How do we increase female workforce participation?

The role of women in unlocking Australia’s productivity potential

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Australia could boost business productivity by driving greater female workforce participation with flexible work offered at all levels. When given the opportunity to work flexibly, women are our most productive employees, wasting $14 billion less than their male colleagues every year.

Making sure people with interrupted career paths achieve their potential would also improve the return on our education investment by over $8 billion, and create more self-funded retirees – reducing the cost of supporting our ageing population.

Our investment in education is hugely successful in terms of the number of female graduates it produces, but it’s not leading to greater participation. Female graduates outnumber their male counterparts. Yet, most women choose to enter our lowest paid industries and professions, and the women who join our graduate talent pool don’t retain their equal footing for very long. Many are lost from the talent pipeline as their lives change and they take on caring roles at home. Some leave the workforce altogether, others mark time in part-time or less demanding roles. Most are taken out of the running for leadership.

Women with post-graduate qualifications are particularly vulnerable, as their average age of graduation (32 years) is the average age for starting a family.

To increase female workforce participation and improve representation, we recommend:

  • Introduce or extend flexible work practices — to attract and retain highly motivated, productive women. Women with a high level of job flexibility: waste less time, are more productive and have more clarity over their career direction.
  • Offer career opportunities to flexible workers — typically, women in flexible roles are sidelined for promotion. These highly productive workers should be considered as succession candidates alongside their full-time colleagues.
  • Maintain the career paths of those on parental leave — people on parental leave miss out on crucial learning, career advancement or promotion opportunities. With appropriate support and communication, those returning from parental leave can make just as important a contribution as they did before their working life was interrupted, and continue to pursue a meaningful career path.
  • Seek out highly-qualified women who fail to enter the workforce — universities and industry should work together to increase the numbers of postgraduate women going on to full-time employment.
  • Change our expectations of leadership qualifications — many organisations won’t consider candidates for senior roles if some of their experience has been in a part-time capacity. 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.
  • Increase the number of women choosing qualifications that feed into more technical, higher paid jobs — women continue to shy away from industries with family-unfriendly reputations. To complement existing programs to encourage young women into technical careers, businesses in these sectors need to profile successful women, promote their flexible work practices and work on their image as an employer of choice for women.
  • Make child care more affordable — enabling women to confidently seek careers in more technical industries. These are bold changes, likely to meet considerable resistance, but the benefits they could unlock are worth the pain of changing thinking, altering policies and challenging assumptions. At a time when Australia is facing numerous productivity challenges, the productivity potential of women in the workforce is an untapped opportunity we cannot afford to overlook.


EY would like to thank and acknowledge Chief Executive Women (CEW) members who gave their time to review this publication