Former prime minister Julia Gillard says women risk becoming “invisible behind the screen” during the Covid-led transition to remote working and has urged bosses to ensure female employees working from home aren’t overlooked for promotion.
On Wednesday, Australia’s first female prime minister also welcomed the record number of women in Anthony Albanese’s cabinet, calling it “very important” as the Labor ministry was sworn in.
“As people have gone back to work and the rigor of lockdowns has ended, has this allowed us to see a change in the workplace?” Gillard asked a panel of gender equality experts at an event hosted by her Global Institute for Women’s Leadership.
Gillard chaired the Australian National University event a fortnight after campaigning with Albanese in Adelaide. At the time, Gillard implored female voters to back Labor because she was “very confident it will be a government for women”.
Gillard said on Wednesday that increased flexibility was “fantastic” for workers. Still, with women disproportionately taking on domestic labor, they could more often work from home and potentially miss out on opportunities given to office-based employees.
“There’s a risk that if nothing else changes in five years, what we’ll see is a pattern where women have chosen, particularly in the family formation stage, disproportionately to work from home,” Gillard said.
“And men, who have been much more regular attenders at the office … that very visibility, if nothing else changes, will show in who’s been considered for promotion, sponsorship, mentorship. The women will be invisible behind the screen.”
Wednesday’s panelists – Mary Wooldridge of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the commissioner for gender equality in the public sector, Niki Vincent, KMPG partner Jane Gunn, and Future Super group director Geraldine Chin Moody – agreed there needed to be protocols on flexible working to ensure employees who worked from home were not passed over for opportunities.
Moody said a company she worked with had implemented rules that if one person would dial into meetings via video or phone, all employees had to – rather than office-based employees gathering in a meeting room.
“It’s to make sure there’s equality in how people are showing, and there’s not a ‘side meeting’,” she said.
Wooldridge praised Gillard’s government for introducing the Workplace Gender Equality Act in 2012, which created the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, and obligated large employers to report workforce composition and pay details to that agency. She said the act “absolutely” impacted addressing gender pay gap issues, but more work was needed.
Wooldridge said 30% of companies were engaged in collecting such data and “doing something” about it – but making that data transparent would accelerate change.
Sign up to receive an email with the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning.
Moody and Wooldridge called for employers to collect “cultural data” on diversity, suggesting legislation could be tweaked to encourage information about employees’ backgrounds to be quantified and reported.
Gillard asked the panel whether there were “opportunities” to reshape how workplaces functioned post-Covid and whether progress on gender equality could slip backward.
“Covid gave us some positives in advancing the idea that flexible working could work,” Gunn said.
She noted studies that many Australians considered themselves just as productive when working from home as at an office.
“Now there’s some perceived costs in that, where people perceive the manager face-time, the water-cooler conversations, ability to engage in collaborative creative work would be damaged. I don’t think we’ve landed on exactly what will happen yet,” Gunn said.
“We know we’ve got to monitor the effects of this hybrid working on things we already track, around gender pay gap, promotions, where people have legitimate concerns.”