Despite the hope that gender equality is a battle we’re on the way to winning, the uncomfortable truth
is that gender roles remain deeply entrenched in Australia.
This matters for a number of reasons.
It matters because of how often people reach for the “Women just don’t aspire to leadership roles” argument
without recognising that women’s decisions to slow down or opt out don’t happen in a vacuum – they happen
because of the need to vacuum, and the fact it disproportionately falls upon women to do it.
Thinking the majority of Aussie men are going to be seized by statistics that show they need to take on more
of the household chores and leap off the couch is about as unlikely as Donald Trump becoming a feminist icon.
It’s not an easy sell.
Deeply entrenched behaviours and beliefs are notoriously hard to change. Shifting attitudes and practices
will take concentrated effort from individuals, organisations, government and society – all of whom stand
to benefit from more gender-equal participation in the home as well as in society.
On an individual level, we need to expect more from the men in our lives, rather than praising them for the
bare minimum. Asking male colleagues how long they plan to take parental leave for or what they are baking
for the work morning tea are small ways to challenge gender stereotypes and overcome basic assumptions.
It’s also important to ask male leaders (not only female leaders) how they balance their work and family
Given how much kids learn through osmosis, the importance of role modelling gender-equal relationships
for the children in our lives is critical.
Indeed, research shows that in households where mothers work outside the home, their adult daughters are
more likely to be employed and have higher annual earnings than those whose mothers stayed at home.
Further, their adult sons spend an extra 50 minutes per week caring for family members and hold significantly
more egalitarian gender attitudes.
And we need to challenge gender stereotypes for both girls and boys. To date, the majority of efforts to challenge
gender stereotypes have focused on encouraging girls to pursue male-dominated hobbies and studies, inadvertently
valuing the ‘masculine’ over the ‘feminine’.
Challenging gender stereotypes is about ensuring all children are supported to pursue their interests and fully
express themselves and their emotions. This means as we encourage girls to feel comfortable playing AFL,
pursuing STEM subjects or wearing shorts to school if they so choose, we also show boys that they can broaden
their horizons too, whether it be nurturing their interest in the caring professions, learning to cook or wearing
pink if they want to.
Organisations have an important role to play in challenging gender stereotypes too. Strategies to reduce
occupational gender segregation (starting with outreach into schools and continuing into the workplace
by recruiting for transferable skills and potential to increase diversity), increase the number of women in
leadership roles and ensure gender equality in the ‘office housework’ (tasks with low promotability, like
organising the office Christmas party or buying a colleague’s farewell gift) all contribute to changing culture
Organisational paid parental leave policies that better enable men to take parental leave (for example,
extending the eligibility period for several years after the birth, or allowing the leave to be taken in different
ways, such as a day per week) underpinned by an environment that supports and encourages male take-up of
the policy is critical.
The federal government introducing a ‘use it or lose it’ component of parental leave set aside for the non-primary carer
(usually the father) to encourage more men to take leave is another policy nudge in this direction. Research from both
Sweden and Norway has found that paid parental leave policies that encourage men to take leave contribute to a more
equal division of work.
Further, removing the barriers and disincentives for women to return to work is critical.
KPMG’s 2018 report The Cost of Coming Back: Achieving a Better Deal for Working Mothers found that it would
cost some professionally qualified working mums almost $30 a day in tax, lost payments and out-of-pocket childcare
expenses to increase their working days from three to four per week.
Other working mothers would lose almost $80 a day by moving from four to five days per week of work. Outcomes
like this are at odds with the Government’s intention to boost women’s workforce participation as part of increasing
our national productivity.
At a societal level, we need to recognise the importance of the stories we tell and the voices we celebrate, and how
this shapes our cultural identity and establishes behavioural norms.
Gender disparities in the experts we cite in media stories, or which books are prescribed on our school syllabuses
all contribute to gender stereotypes and inequality in attitudes and behaviours. Buying a book shortlisted for the Stella Prize is one way to celebrate Australian women writers and increase the diversity of voices that shape
It is also worth considering whether Australia should follow the UK and various other countries who have
introduced laws or codes banning sexism in advertising.
In June, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority banned ads that feature gender stereotypes (such as men
lying around while women do all the cleaning or women having difficulty parking the car), following a report
that found that gender-stereotypical imagery and rhetoric “can lead to unequal gender outcomes in public and
private aspects of people’s lives.”
Inequality in unpaid care and domestic work remains one of the most significant barriers to addressing gender
inequality more broadly. It is a critical lever in increasing women’s workforce participation and access to leadership
roles. And ultimately it is up to all of us to eradicate harmful gender stereotypes that limit potential, stifle talent and
Thanks to the Women’s Agenda newsletter and Elizabeth Shaw who works in KPMG’s advisory practice, specialising in people, culture, diversity and inclusion. She is also the President of UN Women Australia’s National committee and one of the AFR’s 100 Most Influential Women.