What does a female-friendly workplace actually look like?
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What does a female-friendly workplace actually look like?

A woman working at a major construction company is subjected to daily harassment and threats of rape and violence in her office for years. A new analysis of latest Tax Office figures finds that 30 of the nation's top 31 earning jobs pay men more than women. And in the US, Fox News' top-rating star Bill O'Reilly is finally out after a sexual harassment scandal with complaints from female colleagues dating back to 2002.

"I think women have made a lot of progress towards equality in the workplace and these days we do tend to see a lot less of the overt or extreme behaviour of the Mad Men mentality," says Emma Starkey, senior associate at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers.

Despite progress and good intentions, many obstacles to equality remain.

Despite progress and good intentions, many obstacles to equality remain. Credit:Stocksy

"But while now we see a real intention, or desire, to have female-friendly workplaces, we still have a long way to go to make those a reality everywhere. A lot of the barriers are systemic."

Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins agrees, saying we're seeing advances we never would have seen a decade ago, yet there's still plenty of work to be done. The World Economic Forum's 2016 Gender Gap Report, for instance, ranked Australia a lowly 46th for overall gender equality.

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But Jenkins says she's optimistic about the future. "I've heard about the ingenious ways individuals are working to overcome structural biases and unhelpful stereotypes in order to improve opportunities for women and girls," she says.

"Again and again I've witnessed tremendous resilience from women overcoming entrenched obstacles to their progress and men stepping up beside women to advance gender equality."

Those obstacles appear in many areas. Employers are increasingly prepared to offer flexible working arrangements, says Starkey, but then employees who access them often find themselves penalised in work cultures that value face time more.

Bosses may continue to recognise, reward and promote employees who are present for long hours and/or require the same amount of work output in less time. This can be challenging for women who also have primary responsibility for caring for children.

Women are also more highly represented in the more precarious part-time and casual sectors, says fellow Maurice Blackman Lawyers senior associate Alex Grayson.

"Women in precarious employment often feel that their employer is doing them a favour in allowing them to work flexibly or part=time, so they don't insist on their rights as strongly.

"They feel an employer is wonderful in letting them work four days – and then often end up working in effect for five. In that situation, they're also more willing to put up with less than their legal rights, or being bullied or treated poorly. They feel more vulnerable than male colleagues working full-time."

It's interesting too, notes Grayson, that of the Fair Work Act's 10 National Employment Standards, only the two minimum employment entitlements that apply mostly to women – about requesting flexible work arrangements and extending unpaid parental leave – are not legally enforceable, and without penalties for non-compliance. "So I think women do have lesser rights in the workplace in some respects," she says.

"In addition, the wage gap between men and women doing the same work has remained almost the same for decades. This results in real economic inequality for women. Whilst some employers are required to report annually on equal remuneration I would like to see annual audits on gender pay equity in all organisations being made a mandatory requirement, with the results readily available for all to see. These audits should look at wages for men and women on commencement, yearly and on promotion. And where there are systemic issues of gender-based pay inequity which are not being addressed I would like fines to be imposed."

According to the Australian government's Workplace Gender Equality Agency, full-time average weekly earnings for women are 16.2 per cent less than those of men. That gap is even wider in non-public sector companies with 100 or more employees, at 19.1 per cent on base salaries, and a stunning 24 per cent on total annual remuneration.

Women also endure discrimination in other ways too, much of which is subtle and sometimes quite unconscious from the perpetrator, believes Starkey.

"There's the assumption that if a woman has a child, she's somehow less likely to be career-driven, and prepared to go on international secondments or attend client functions," she says. Obviously no one thought to tell former Westpac CEO Gail Kelly, listed as the 56th most powerful women in the world by Forbes, and mother of four.

Happily, the incidence of sexual harassment in the workplace appears to be decreasing as it becomes less acceptable in society generally, advises Grayson, although it still happens.

"Unfortunately I am seeing more cases of men and women being bullied – whether that's name-calling or isolation, exclusion, micro-managing or speaking poorly to someone. Until we have more women in senior management or board positions, these issues of pay equity and unequal treatment are less likely to be resolved."

Such unequal treatment, whether in pay or attitudes, tends to be systemic and so ingrained, many are not even aware of it. But when women do complain, they're sometimes seen as the problem, rather than the behaviour or conditions they're drawing attention to.

"It's extraordinary that this is still happening in 2017," says Starkey. "We've come a long way but much more is required. We need renewed momentum and more transparency to solve these problems."

Brought to you by Maurice Blackburn

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