A blokey culture that costs the country billions in wasted resources

William Pesek
October 8, 2011

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Paul Hogan’s reptile-wrestling tough guy from the 1986 movie Crocodile Dundee typified Australia’s reputation for “mateship”, a creed of male friendship that often excludes women. A quarter of a century on, it’s costing the country billions.

Don’t take my word for it – take the Prime Minister’s. ”I’ve always thought the Australian culture is blokey,” Julia Gillard said last month. “It’s not acceptable to me in the modern age that we can look at boards of major corporations and not see one woman.”

Nor should it be to the men ruling over those corporate suites. If basic fairness won’t convince them, hit them with something harder to ignore: money. Women earn about 17 per cent less than men. Narrowing this gap by just 1 percentage point could boost gross domestic product by $4.4 billion, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia reports.

Australia’s economic boom is about the coal and iron ore it ships to China. Oddly, the nation’s executives aren’t mining the hidden resource of women. Unconscious or not, bias costs the $1.3 trillion economy as much as 13 per cent in lost annual production, Goldman Sachs estimates. Sexism is bad economics, and if it’s squandering growth in advanced, Western-thinking economies like Australia, you can just imagine how it’s affecting some Asian countries.

Take Japan. If its female employment rate matched the male rate – one of the highest anywhere at about 80 per cent – GDP would get a boost of as much as 15 per cent, Kathy Matsui, a Tokyo strategist at Goldman Sachs, estimated last year. South Korea has trouble with women, too. In 2010, it ranked a dismal 104th in a World Economic Forum report on the gap between men and women. It trailed the United Arab Emirates, Suriname and Azerbaijan. That’s quite a blemish on an otherwise successful economy (Japan ranked 94th).

South-east Asia’s record is mixed, given the diversity of cultures and living standards. Yet it also leaves room for improvement. The same goes for south Asia, which like south-east Asia has had its fair share of female leaders without commensurate gains in participation in corporate boardrooms or legislatures.

The Asian economies that tend to do best in equality analyses are the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Such rankings track progress on economic opportunity, education, politics, health and survival. It’s not that life is always great for women in the Philippines and Sri Lanka. To get ahead, all too many work abroad apart from families and send remittances back home. If that’s our definition of empowerment, we need to rethink it.

This sex gap undermines the quality of life of one-half of nations’ populations and poses risks to long-term growth and well-being of societies. For an economy to fully use only half its labour force is to tie a limb behind its back.

In this age of globalisation and fast-rising competition, it’s a wonder leaders don’t address this senseless imbalance.

Developing economies in Asia and the Pacific-island region are losing up to $47 billion annually because of women’s limited access to employment opportunities, and an additional $16 billion to $30 billion because of gender gaps in education, according to the Asian Development Bank.

That also goes for the most developed of nations, like Australia. It has only one female chief executive among its 30 biggest companies. At 8.4 per cent, Australia’s female board representation lags behind major English-speaking nations. The irony is that Australia is often an equality trailblazer. It fielded its first female political candidate in 1897, decades before most Western nations granted universal suffrage. It is enacting new passport rules allowing citizens to list their official gender as male, female or indeterminate, without having to undergo surgery as proof of a sex change.

Australia is also ending a 110-year ban on women serving in front-line combat roles.

Yet Gillard finds herself the subject of indignities that escape male politicians. The extent to which she’s finding respect hard to come by was apparent in a recent episode of the ABC’s At Home With Julia television comedy. It depicted Gillard lying naked under the nation’s flag after having sex in her office with her boyfriend, Tim Mathieson, and being interrupted by a colleague knocking at the door. Protesters annoyed with Gillard’s policies, including a carbon tax, have shown up bearing placards reading ”Ditch the Witch”.

Australia is a great country, and it’s not exactly a bastion of sexism, “Crocodile Dundee” stereotypes aside. Yet statistics showing Australia’s female board representation is almost half that of South Africa’s boggle the mind.

Discrimination exists, and if Australia doesn’t attack its blokey ways, investors may have reason to go walkabout.


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