13 March 2021

Monday was International Women’s Day. While some might find it odd to celebrate 51 percent of the population, my view is that there are strong economic reasons, beyond the fairness arguments, for us to recognise the achievements of women, promote female leadership and ultimately support greater workforce participation.

When it comes to business, we have a clear productivity issue: we are simply not benefiting from the full potential of female leadership. The stats bear this out.

Australia is currently ranked 16th on the Economist’s ‘Glass Ceiling Index’ – just above the OECD average – Scandinavian countries make up most of the top ten, and our neighbours across the ditch in New Zealand rank at ninth. While average doesn’t sound too bad, Government data shows a declining bell-curve of seniority of women in business: they make up half of all private sector employees, a third of key management positions and directors, 18 percent of CEOs and 15 percent of board chairs.

Across the broader economy, underemployment is experienced disproportionately by women, who are almost three times more likely than men to be working part-time in 2019–20, and the gender pay gap stands at approximately 14 percent.

There is evidence that economic empowerment of women, through greater workforce participation, boosts our productivity, increases economic diversification and national competitiveness. This in turn benefits our society, with income security allowing for greater autonomy and more investment in children’s health and education. Conversely, the United Nations has stated that the gender gap may cost our economies up to 15 percent of Gross Domestic Product.

The COVID-19 pandemic has likely had a more adverse impact on female employment than male, given a number of industries with a high proportion of female workers, such as health and social assistance services (78 percent), education and training (72 percent), and the retail sector (55 percent) have been impacted by lockdowns. Female business owners and professionals have also been disproportionately affected, with studies indicating that women have generally picked up the added household responsibilities, including home schooling, resulting from lockdowns and school closures.

The economic value of greater female participation in the workforce cannot be underestimated, and we should use this opportunity to ensure that the good work to reshape cultural, social and legal barriers to greater female involvement in the workforce continues.

Celebrating women in leadership is a crucial part of delivering on the economic benefits of female economic empowerment. Even more importantly, in my view, is that experiences and learnings are shared by female leaders with their aspiring counterparts, and that men participate in the discussion and contribute to their success.

The Illawarra is fortunate to have a number of highly regarded and successful female leaders – for example, we have a number of female CEOs among our Illawarra First members, including Michele Adair (CEO of the Housing Trust), Dr. Melinda Williams (CEO of Peoplecare), Vicki Tiegs (Executive Director of Waples Marketing Group); Kerrie Mather (CEO, Venues NSW), Renee Knight (Executive Officer of CareSouth) and Marianne Saliba (Mayor of Shellharbour). Business Illawarra also benefits from the direction and experience of Amy Harper, Partner at Kells Lawyers, as the President of our Regional Advisory Council, and several other female business leaders.

We should also celebrate the achievements of those Illawarra women recognised at NSW Premier's Women of the Year Awards on Wednesday, and in particular, Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute's Dr Samantha Wade, who was named 2021 NSW Young Woman of the Year.

Advocacy remains crucial to progressing and highlighting the achievements of female leaders in our community will help us to continue to bridge the gender gap and realise the resulting social and economic benefits.

Business Illawarra has a role to play in supporting this progress and will be hosting its annual Women in Leadership event on 28 April 2021 at the WIN Entertainment Centre; sponsored by Mercer.

Our theme will reflect the building excitement around cycling ahead of the Wollongong 2022 UCI Road World Championships - and our recent designation as a Bike City - and will feature Marne Fechner, inaugural chief executive of AusCycling and outgoing chief executive at Netball Australia, as our keynote speaker.

We are honoured to have Marne as our guest and look forward to celebrating the achievements of Illawarra women together, both now and into the future.