<i>Illustration: Matt Davidson</i>

Illustration: Matt Davidson

In mid-November, the Council of Australian Governments Reform Council released a report titled Tracking Equity: Comparing Outcomes for Women and Girls Across Australia.

Reporting on the release for The Canberra Times (''Girls ahead at school but women still earning less than men'', November 20, p3), Josephine Tovey quoted COAG Reform Council chairman John Brumby on the ''baffling contrast'' between women and men in the workforce: that although girls typically outperform boys at school; and [slightly] more young women hold year 12 and higher qualifications than do young men, men continue to earn more than women; and continue to hold more leadership positions in the workforce than do women.

I am baffled as to why Mr Brumby is baffled. Women's workforce participation is influenced by a complex blend of societal and historical elements. Such factors affect the type of work available to women, opportunities for women in the workplace, and the issue of earnings. The Tracking Equity report says that in 2013 the average weekly ordinary full-time earnings for women were 17.5 per cent less that the equivalent earnings for men (page 30). Earnings inequities are largely the legacy of a male-dominated society that undervalues the work of women, and generates the ''usual suspects'' that militate against equal participation in the workforce.

As well as pay inequities, other examples of these phenomena include the ''glass ceiling'', the ''old boys' club'' and plain old-fashioned sexual discrimination. And make no mistake, these factors are still at play in many workplaces. So even though girls perform at least as well as boys at school, once gender-neutral supporting structures of the educational setting are replaced with competitive male-oriented settings in the workplace, the previously level playing field that had allowed girls to thrive begins to tilt.

The Tracking Equity report provides recent (indirect) evidence of these points, including women's lower starting salaries and pay; and their under-representation in leadership roles including ASX 500 companies, parliamentarians, and Australian public service senior executive roles. This situation is unfair but it is not baffling.

But there is another factor influencing women's workforce participation. We could call it the ''elephant in the womb'': the fact that many women today make the choice to invest time in caring for their families, particularly when those families are young. Such choices have clear implications for workforce participation, and longer term, for promotion and progression opportunities. Again this situation may be unfair; but it is not baffling.

Findings from Tracking Equity suggest that ''Women are more than twice as likely [as men] to work part-time. One in five part-time women wanted more hours'' (page 28). The question then needs to be asked: if only one in five women wanted more hours, does this suggest that four out of five of these women were happy to be working part-time - at least, at the time they were surveyed?

We also know from the report that working part-time, or not being engaged with the workforce, is often (but not always) related to childcare: ''Of the women not participating in the labour force in 2012-13, 42.8 per cent had dependent children between 0-5 years, compared with 6 per cent of men. This rate almost halved to 22.2 per cent for women with dependent children aged 6-14 years old (7.4 per cent for men)'' (p 29).

A conclusion not often drawn from these statistics is that although some women who are not working, or who are working part-time, would like to be engaged in full-time work, or would like access to more formal childcare, most do not. And many of these women are caring for children. Yet the short- and long-term inequities in the workplace that are faced by women who scale back their workforce participation are real.

Appropriately and necessarily, labour market settings that support flexible workforce participation for women, and men, with parenting responsibilities are an active area for policy development. Key issues here include the nature of part-time work, which is often low status, low paid, lacking in career pathways, lacking in professional development opportunities, or does not allow hard-earned qualifications to be utilised.

Tracking Equity notes that ''women reported that the main difficulty in finding work with more hours was that there were no vacancies in their line of work; followed by too many applicants for available jobs, and unsuitable hours'' (page 29).

Other important policy elements concern the structure of paid parental leave, and access to formal childcare. Tracking Equity reports that in 2011, ''more formal childcare or preschool services were needed for 16.4 per cent of children aged 0-12 years [20.6 per cent in the ACT] … Parents' work commitments were the main reason cited'' (p32).

Although there are areas in which work still needs to be done, there have been many positive changes in recent decades. For example, Tracking Equity (p31) reports that male graduates have significantly higher median starting salaries than women in six out of 23 fields, this means that median starting salaries were at least equal for women and men in the other 17 fields. Further, attitudes towards women in the workplace are gradually changing as the generation that prescribed women's roles as being in the home retires.

In the Australian public service, until the late 1960s women had to resign when they married. Today, 57.3 per cent of the APS workforce are women, and the proportion of women and men at executive level 1 - that is, line management positions, not support positions - is almost equal (''Tracking Equity'', p38). Under-representation of women at senior management level is justifiably a particular concern. As well as the ''glass ceiling'' element, it should be kept in mind that in middle management positions and above, long working hours are the norm. In fact, these expectations appear to be percolating down through all levels of the workplace. It is not only women who choose not to step onto the 24-hour availability treadmill; many men also choose not to apply for promotion due to the ''selling your soul'' demands characteristic of high-level positions.

We live in a society rich with opportunity. But the hard reality is that many women's choices to prioritise family over work means that they will face a trade-off in terms of career trajectory. Yet much has changed in recent years which gives cause for optimism. The work-in-progress nature of the growth towards equity in workforce participation is reflected by a range of findings in the Tracking Equity report.

To paraphrase an old TV slogan: ''It won't happen overnight. But it is happening.''

Dr Karen Macpherson is a professional associate with the University of Canberra.