“Losing to team GB is bad enough … but NZ?” This is the kind of headline that typically accompanies an Australian sporting defeat. Which makes me wonder whether we need to appeal to the competitive spirit of Australian men on a more important issue, and challenge them to move us ahead of New Zealand at closing the gender gap. Australia is ranked 24 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2014, 11 places behind New Zealand, at 13. It’s #heforshe AU v NZ.

A closer look at the report shows Australia is ranked equal first on educational attainment, however this does not translate into equal economic participation and opportunity, on which it ranks 14th, nor political empowerment, where it comes in at a lowly 53rd.

“People and their talents are two of the core drivers of sustainable, long-term economic growth. If half of these talents are underdeveloped or underutilized, the economy will never grow as it could.”

Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman, World Economic Forum

Professor Schwab’s comments are consistent with Australian findings: Goldman Sachs’ chief economist, Tim Toohey, estimates in his report, Australia’s Hidden Resource: The Economic Case for Increasing Female Participation, that closing the gap between female and male participation would increase economic activity in the country by $195 billion.The economic business case makes sense.

Yet there is a fork in the road: at the age where men and women are entering junior to middle management (25-34 years old), 86% of men work on a full-time basis, compared with just 64% of women. Moreover, the gaps widens as they grow older, with men maintaining 88% full-time employment and women reducing their hours to around 53%.

This results in a long-term social and economic penalty, not just for the women who don’t fully participate in the workforce, but for business. Corporate Australia suffers, as qualified workers (over 60% of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and diplomas are earned by women) drop out of the talent pipeline, and business continues to repeat the cycle of drawing 90% of leaders from just 50% of the workforce – the male half.

Which is why, in April 2010, Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick set about engaging the support of the most powerful and influential men in Australian business and government, resulting in 22 Male Champions of Change (MMCs), including the chief of the defence force and CEOs of banks and mining companies.

The Champions of Change have publicly committed to actively advancing gender equality across their businesses and acting as public advocates. They will act as role models and influence the workplace norms that prevent businesses from capitalizing on women’s full potential. They are investing in resources and programmes, changing policies and procedures, and in many cases setting quotas for female representation at leadership levels. What gets measured is more likely to get done. As one Champion publicly announced: “In many cases, we have to change the rules – they have been invented by men, for men.

Since the initiative began, Australia’s position on economic participation in the Gender Gap Report has moved from 24th to 14th. But now is not the time to rest on our laurels, for there is still a long way to go to achieve gender parity in the workplace: which won’t happen globally until 2095, according to World Economic Forum projections.

The Forum projections are supported by our own data, which highlights the existence of what Elizabeth Broderick refers to as “gender asbestos”: a toxic, lingering legacy. That is, despite being outlawed since 1984, gender-equality strategies are too often undermined by a culture of pervasive discrimination and harassment. Elements of this include the following:

  • The equal pay gap stands at 18.2%.
  • 1 in 2 women experiences discrimination while pregnant, on maternity leave or returning to work
  • 1 in 5 women over the age of 15 experiences sexual harassment in the workplace.

The key to unlocking the potential of a talented and highly educated female workforce is leaders who can re-envision the route to equality. We need those in power to acknowledge their own resistance, to encourage others to share their thoughts and, ultimately, to commit to turnarounds. As Warren Buffet said, “resistance among the powerful is natural when change clashes with their self-interest … After all, who wants to double the number of competitors for top positions?” This is also particularly relevant to those in Australian politics, where women hold only 69 seats in the federal parliament, out of 226. Just one member of the executive is a woman.

All these statistics tell us that the current business case for gender equality is too narrow, and does not adequately embrace the full socio-economic spectrum. An argument focused solely on the economic benefits of gender equality is but one part of the equation: the self-serving part.

We need a business case that challenges the traditional stereotypes to which men and women revert when they have children. And we need a case that demands an end to domestic violence and to pornographic material that perpetuates violent and degrading attitudes towards women. We need a business case that values the unpaid work of carers, and acknowledges that men and women can have different career cycles, and delivers on CEO promises of equal pay for equal work.

Finally, we need more female voices in government decision-making, to drive an equitable distribution of government resources to women’s social and financial needs – something that would, no doubt, improve Australia’s rankings in both health and survivorship.

Then, and only then, will leaders be able to capture the hearts and minds of everyone, which is what is needed to drive real social change. Only then will we see the right socio-economic policies enacted to support those who are most affected by discrimination and sexism, such as working parents juggling the combined demands of young children and elderly parents.

The Global Gender Report sets a benchmark for best practice and, despite our efforts, Australia continues to fall well short as a nation. We must do better. And in highlighting those countries substantially closer to closing the gender gap, we know that if this is our best, we have failed. So at the very least, let’s capitalize on the friendly rivalry between us and our Kiwi neighbour, and set a clear target for next year’s report.

Author: Prue Gilbert is one of the principals at PGC, an organization which promotes gender equality in Australian business.

Image: Fans of Australia cheer their team on during their 2014 World Cup Group B soccer match against Spain at the Baixada arena in Curitiba June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Darren Staples.