Australia's women lead world economically, report finds

As debate rages over sexism and misogyny in Canberra and across the country, a global survey has found Australian women are the most economically empowered in the world.

The study says Australian women are the world's most economically advanced in terms of access to education, market participation and anti-discrimination policies.

Despite Australia still failing to pay women salaries equal to men – average weekly earnings for women are 17 per cent less than men – the survey by international consulting and management firm Booz & Company found it topped a list of 128 countries in allowing women to play a role as economic agents in their social and political systems.

Australia was followed by three Scandinavian countries — Norway, Sweden and Finland. New Zealand was fifth.

At the bottom of the list were Yemen, Pakistan, Sudan and Chad.

Across the globe, the survey found up to 1 billion women will enter the world's workforce over the next decade.

Called The Third Billion Index, the report argues that while the burgeoning populations of India and China have been given much attention by the media, less has been paid to the 1 billion women who will soon enter the world's workforce.

The report compares each country's performance at providing women with:

  • primary, secondary and tertiary education;
  • equal pay for equal work;
  • non-discrimination policies;
  • access to childcare;
  • property ownership rights;
  • ability to access credit.

It also looks at whether wages are equal, the number of women in work compared with men, and whether there is equality in the number of female managers, senior business leaders and politicians.

The study used data from the World Economic Forum and the Economist Intelligence Unit to isolate factors that allowed women to have access to the larger economy.

The huge jump in female employers and employees, managers and entrepreneurs would power global economic growth but key decision-makers in many countries had insufficiently studied its impact, the report argues.

"There is a clear correlation between ... processes and policies regarding women's economic opportunities and the actual success of women in their national economies," said Karim Sabbagh, a partner with Booz & Company.

The research also found several common challenges that all women face, regardless of how well the country performed in "empowering women".

"Around the world, women are the primary caregivers for children, the elderly and the sick, and this responsibility hampers their economic development," said another Booz and Co partner, DeAnne Aguirre.

She said several elements were critical in increasing access to work for women, including widespread, affordable care for children, the elderly and the sick; cultural changes aimed at dividing care work more equitably between men and women; and recognition by the private sector of the importance of care work for all employees.

Nations the report says have not yet started to tackle the issue of women more easily entering the workforce, or gaining equality more generally, include most of the Arab states in the study's index, as well as Indonesia, Laos and Nigeria.

Helen Conway, the director of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, said that, on the face of it, the Booz report painted a positive picture.

"In particular, Australian women are among the best educated in the world," she said, with a recent World Economic Forum report also finding Australian women ranked first in educational attainment.

She said Australia's high level of female university graduates - more than 50 per cent - and some "infrastructure" such as the federal government’s Paid Parental Leave scheme all helped.

But, Ms Conway warned, relative to similar countries, the reality in Australia was not as optimistic as the Booz report indicated.

"Australia has a relatively low female workforce participation rate (Australia was ranked 14th in the participation rate of women of the 34 OECD nations in 2010), and a gender pay gap of 17.5% that refuses to budge," she said.

"There is a large body of research showing Australia has a long way to go in removing barriers to women’s workforce participation," she said.

She said that the high proportion of well-educated women in Australia had not translated to substantial increases in the percentage of women in corporate leadership positions. ''[Which suggests] that we are wasting our female talent," Ms Conway said.

The agency’s Australian Census of Women in Leadership will be released next month, and is expected to show that, when it comes to women in corporate Australia, the nation still lags badly behind.

  • Download documents from The Third Billion Index here.

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