Errol Price with title - 415 x 275Alice: Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to

Alice: I don’t much care where

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go

Alice: …. So long as I get somewhere

The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough

Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

For much of the second half of the twentieth century, women, when considering their unfavourable economic, social and political status, viz-a-viz their male compatriots, faced a dilemma somewhat similar to the one addressed between Alice and the Cat. Much like Alice, they knew that they could not afford to remain where they were. Their difficulty in aspiring to gender equality however, was to define what equal treatment would really look like and what steps societies needed to take in order to get there.

One of the principal reasons for the stalemate in which women have found themselves was the absence of hard and objectively verifiable data which measured the areas and the extent of female disadvantage. This absence frequently allowed opponents either to deny that women faced structural barriers and gender discrimination or to side track the debate by questioning whether women and men had essentially the same aspirations in their work and their profession.

That has changed substantially over the last 2 decades.

Firstly, much data has been gathered by a host of organisations, academic, governmental and in business within countries, as well as internationally, providing objective metrics on the extent of female disadvantage. One of the most prominent reports is the Gender Gap Report issued by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

For the past 9 years the WEF has recorded the gender gap in individual countries as a percentage in four critical areas of inequality: economic participation, educational attainment; political empowerment, and health and survival.

The Gender Gap Report ranks countries in each of these 4 categories with those having the smallest gender gaps ranking highest. Countries also receive an overall ranking depending on the average of their gender gap scores and it is this overall ranking which is carefully monitored by organisations and media across the globe. As has been the case for some time, Iceland and the Nordic countries have the smallest gender gaps.

Australia was ranked 15th in 2006 – the first year of the report – but has since dropped to 24th overall out of 142 countries measured this year in the ninth report (issued 28 October, 2014). Australia fares very well on educational attainment where there is no gap at all and in health and survival where the gap is negligible. However, the gap is significant in the areas of economic participation and opportunity where Australia’s score is 0.80 (a 20% gap between men and women) and an abysmal gap in political empowerment (Australia’s score is 0.189), notwithstanding the fact that Australia has had a female Prime Minister.

The second significant change which signals greater awareness of the gender gap issue is the increasing attention that it is gaining at top political levels. World leaders are taking on board the idea that improving the lot of women is good for national economies as well as the world economy. According to a Grattan Institute Report (2012), if Australian women did as much paid work as women in Canada – implying an extra 6 percent of women in the workforce – Australia’s GDP would be $25 billion higher.

Australia together with many other industrialised countries in the last 3 to 5 years has been formulating policies which will have a material impact in narrowing the gender gap. Recent news reports have indicated that Australia is building support for a declaration by the G20 leaders gathering in Brisbane later this month that they will reduce the gender gap globally by 25 per cent by the year 2025. If this is achieved it will mean employment for an additional 300,000 women in Australia alone.

It has to be said, however, that Australia is capable of doing better than this. Australia has the building blocks in place to embark on a concerted program for the rapid advancement of women. The coming G20 summit can serve as the springboard for a sustained program to close the gender gap in economic participation and political empowerment .

The question is, as the Cheshire Cat implies, whether Australia’s political and business leaders really want to get there?