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The Ace We Need For An Equal Future

28/01/2016 5:45 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 24: Maria Sharapova of Russia serves in her fourth round match against Belinda Bencic of Switerland during day seven of the 2016 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 24, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

If the Australian Open has taught us anything, it's that athletic performance is priceless. For two weeks every January, fans come together in Melbourne to cheer on their heroes and the underdogs, and to celebrate the passion, power and determination of the on-court performances.

There are many reasons to love the Australian Open. Not least of which is the fact it pays equal prize money to its male and female competitors. Tennis, broadly, is the most equitable of the major pro sports (though it should be noted that outside of the Grand Slams, men consistently out-earn women).

Sadly, that's not the reality for most industries in Australia and around the world.

The gender pay gap across all industries in Australia is 17.9 percent, which is 11th highest of the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and only marginally worse than the 15 percent OECD average.

According to a recent report from the World Economic Forum, it will take 118 years for the gender pay gap to close.

There are a number of theories as to why progress has stalled despite years of effort by governments and business everywhere, and despite the rising number of women entering the global workforce. Regardless of the reasons, one thing is clear: the time has now passed for women to sit on the sidelines and wait for this issue to fix itself.

The good news is: we don't have to.

If you consider the enormous economic power that women yield globally, it's amazing to think we haven't acted on this by now. Women control $20 trillion of the world's wealth, and make most major household purchasing decisions, including those about homes, cars and holidays. That's a bigger growth market than India and China combined.

With that kind of economic power, consumers can influence almost any business outcome through the purchasing decisions they make. History has proven this theory time and again, especially where it involved human rights violations. Together, consumers have positively influenced corporate behaviour on a wide range of issues, from banning the use of sweatshops to the sustainable sourcing of palm oil.

The common thread? Consumers simply said "Enough."

Of course, pay equity is not a women's issue alone. Pay parity makes sense for families, whose household and caring decisions shouldn't have to rest on the economics of who earns more in the workplace. It makes sense for businesses, who are not only looking to do the right thing, but who are looking to inspire consumer confidence and become employers of choice. And it makes sense for our global economy.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, if gender parity (which includes pay parity) were achieved tomorrow, we would add $28 trillion to the global economy.

On a more realistic scale, they note that if every country in the world were to elevate its policies to match the best-performing country in its region, the global economy would gain $12 trillion.

The best way to accelerate change is for women and men to work together. Tennis is another great example of leadership in this regard. The best events -- those that generate the biggest ticket sales and draw the most fans -- are mixed events where men and women play side by side on the same team.

Consumers need to start by asking the all-important question: do the companies I buy from treat men and women equally?

The next step is knowing how to find the answer. In Australia, gender pay gap reporting is mandatory but disclosure of the data is voluntary, so finding the answer (and comparing results across organisations) can be difficult.

The companies that are doing it well are those who are accountable to their customers. This means consumers can wield even more power. If they aren't satisfied with the level of disclosure, they can ask organisations to do better.

For example, they can ask for greater transparency -- not just in pay gap reporting but in reporting the number of women on a company's board, and the number of women who report directly to the Chief Executive. Both of these metrics are important indicators for an organisation truly committed to gender equality.

If companies are not willing to share the information, or at least prove they are willing to change, then consumers should simply take their business elsewhere. History tells us that when enough people speak, businesses and governments listen -- and act.

The US Open was the first major tennis tournament to offer equal pay back in 1973, after champion Billie Jean King threatened to organise a boycott of the tournament. It took 28 years of campaigning but, in 2001, the Australian Open became the second tournament to commit to pay parity -- and taught us that voting with your feet still works.

The world today moves much faster. So, as we continue to celebrate one of the most popular pro sports for women, let's take a cue from our heroes on the court. Let's dig deep, and summon the passion to use our economic power to accelerate change.

It just might be the ace we need for an equal future.

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