Snapshot of women in the Australian workforce, 2021


This article provides a brief overview of women’s participation in the Australian workforce, providing some key rates with age breakdowns, part-time employment rates, employment status and involvement in leadership roles.

Workforce participation

Australian women participate in the workforce at lower rates than men. Over time however, women’s participation has grown, as they increasingly join, remain in, or re-join the workforce. The participation rate expresses the labour force as a proportion of the relevant population, for example, civilians aged 15 to 64 years. The labour force comprises people who are in paid work (employed) or actively looking for, and available to, work (unemployed). Since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in the late 2000s, there has been increased participation by women in the two oldest age groups, and decreased participation by women in the youngest age group (see Figure 1). The younger age group of women is more likely to be out of the labour force as they participate in education.

Figure 1 Australian women's participation rates by age (annual average)

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Labour force, Australia, Detailed, Oct 2021, (Canberra: ABS, 2021), Table 1; Parliamentary Library calculations.

Trajectory of participation

Women’s participation has historically tended to change across the life course, starting at higher levels in younger years and petering out towards retirement age (see Figure 2). However, more recently the large dip during typical child-bearing years (late 20s to early 40s) has become less noticeable. Women have become more highly educated and are more likely to join the workforce following their studies. Women are also less likely to have children, or will have fewer children, resulting in less (or no) time out of the workforce for childrearing.

Figure 2 Australian women's participation rates by age, selected periods (annual average)

Source: ABS, Labour force, Australia, Detailed, Oct 2021, (Canberra: ABS, 2021), Table 1; Parliamentary Library calculations.

Participation gap

The participation gap is the difference between men’s and women’s workforce participation rates. The gap has steadily declined in the past forty years, apart from intermittent periods where it has stalled or briefly increased due to labour market volatility, such as in the first half of 2020 due to COVID-19. In 2014, the Australian Government committed to a 2025 target to reduce the participation gap by a quarter, from 12.1% to 9.1%. This target was reached during 2019 (ABS) and at June 2021 the gap was estimated at 8.0% (see Figure 3). In contrast, globally in 2018, the International Labour Organization (ILO) found the participation gap was 26%, though this was as high as 50% in some countries.

Figure 3 Participation gap between Australian men and women aged 15 to 64 years (seasonally adjusted)

Source: ABS, Labour force, Australia, Detailed, Oct 2021, (Canberra: ABS, 2021), Table 18; Parliamentary Library calculations.

Employment status

Historically, most of the growth in women’s participation has been in part-time employment. However, since mid-2017 growth has been stronger for full-time employment (see Figure 4). Increased roles in industries with lower than average part-time rates, such as Professional, Scientific and Technical Services, have influenced the composition of women’s employment.

Figure 4 Women aged 15 to 64 years by proportion in full-time or part-time employment (seasonally adjusted)

Source: ABS, Labour force, Australia, Detailed, Oct 2021, (Canberra: ABS, 2021), Table 1; Parliamentary Library calculations.

The part-time employment rate expresses part-time workers as a share of total employed. Some age groups are more likely to work part-time, particularly those at the youngest and oldest age groups (see Figure 5). Younger people are more likely to be involved in part-time work as they juggle studies or seek their first full-time job, whereas older workers are more likely to be phasing out of full-time work as they head towards retirement age.

Figure 5 Australian women's part-time employment rates, selected age groups (annual average)

Source: ABS, Labour force, Australia, Detailed, Oct 2021, (Canberra: ABS, 2021), Table 1; Parliamentary Library calculations.

Parliament

In November 2021, women represented 38% of Commonwealth Parliamentarians, an increase of six percentage points compared to five years earlier (32% following the 2016 Federal election).

Leadership roles

In November 2021, the Australian Institute of Company Directors reported the proportion of women on ASX200 boards had increased to almost 34%, an increase of nine percentage points from five years earlier (25% in 2016). The ASX (Australian Securities Exchange) 200 refers to the largest 200 companies listed on the exchange at a given point in time, with an index tracking the performance of their shares.

Public service

At June 2021, women comprised half (50%) of Senior Executive Service (SES) personnel in the Australian Public Service (APS), representing an increase of seven percentage points from five years earlier (43% at June 2016). SES personnel provide strategic leadership to an organisation and more broadly across the APS, supporting Departmental Secretaries and acting as representatives of the government. Women had slightly higher representation in the Executive Level of management, at 53% in 2021 (up from 49% in 2016). Overall, women comprised 60% of the APS in 2021.

Other useful information

While not covered here, information on the gender pay gap is available in a 2020 Parliamentary Library quick guide. A Library research paper on the history of women in parliament (1921 to 2020) is also available.

 

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