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Is the gender gap closing?

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A study by Curtin University researchers has revealed the hidden story behind national-level figures that paint a picture of Australia as a global leader in gender equality.

For Is Australia Really a World Leader in Closing the Gender Gap?, School of Occupational Therapy and Social Work senior lecturer Angela Barns and Curtin Graduate School of Business Director Alison Preston teamed up to find out what was really going on at the micro level.

The paper, published in Feminist Economics, responds to studies – including the World Economic Forum’s 2006 Global Gender Gap report that ranked Australia 15th of 115 nations as an emerging beacon of gender equality.

At the time of the WEF study’s release, the Howard Government had recently launched its contentious WorkChoices industrial relations changes.

Then Federal Minister for Employment and Industrial relations, Joe Hockey, invoked the WEF results as evidence the government’s IR policies were working.

But the WEF results came as a surprise to many IR scholars, including Dr Barns and Professor Preston, who had earlier warned WorkChoices would be draconian and significantly disadvantage women.

“These reports that get produced both internationally and nationally often obscure what’s going on at the local level in terms of women’s participation in the labour market, women’s career advancement and women’s social and economic well-being,” Dr Barns told Curtin News.

“They certainly do have their place because it is where you can see some of those really glaring disparities in countries.

“But if you don’t unpack these aggregate numbers, you can be lulled into thinking things are really going well here and it’s all okay.

“What we were saying in this study was that that’s not quite the case.”

Dr Barns’ joint study with Professor Preston concluded that a more in-depth reading of the situation painted a different picture.

While recent years had seen a closing of the labour market participation gap between men and women, much of the jobs growth for women had been in the part-time sector – where career advancement was limited and wage growth below average.

In other words, although the participation gap had narrowed, Australian women were still strongly positioned as the secondary breadwinners with prime responsibility for child care.

Dr Barns said there were still lots of barriers to women’s participation and, if they were not addressed, the figurative walls would only get higher.

“In terms of numbers, there has been a huge increase over the past 20 years in terms of women’s participation,” she said.

“So, women are staying in the labour market a lot longer and there’s also an increase in returning to the workforce after having children.

“But what’s really interesting is the lack of quality part-time work.”

Dr Barns said that women who had worked in such careers as law, engineering or management often found it very difficult to get work on a part-time basis.

“These women often don’t go back into their professions,” she said.

Dr Barns and Professor Preston are part of WiSER – Women in Social and Economic Research – which is based at Curtin.

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