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The latest Women in the Workplace Report has been released, and it’s changing the conversation around the gender gap from the ‘glass ceiling’ to the ‘broken rung’. In Australia, the full-time gender pay gap is 14% - meaning women earn on average $241.50 less than men per week.

The report, from McKinsey and Company and LeanIn.Org, is based on five years of data from 590 US companies that employ more than 22 million people. And this year, its major finding is that despite there having been some progress at senior levels, women still remain significantly underrepresented. The biggest obstacle that women are facing on their way to leadership is the first step up to manager – or, ‘the broken rung’.

“Progress at the top is constrained by a broken rung. The biggest obstacle women face on the path to senior leadership is at the first step up to manager. For every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired. This broken rung results in more women getting stuck at the entry level and fewer women becoming managers. Not surprisingly, men end up holding 62 percent of manager-level positions, while women hold just 38 percent.” – Women in the Workplace, 2019

The importance of manager support

We know that managers play a huge role in an employee’s work life – from the organisational culture to encouragement and implementation of work-life balance, managers can directly impact an employee’s happiness in the workplace. The report discusses the influence that managers have on how employees view their career opportunities.

“Employees are more likely to think they have equal opportunities for growth and advancement when their manager showcases their work, helps them manage their career, and advocates for new opportunities for them on a regular basis.” – Women in the Workplace, 2019

The report found that most managers do provide this important type of career support, and equally to both men and women. But they just don’t do it consistently – only a third of employees say managers advocate for new opportunities for them ‘a great deal’, and less than a quarter of employees say their manager regularly help them manage their career.

The role of a manager in this ‘broken rung’ issue is clearly important – managers can provide support and guidance and instil confidence in their employees to encourage and enable them to not only try for advancement, but obtain higher roles in their career. For women, this can be especially important, with many experiencing  a lack of  confidence after returning from parental leave. Return-to-work programs, mentorships and other transition programs can make a big difference in ensuring women feel ready for their next role.

Progressive parental leave

The need for gender-equal, best practice parental leave is also clear. A woman’s disproportionate share of unpaid/domestic work, alongside the lack of flexibility in the workplace around caring responsibilities, means that women find themselves in less senior roles and earning less.

But flexible work options, policies and workplace cultures that encourage a more equal share of unpaid work at home, can help this. A recent report from the Credit Suisse Research Institute states that, “Employers can also help [decrease the gender gap] by providing increased parental leave to fathers, rather than limiting this benefit to mothers, and hence encourage more women to remain in full-time paid employment for longer.”

“One progressive initiative cited was the shared parental leave scheme introduced in many Western European countries aimed at encouraging fathers to share the responsibilities of childcare, including taking a career break to do so.” – Credit Suisse, October 2019

The report further encouraged employers to work together with policymakers, to foster ‘societal shift’ in things like childcare responsibilities. When both men and women are actively encouraged to thrive in their home life as well as their career, equally, then perhaps the age-old adage of ‘women are the homemakers, men are the breadwinners’ will well and truly disappear, allowing fathers to feel comfortable taking parental leave and being at home with their children, thus in turn allowing women more time and focus for their own chosen career path.

Workplace gender segregation – the pros and cons

Some argue the gender gap exists because of ‘workplace gender segregation’ – women or men generally entering different occupations because of their gender. For example, more women being teachers or nurses than men, or more men in the STEM industry fields, and some believe that the careers women tend to be attracted to are just generally less paying. This isn’t the case, however, with a recent study in the US found that there is no occupation where women are paid more than men.

Interestingly, whether a certain industry is more ‘gender segregated’ than another does have a significant impact on family-friendly policies and work-life balance. A recent study by three Australian academics that looked at 3000 Australian fathers found that those working in female-dominated or gender-equal occupations spent much more time with their children than fathers working in male-dominated industries. In fact, even dads who worked long hours in gender-equal or women-dominated occupations still spent more time with family.

“This may be because such work environments are more amenable to parenting responsibilities being ‘visible’ in the workplace and have systems and structures in place that facilitate involvement.”

– Laetia Coles, Lead Author, ‘Contemporary fatherhood: social, demographic and attitudinal factors associated with involved fathering and long work hours’, 2018.

And for those dads working in male-dominated occupations, the study found that ‘fathering tends to be a lot more invisible’. This could easily be attributed to there being less demand in these occupations for policies that allow for balance between paid and unpaid work, like parental leave or working from home. When there are more women in a workplace and therefore presenting more of a need for family-friendly policies, then it seems this is a positive for both women and men.

Employers need to place major focus on the gender gap, especially ‘the broken rung’ that McKinsey have identified as a defining issue. By training our managers to be of significant support to their employees, and by progressive family-friendly, gender equal practices such as parental leave, more women will be equipped to succeed in their careers and progress through management to upper tiers. Best practice workplace policies that ensure equality for both our women and men mean that working parents can thrive in their careers and at home without fear of financial loss or career stalling.


To read the Women in the Workplace 2019 Report in full, visit here.

All statistics taken from the Women in the Workplace 2019 Report.

To find out more about how Parents At Work can support your organisation with a family friendly workplace program, please contact info@parentsatwork.com.au.