Why aren’t female graduates participating?

The role of women in unlocking Australia’s productivity potential

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Lower female workforce representation is not a reflection of educational attainment, with more female than male graduates. Yet Australia’s investment in female education is being wasted – to the tune of over $8 billion – as female graduates fail to transition into the workforce at the same rate as their male peers.

A greater proportion of females than males are reaching and completing year 12, undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications. However, as soon as they leave higher education, women start to be lost from the full time workforce.

Graduate Careers Australia found fewer women than men going into full-time employment and more going into part-time work or being unavailable for any work, with the difference getting worse at the postgraduate level. A contributing factor here is that the average age of postgraduates is 3210 — the average age women start having children.

Currently, postgraduate attainment is considered to be a formal requirement or important for 60% of full-time employment post qualifications11 and a useful stepping stone into executive and board positions. If we want to give postgraduate women better access to these positions, we need to factor in the likelihood that some will take a temporary leave of absence around the time they qualify.

The opportunity cost of losing qualified women from the workforce

Getting more of our best qualified women into the workforce will not only boost the supply of talent and ensure women are securing their career foothold, it will also improve the return on Australia’s investment in education. Currently, the nation is losing over $8 billion each year for undergraduate and postgraduate women who do not enter the workforce — see figure below.

Rather than losing these women, or allowing them to waste their talents in side-lined positions, organisations should look at opportunities to promote flexible arrangements to increase the likelihood of having highly qualified women get back on an appropriate career path as soon as they return to work. This will mean changing the mindset of what it takes to be a leader.

Opportunity cost of non-workforce participation post graduation

EY - Opportunity cost of non-workforce participation post graduation

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Opportunity cost of non-workforce participation post graduation

EY - Opportunity cost of non-workforce participation post graduation

Many organisations won’t consider candidates for senior roles if some of their experience has been in a part-time capacity or if there has been a career break. We need to open our eyes to the fact that some of our brightest and best candidates have not had traditional career paths – and how damaging this is to their prospects.

Currently, continuity of employment is stopping women from competing effectively in the labour market. Women who take even a few months out of the workforce miss out on crucial learning, career advancement or promotion opportunities, helping to further widen the pay gap between females and males across all levels of an organisation.

Rather than dismissing this issue as an inevitable consequence of an interrupted career, organisations need to address the matter head on. With appropriate support and communication, those returning from parental leave, or after any career break, can make just as important a contribution as they did before their working life was interrupted, and continue to pursue a meaningful career path.

10Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRTE) 2011, Higher Education Data Cube, viewed February 2012.
11 Graduate Careers Australia 2012, Post-Graduate Destinations Report 2011, September 2012, viewed January 2013.