Understanding Society

Women and work: Closing the gap in Australia

Down under

Australia is slipping down the world rankings for closing the gender gap. In 2006, the World Economic Forum described Australia as a “leader,”10 ranking it 15th out of 115 countries. Over a decade later, progress has stagnated; Australia now comes in at 39th11 . The Australian Human Rights Commission reports that men’s average weekly pay is over $250 higher than women’s12 . The gender pay gap is currently 15% and has remained largely flat for the last two decades13

There are other signs of gender inequality in the workforce as well. Despite women making up 47% of the employment market14 , women continue to be overrepresented in part-time and casual labour markets and spend almost twice as many hours performing unpaid care work as men15 .

Ipsos Public Affairs, Sydney was commissioned by the University of Sydney to explore what work life looks like for young working Australian women and what they need to be supported in their future working lives. Here we share four of the key learnings from our Women and the Future of Work report. 


Above all, working women value being treated with respect at work and job security. Almost all women said this matters to them, and, for four in five (80%), these two aspects ”matter a lot”. In discussion groups, women highlighted the value in creating strong, supportive relationships with their employers and the enjoyment derived from a mutual sense of commitment. 

However, this is not the reality experienced by every woman, as two-thirds (68%) agreed their manager treats them with respect, and 59% agree that their job is secure. Around half said they receive adequate recognition at work and feel valued (48% and 56%, respectively). 

Above all, working women value being treated with respect at work and job security, but only two-thirds agreed their manager treats them with respect

Managing work and family life

The prospect of having to juggle their working lives with caring responsibilities weighs heavily on young women. Many talked about grappling with this dilemma early on – would they have to sacrifice their careers (or accept a pause), or would they decide that work fulfilment was more important than becoming a mother? 

“It seems really hard for me to get my head around it – to have children and maintain the job that I’m doing. So … I have kind of told myself that I don’t want to have them. But sometimes I question that – If I would actually like to, or if it is too hard.” Brisbane, working woman 

Women dealt with these predicaments in different ways. For some, the decision was easy, but the “how” was yet to be determined. Several spoke about an expectation that as mothers, they need to go to greater lengths to shape their working lives around their caring responsibilities. 

While all working women mentioned the struggle in achieving a good work-life balance, this was most marked for mothers. Although some mothers welcomed the mental stimulation of work, the high cost of childcare meant that some could not justify working “against the day care bill.”

Discrimination and harassment

Just three in five Australian women (61%) agreed that women and men are treated equally in their workplace. Women gave examples of the subtle and not so subtle ways in which they experienced gender discrimination. Less overt forms of discrimination included being spoken over, not being taken seriously and having to present themselves differently to receive the same level of respect as their male counterparts. 

“I have noticed a difference depending on how I wear my hair and how I dress. If I wear my hair up, if it is short and, in a bob, and I know this is ridiculous, I get a lot more equality when dealing with men.” Brisbane, higher skill/pay working woman

Some women described incidents of harassment, particularly in male-dominated industries. Indeed, one in ten (10%) said that they currently experience sexual harassment at work. In extreme cases, women described how they had been effectively silenced from speaking out: 

“If you do say something, you basically just have to cop it on the chin … otherwise [they say] ‘you’re going to get upset by something so small?’ … ‘how were you going to cope in a job like this?’” Parramatta, working mother

Just three in five Australian women (61%) agreed that women and men are treated equally in their workplace

Flexibility and training matter

Nine in ten women believe having the right skills and qualifications (92%), and access to the flexibility they need (90%) will be important to their career success. However, in practice just two in five (40%) can access free or affordable training, while 61% have the flexibility they need. Our research shines a light on the gap between what women need and what is actually available to them. 

Flexibility was a top-of-mind issue for many working women in the qualitative research, particularly for those with children or who are contemplating starting a family. Access to flexible work arrangements was a crucial factor for these women when considering a role. Many women could not envisage how to perform their jobs without support to accommodate the demands of family life. 

Closing the gap

Despite all of this, women are fairly optimistic about future gender equality in the Australian workforce – half (53%) believe it will improve. Reflecting on their workplaces, many felt that men were oblivious to gender inequalities, but that most would be onside to correct this, if made aware. 

While women and men share some common workplace values, the desire for support at work and home is arguably more pronounced for women. But the pressure to balance career and family should not just fall on women’s shoulders. Four-fifths of working women (80%) in the survey agree that having a partner to share responsibility for childcare and household domestic work is important to their success at work. 

It’s not just a question of men stepping up though. Ipsos research on behalf of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership and International Women’s Day shows that most Australians agree that employers should make it easier for men to combine childcare with work (76%, slightly higher than the global average of 73%). And just under half of Australians (44%) believe that not enough is being done to encourage equality in regard to looking after children and the home16 .

Employers must also listen to what women say they need to succeed in their working lives and provide both training and flexibility. Otherwise the gap between what women need and what is on offer in the workplace will remain, and Australia will continue to lag behind.

Katharina Phan
Ipsos Australia

Jessica Elgood
Ipsos Australia