Women outnumber men in tertiary education, but not in the workforce. That’s a wasted opportunity. Sarah-Joy Pierce crunches the numbers and finds the disparity is costing billions. 

If someone told you that your company could make $8 billion more per year, how quickly would you put a plan in place to make it a reality?

What if they also told you that doing nothing about the situation was costing over $500 million in interest per year?

The hard truth is that Australia essentially has an $8 billion gap in potential GDP, due to women who complete a university degree but ‘drop out’ of the workforce before they use that education. We’re also paying $1.1 billion a year in interest on HECS-HELP loans, and 57% of university graduates are women. You can do the maths.

Women are successfully attending and graduating university in excellent numbers, but this is still not translating to workforce participation (which currently sits at 59.5% of all working-age women), or further, moving on to leadership (only 15% of ASX200 company board positions are held by women). Our pipeline of talented, tertiary-educated women has a leak, and it’s costing Australia money.


The issue of this leaking pipeline and its impact on our economic productivity has been obscured by emotional arguments around the role of women in the home and in society – you only need to look at the furore around former PM John Howard’s equality comments last year (as one example among MANY) to understand how sensitive we are to this.

Unfortunately, John Howard did have a point.

Howard said that “…it is a fact of society about the caring role, whatever people may say about it and whatever the causes are – women play a significantly greater part in fulfilling the caring role in our communities which inevitably places some limits on their capacity.”

This has been shown to be true. Women are over-represented in caring-heavy sectors like hospitality and education, while our numbers are falling in STEM-related sectors. We are more likely to be part-time or casual workers, and we are taking time out of the workforce to care for family, resulting in women retiring with a superannuation balance at 52.8% of our male counterparts.

In context, Howard was speaking about women MPs and the demands on their time being unreasonably out of proportion to their gender roles in today’s society. But while not all women have to (or even want to!) become an MP – we certainly can all contribute to the economy in some way, even while fulfilling caring roles.

Setting aside any feminist concerns, it is possible to address the economic issue of women in the workforce with economic solutions to maintain the economic benefit of the knowledge that women already possess.

In contrast to Howard’s comments, I’d like to put forward that empowering women to contribute to some extent is better than simply assuming they will not participate to any extent.

So what’s the answer to encouraging our tertiary-educated women into the workforce? There are a few potential approaches.

Remove the stigma around part-time or flexible work

Currently, 45% of women are employed part-time in Australia. However, part-time work often doesn’t lead to career advancement or positions of seniority, as women who work part-time are perceived to be on the ‘mummy track’.

If women are working part-time, at least they are keeping their knowledge and skills current, as well as contributing to the economy. Changing the organisational conversation around part-time work is not a simple process, but it starts with management recognising the value of part-time work to employees and planning to integrate them into the workplace as fully as possible.

Changing the approach to taxing ‘second earners’

Currently, the personal tax system classifies partnered women with children as the ‘second earners’. This creates disadvantage by effectively making it uneconomical for some women to work – only 58% of women with children under school age are in the workforce, as opposed to 94% of men in the same family situation.

A solution like raising the tax free threshold for women with dependents aged under six years could provide an incentive to remain in the workforce during this time – which is often when women step out of the workforce and then don’t consider re-entry as a possibility.

Get serious about mentoring other women

Women make up a third of all Australian business operators, and this number is on the rise.  It’s been shown that mentoring creates successful outcomes for small business owners. It’s also been shown that women in particular are less likely to start a business, either due to lack of capital or lack of confidence. So the natural solution here is to let success breed success, with successful women (or even men) passing on their knowledge to the next generation of up-and-coming women.

Carolyn Creswell of Carman’s Kitchen recently addressed mentoring in her #AskCarolyn video series, saying that we need to be more intentional about who we choose as mentors. In some cases, this means choosing a mentor in the first place!

Let’s shift our focus outward from self-actualisation and ‘having it all’ (which generally only means working yourself into the ground and still not winning), and re-frame the debate about women in the workforce to be one about benefiting our country as well as ourselves.

After all, isn’t looking beyond ourselves what women are good at? Even John Howard thinks so.


This post was originally published on Women’s Agenda, as a result of my research conducted for Global Voices in late 2016.