09/09/2015 5:31 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

When I Tell My Niece She Can Do Anything -- I Want To Mean It

Governments, business and society now understand that gender equality is an economic issue and a cultural issue. Increasing women's participation in the workforce is critical to ensure better economic outcomes not just for women but for all of society.

Zoonar RF via Getty Images
Business collage

Attending the World Assembly of Women in Tokyo last week confirmed for me that, when it comes to gender equality, Australia is playing an important role in globally steering the conversation in a new direction.

The curtain has now closed on gender equality being seen and treated as a "women's issue". A new chapter is now being written -- one in which we all have an important role to play.

Governments, business and society now understand that gender equality is an economic issue and a cultural issue. Increasing women's participation in the workforce is critical to ensure better economic outcomes not just for women but for all of society.

As policy makers we have a role in removing the structural barriers that prevent women and families from making the decisions they want to make -- as to how they participate in the workforce -- as opposed to the decisions they have to make because barriers to participation still exist. This epitomises true empowerment.

In Australia, like most countries, women don't participate in the formal economy at the same rate as their male counterparts. Often, this is due to traditional societal expectations. I'm focused on breaking down these social norms and bringing the economic participation of Australian women up to par. There is both a personal and economic motivation associated with this goal.

I have a 15-year-old niece, Aleisha -- the daughter I do not have. The world I want her to live in is one that when we say "women and men are equal" -- they truly are. When I tell Aleisha that she has the world at her feet and that she can be anything she wants to be -- I want those aspirations to be genuine and I want them to be achievable.

I want Aleisha to have the exact same opportunities as my six nephews have. She deserves nothing less.

But for this to be a reality there is work to be done.

Australia currently ranks 21st in the OECD for female workforce participation, with Australian women spending on average 20 years less in the paid workforce than men.

Women in Australia have lower lifetime earnings than men due to industrial segregation and lower workforce participation. We still face a gender pay gap that, whilst it has fallen to 17.9 percent, as at May 2015, is still unacceptable.

Based on superannuation balances for those aged 60 to 64 years, the average superannuation payouts for women are 57 percent that of men -- AUD$198,000 for men compared to AUD$112,600 for women.

Increasing women's participation in the workforce is therefore critical to ensure better economic outcomes for them. Barriers to women's workforce participation have significant impacts on women's financial independence, skills development, lifetime earnings, retirement and superannuation.

As a progressive nation we must all be committed to improving economic outcomes for women and helping parents make genuine choices about balancing work and family.

Encouraging female workforce participation through fundamental policy initiatives such as the Families Package will make childcare more affordable and accessible. This will support women's workforce participation by making it a more conducive system to the realities of the workforce in today's modern age. It will also help families to strike a better work-life balance.

The Small Business and Jobs Package will support women in small business, encourage more women entrepreneurs and help women who are not in employment to become more job-ready. Recent research demonstrates women are increasingly attracted to self-employment, with women now representing over a third of all business operators in Australia. Furthermore, over the past two decades the number of women small business owners has grown by 46 percent, which is double the growth rate of male small business owners

Statistics show that too few women and girls are participating in non-traditional roles and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in Australia. It is a fact that jobs in STEM industries such as advanced manufacturing, agriculture, energy and resources, medical technology and mining technology attract higher wage jobs.

Therefore, more women working in these industries could also contribute to reducing the gender pay gap.

That is why the Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda will see an investment of $12 million to improve the focus on STEM subjects in primary and secondary schools across the country. Restoring the focus on STEM subjects in our schools will ensure that young Australians are equipped with the necessary skills for the economy of the future.

It is also imperative to make the tax and social security systems encourage participation rather than discourage it. As part of the Tax White Paper process I have held round tables specifically addressing how the tax and transfer system impacts on female participation and retirement income and how this came be addressed.

Policy of course can only go so far. The onus is on the private sector -- workplaces themselves -- to take the lead in changing the mentalities that hold women back. Women must be empowered and equipped to pursue any job they want to. To this end, there have been some courageous policy initiatives from the private sector in recent times that provide a vision for others to build on.

To truly empower women we need to challenge the status quo and we need to normalise flexibility for all. Only then will men and women be able to make the choices they want to make, not the choices they feel they have to make.

Until we do, we are effectively sabotaging our productivity and prosperity as a country.