circumstances with confidence and certainty. Access to economic opportunities is a critical component of financial security, as is financial capability – ‘a combination of financial knowledge, skills, attitudes and confidence that leads to positive financial behaviours and money management decisions that fit the circumstances of one’s life’.78 Women are more likely than men to have low financial capability and are a target cohort under the National Financial Capability Strategy 2022.79
The combined impacts of the gender pay gap, time out of the workforce, part-time work, the financial impact of relationship breakdowns, and lower representation in leadership and management roles mean that women’s lifetime earnings and their savings in retirement are significantly lower than men’s.80 This limits women’s economic opportunities and puts older women and women from lower socio-economic circumstances at greater risk of financial insecurity, poverty and homelessness.
Data from the 2021 Census shows that women in NSW are more likely to be on lower incomes ($799 per week or less), while men are more likely to earn $1,000 per week or more.81 Almost 30% of men earn $1,500 per week compared to only 18% of women.82
Some women are more at risk of financial stress and insecurity. In 2018, the median weekly income of primary carers was $621, compared to $997 for non-carers. This puts carers at risk of poverty, limits their ability to meet their personal and household needs, and reduces their ability to save and contribute to superannuation.83
In the LGBTIQA+ community, 42% of trans women and 33% of women of diverse sexualities report earning less than $400 a week, below the poverty line in Australia.84
Older women who want to work experience distinct challenges in the workforce, including ageism. It is more difficult for older women to get interviews and secure jobs.
‘Older women are deemed unemployable. They aren’t retiring – they are being retired.’ Illawarra and Shoalhaven woman
Pay gaps and time out of the workforce for parenting, caring and other responsibilities compound to create a serious deficit in the superannuation many women have at retirement. On average, women retire with 42% less superannuation than men.85 For some, the situation is worse: the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia calculates that, at retirement age (60 to 64 years), 23% of women have no superannuation compared to 13% of men.86
‘On average, a person who becomes a primary carer will lose $392,500 in lifetime earnings to age 67, and $175,000 in superannuation at age 67.’ Carers NSW
Our commitment for economic opportunity and advancement
- Promote the SafeWork NSW Code of Practice: Managing psychosocial hazards at work.
- Continue funding for community programs that support women and girls from migrant and refugee backgrounds with resources to get jobs.
- Implement the NSW Disability Inclusion Plan 2021–2025, which includes a commitment by the NSW Government to ensure that 5.6% of all government sector roles are held by people with disability by 2025.
- Extend fee relief for parents to support affordable and accessible childcare.
- Continue to provide access to services and supports that build on the strengths and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers and CALD carers.
- Continue return-to-work grants for women to cover common costs of re-engaging with work, such as education and training, specialist clothing and IT equipment.
- Continue the TAFE NSW Ranks to Recognition Program for veterans and their partners, recognising prior learning and creating a pathway to new careers.
- Boost women entrepreneurs through Investing in Women Funding Program and free classes from TAFE NSW through the Women in Business program.
- Continue to partner with the construction industry via the Construction Industry Leadership Forum to attract and retain more women across its workforce.
- Continue to support Generation STEM initiatives in schools, and vocational and higher education settings.
- Continue the Built for Women Program to support training places for women in trade industries.
- Continue to support pathways for women and girls into trades through the NSW Government’s Trade Pathways Program for women.
- Continue to deliver the National Aboriginal Sporting Chance Academy's girls' academies, which aim to drive community led solutions to reduce barriers to Aboriginal girls in years 7 to 12 completing their education and reaching their full potential. The programs are locally developed and locally driven, reflecting the participating schools’ visions and directions for supporting and engaging female Aboriginal students.
- Continue to provide information about life stages and life events on nsw.gov.au, including on returning to work after parental leave or a career break.87
- Continue to develop and promote the Women’s Financial Toolkit and the Return to Work Toolkit.
- Continue the NSW Council for Women’s Economic Opportunity, a critical source of expert advice on improving economic outcomes for women and girls.
Over 10 years, implement the $16.5 billion package of initiatives announced in the Women’s Opportunity Statement, including:88
- boosting access to affordable before- and after-school care
- improving access to affordable early childhood education and care through the Affordable and Accessible Childcare and Economic Participation Fund89
- investing in safe workplaces and safer cities
- supporting the success of women-led businesses through government contracts, certification and a one-stop shop for advice
- providing seed funding to establish the Carla Zampatti venture capital fund
- introduce an annual performance statement on gender equality for the largest listed companies in NSW
- $9.7 million in the 2022–23 Budget to establish a Respect at Work Taskforce to ensure employers comply with their duty under work health and safety laws to prevent sexual harassment at work
- investing in appropriate facilities, such as appropriate bathrooms, for women at work
- increasing transparency in the NSW Public Service by reporting on gender equality
- boosting career opportunities for early childhood workers through scholarships for early childhood teacher education, and vocational education and training (VET) students; early childhood teacher supports; and partnering with tertiary and VET providers to boost the workforce pipeline90
- implementing improvements to the NSW public sector’s paid parental leave arrangements to encourage men to take more parental leave and support diverse family types
- working with the construction industry to achieve a target of 15% of trade and non-traditional roles being held by women by 2030, supported by $20.2 million investment.91
Other initiatives, beyond the Women’s Opportunity Statement include:
- delivering prevention and response elements under an Equity and Respect Framework to address sexual harassment and bullying in the NSW public sector
- reviewing approaches to the procurement of social services, with the aim of providing greater long-term stability
- prioritising the first 2 investment rounds of the $30 million Social Impact Outcomes Fund to support women facing disadvantage and young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and establishing a $1.3 million Social Enterprise Grant Program for women-focused social enterprises.
- Explore career programs to encourage more women in the screen, arts and culture sectors.
- Work with STEM industries to promote gender equality.
- Test the Future Not Followers and similar programs to build financial literacy and independence for young women and girls, and scope a wider rollout.