OPINION: Enough talk. Let’s get on with positioning South Australia as a leader in gender equity.

Copper, hydrogen, uranium, green steel, the space sector, and defence.

Commodities, exports, emerging technologies, and important industries that South Australia is rightly staking its claim to help drive a more productive, resilient, and prosperous future.

But there’s an untapped resource of human capital that we risk ignoring at our peril if we are to truly accelerate the economic growth of our state.

That resource is a capable, supported, valued, and engaged female workforce.

This year, the International Women’s Day (IWD) theme is ‘Count Her In: Invest in Women, Accelerate Progress’, highlighting the importance of economic inclusion and empowerment of women and girls everywhere.

It’s a timely topic, coming hot on the heels of the federal Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) shining a spotlight on Australia’s significant gender pay gap issue, recently publishing, for the first time, individual employer gender pay gaps of Australian private sector corporations with more than 100 employees. The data reveals that Australia currently has a gender pay gap of 21.7%, a telling and confronting reminder of the discrepancy between the average or median pay of women compared to men.

With South Australia largely comprising of companies with fewer than 100 staff, the gender pay gap in our state is likely to be even more stark. The release of the Commonwealth public sector pay gaps, expected later this year or in early 2025, will give an even more accurate picture of the real issue at hand.

The gender pay gap is not the same as equal pay, the latter being a legal requirement in Australia since 1969. Rather, gender pays gaps are ‘a measure of how we value the contribution of men and women in the workforce[i].’ It is the difference between the average earnings for men and women across organisations, industries, and the workforce as a whole.

The gender pay gap is a result of several social, cultural, and economic factors that combine to reduce women’s earning capacity over their lifetime. This includes higher rates of women taking time out of the workforce for caring responsibilities and more women working in part-time roles.

We often hear the refrain that South Australia is a great place to raise a family – but it’s largely done on the shoulders of women at the cost to their careers, income, economic contribution, and economic welfare.

In South Australia, men are 1.5 times more likely to hold managerial positions than women, and for every dollar a man makes, a woman earns only 93 cents.

The gender pay gap ladders up to a superannuation divide. The average Australian woman currently retires with about $127,000 in superannuation savings, compared to $176,000 for men. 35% of women have no money prepared for retirement and one in three Australian women do not have any superannuation at all, including 60 per cent of women aged 65 to 69[ii].

Let those statistics sink in.

It’s clear, we have a way to go to address this issue.

The 2024 IWD theme perfectly aligns with the Committee for Adelaide’s focus on ‘accelerating growth,’ which centres on unlocking the economic complexity and investment potential of SA, fostering innovation, improving productivity, and driving long-term and sustainable economic growth.

As a Committee, our vision for Adelaide, South Australia is to be an extraordinary, big thinking, welcoming and vibrant place, with a growing economy and population. Ensuring everyone can equally and actively participate in the economy, and all aspects of community life, is crucial to realising this vision.

When girls and women are given equal opportunities to earn, learn and lead – entire communities thrive.

When more women work, economies grow. Having more women in the workforce, boosts productivity, increases economic diversification and fosters more innovative and collaborative decision-making.

Women’s economic inclusion and empowerment is also good for business. Empowering more women to work and assume leadership roles increases profitability, improves organisational effectiveness, and ultimately drives better business outcomes and performance.

To tackle this very issue, the Committee for Adelaide hosted a sellout IWD event last week with a keynote by Her Excellency, the Honourable Frances Adamson AC, Governor of South Australia and a panel of speakers including Minister for Women, the Hon Katrine Hildyard MP, Helen McCabe, Founder and Managing Director of Future Women, Todd Roberts, CEO of Credit Union SA, and Jane Pickering, Chair of SA Leaders for Gender Equity and CEO of Eldercare.

The audience heard about a company CEO whose highly credentialed wife was retrenched after taking maternity leave, shaking her confidence in re-entering the workforce and questioning her value.

We heard from another CEO who had a child and returned to the workforce 6 weeks later for fear of impacting her career if she had too much time off for maternity leave.

We heard about companies that don’t have women in leadership positions, not because they lack women of merit but because they have deeper cultural failings or biases that restrict women from accelerating.

As Minister Hildyard and Jane Pickering both pointed out, if women are not embedded within all levels of a business, there is something wrong with the business, not with women.

Todd Roberts spoke of how Credit Union SA has redressed imbalances in female representation on its board and executive level and warned that prospective employees will use the WGEA gender equality report to vote with their feet and their pay packets.

Guests also heard of the need to reduce the superannuation divide between men and women, which is a core consequence of older women becoming the fastest group of people facing homelessness and experiencing poverty.

As the CEO of the Committee for Adelaide, it was an important and inspiring conversation to hear. As a father of a young girl, it cemented the need to get on with it and act now.

South Australia has been a trailblazer in advancing gender equality before – it was the first colony in Australia, and only the fourth place in the world, where women were granted the right to vote. Australia’s first female Prime Minister and first female Governor also proudly originated from SA.

But today our state’s female labour force participation rate ranks among the lowest in the nation.

With South Australia currently facing significant workforce and skills shortages across many industry sectors, we must collectively implement inclusive and agile work environments that support and ensure everyone – regardless of gender, age, or background – can participate in the workforce and contribute to our state’s growing economy.

Actively increasing the number of women in leadership positions and on boards; encouraging all South Australian businesses, regardless of size, to conduct a gender pay gap analysis and implement strategies to address gender pay gap discrepancies; and advocating for superannuation to be paid on Commonwealth Paid Parental Leave and incentivising businesses to take the lead by paying superannuation entitlements during parental leave, are just some of the ways we can get on with increasing female labour force participation rates.

The Committee for Adelaide is committed to working with government, industry, and the not-for-profit sector to develop policies that put South Australia at the forefront of genuine gender equity. Because frankly our state’s prosperity and productivity depend on it.

Sam Dighton is CEO of the Committee for Adelaide


[i] https://www.wgea.gov.au/the-gender-pay-gap

[ii] https://officeforwomen.sa.gov.au/womens-policy/womens-employment-and-economic-status/superannuation

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