Gender Hiring Quotas in Australia’s Workforce

The pay gap between men and women in Australia’s workforce averages 14.2 per cent, according to the 2021 Census. This figure represents the weekly discrepancy between men’s and women’s earnings in full-time work, accounting for careers and industries all across the board. Not ideal, but hey—it could be worse, right?


The pay gap between men and women in Australia’s workforce averages 14.2 per cent, according to the 2021 Census. This figure represents the weekly discrepancy between men’s and women’s earnings in full-time work, accounting for careers and industries all across the board. Not ideal, but hey—it could be worse, right? It’s not as if that figure has risen considerably during the COVID-19 pandemic (up by 0.8 per cent); or that it fails to account for overtime payments (up to 16.8 per cent); or that it also fails to account for part-time earnings (up to 31.3 per cent)...

*Cough, cough*.

Despite these sobering statistics, Australia’s workforce has seen a drastic change over the last thirty years. Under the Whitlam Government (1972–75), lobbies like ‘equal pay for equal work’ helped set a legal precedent for women’s rights in Australia, mirrored elsewhere by the United Nations ‘Decade for Women’ from 1976–85. This is the political zeitgeist from whence Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 was born—a legal mandate that states, among other things, that men and women must be paid equally for like-for-like roles.

The Sex Discrimination Act was the first significant incentive toward bridging Australia’s pay gap, which was well over 20 per cent during this period. It encouraged sexual diversity in the workforce and offered women a viable shot at financial autonomy. But, revolutionary as it was, this mandate is not the be-all and end-all of Australia’s pay gap. There are still other factors at play here, some social, some political, all of which undermine the value of women’s labour. And, for these persistent issues, we require effective and enforceable solutions.

That’s where gender hiring quotas come in: a professional mandate by which workplaces must allocate a specific quantity of their available positions to female candidates. Intensive, temporary, and somewhat controversial, I maintain this method as one of the most promising combatants against Australia’s pay gap. To understand why, we also need to understand the three bleeding hearts of this issue.

Gender-segregated industries. We’re talking nursing, childcare, teaching, et cetera. Due to a systemic undervaluation of traditionally ‘feminine’ labour, much of this work is exploited and underpaid.

Gender hiring quotas put more women in Australia’s workforce. In doing so, the perceived value of women’s labour can only go up. The more representation we have across the board, the harder it will be to distinguish between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ professions, prompting a re-evaluation of gender-segregated industries (more specifically, how much we’re willing to pay the women in these industries).

Prejudiced hiring decisions. Women are far less likely to be hired or promoted for higher-paying roles, with management positions boasting a 23.4 per cent pay gap. Such discrepancy abides by the sexist notion that women are simply not ‘cut out’ for these occupations.

Gender hiring quotas forcibly negate the biases affecting women’s employment. Prejudice is no match for a tangible, mandatory measure toward women’s inclusion, particularly regarding the higher-paying positions from which we are largely excluded.

Social stigma. Women often feel pressured to prioritise the home over the office. If we want to experience the best of both worlds—to ‘have it all’—we must internalise a crushing double standard: successful men need only focus on their work, whereas successful women are expected to strike an all-encompassing balance between work and home. And yet, only 28.7 per cent of workplaces offer breastfeeding facilities. Only 3.1 per cent offer subsidised childcare. Moreover, for many working mothers, the office can feel like a hostile place. Not only do we have to deal with the functional practicalities of ‘having it all’, but also with the social labours of occupying a male-dominated environment, rife with micro-aggressions. If Australia’s workforce actually wanted women to ‘have it all’, then what’s with all these piss-poor incentives and prevailing misogynistic attitudes?

Gender hiring quotas are the kick up the arse we need to get these sanctions rolling. The more women hired across Australia’s workforce; particularly in higher-paying positions and positions in power; the greater demand will be for family subsidies. Not only will women have the means of achieving this work/life balance, but men will be encouraged to internalise the same standard. It’s about time we instilled a precedent for women’s accessibility and acceptance in Australia’s workforce.   

Now let’s examine the flip side of all of this. The following are common rebuttals I’ve picked up on over the last several years of friendly (or, on occasion, not-so-friendly) debates.

Qualification. It is not logical for qualified male candidates to be turned away on account of female hiring quotas. What if an unqualified woman gets the job over a qualified man?  

Firstly, it is ridiculous to assume that women being hired as part of gender quotas are unqualified. More often than not, especially for higher-paying positions, there are just as many (if not more) qualified women for the job. Take Australia’s law firms for instance: despite having a female majority in their graduate positions, only 33 per cent of senior roles are occupied by women. Gender hiring quotas forcefully negate the biases perpetuating such discrepancies. That’s all.

Even if a lesser-qualified woman is chosen for the job, so what? Women have been, and continue to be, excluded from major sectors of the workforce—it’s hardly surprising that we’ve got a bit of catching up to do. Hiring quotas give us a tangible means of bridging this gap. Is that really such a massive sacrifice to make in the service of workforce equality?

Culpability. It is not fair that modern men should suffer for the wrongs of their sexist predecessors. They played no part in the patriarchal construction of Australia’s pay gap, so why are we blaming them now?

Honestly, I have very little patience for this strand of argument. Notions of responsibility aside, Australia’s workforce was originally designed for white, straight, cisgender men—this is an indisputable fact. And while I’m sure that most ‘modern men’ don’t abide by such exclusionary values, they still profit from the systemic biases their predecessors put into place. Consider the differences between men’s and women’s experiences during the COVID recession: men suffered half as many layoffs, took on less additional unpaid domestic labour and were more likely to receive JobKeeper payments.

Gender hiring quotas do not exist to pin the blame on anyone. They exist to combat a decades-long precedent of inequality in Australia’s workforce. If you think being mandated to share your workforce more equally with women is unfair, it’s really time to step back and check your privilege.

Sincerity. Forcing companies to implement gender hiring quotas will only create disingenuous hiring decisions. Women aren’t going to prosper in a work environment where they feel unwanted, or if they were only recruited to satisfy a quota.

There’s a point to make here about internalised misogyny, whereby women (albeit subconsciously) adopt the notion that we are not good enough, or qualified enough, to occupy certain positions. It’s important to be aware of this kind of thinking so we can acknowledge how it’s wrong. Women don’t have anything to prove. We deserve equal space and equal pay in Australia’s workforce—there is nothing illogical, unfair, or greedy about utilising the tools needed to reach this goal.  

Only once women are equally represented in Australia’s workforce can we begin a process of normalisation. After all, the end goal for hiring quotas is to eradicate the need for hiring quotas—until equality is no longer a mandated formality, but a ready expectation.

Finally, a message on hiring quotas for young people entering the workforce. To the white, straight, cisgender men who have tried to convince me otherwise, your job prospects are not being ‘taken away’ from you. Rather, they are being mindfully distributed in the service of a fairer workforce, which will ultimately benefit you. And to the women, I understand we have a lot on our plate but do not sell yourselves short. We can defy the sexist biases in our workforce. We can demonstrate the actual value of women’s labour.

And above all, we can demand the means to bridge Australia’s pay gap.

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