Labour shortages are a big problem. But the answer is right in front of us

all cafes to our largest national and international retailers – is labour shortages. Businesses just simply can’t find enough staff, be they customer-facing roles or more specialist positions in growth areas of data and digital.

The staffing challenge for business is immense – there are nearly half a million job vacancies across the country, including over 40,000 in retail trade alone, which is an increase of nearly 40 per cent in just three months.

The good news is that some of the best talent solutions are right in front of us – with recent research telling us there is huge room for improvement in how we incentivise women to participate more fully in the workforce. Lack of access to affordable childcare and systemic inequalities means women aren’t returning to work at their full potential – or in some cases, at all. Taking a holistic approach to improving the social and financial outcomes for women, means we can accelerate Australia’s economic recovery. It’s a win-win.

Unfortunately, research from Federal Treasury shows that having a baby opens up a 55 per cent pay gap for female workers compared to their male colleagues in the first five years after childbirth. This ‘motherhood penalty’ compares to a 25 per cent disparity in Denmark, a 34 per cent gap in the US and 36 per cent in the UK. The gender pay gap begins to open when women reach their 30s, when they tend to take career breaks to have and care for children, and they often return to work earning less than what they did beforehand. Gender equality is a complex issue, but what employers can do better is maintain connections with their female workers when they take leave to have children and provide opportunities to upskill, so the transition back to work is a smooth one.

At every age of their working lives, the majority of women are not working full-time. Men over the age of 55 are twice as likely to be in management than women, while men also out-earn women across every generation.

A lack of access to childcare is the biggest barrier in women’s workforce participation. Australia has the second highest childcare costs in the world – it’s unaffordable for many working women, who are turning down employment opportunities to care for their kids instead. Solving childcare in this country isn’t just a social issue – it’s an economic one as well that would unleash the potential of return-to-work parents.

Of course, there’s a combination of other factors at play including the fact that ‘Brand Australia’ has been damaged. When Covid first hit our shores over two years ago, foreign workers, including international students, returned home. And when our economy and borders opened back up, they didn’t come back. At this time last year, it was back to business as usual in parts of Europe and the United States, but in Australia – our two largest states were in lockdown.

We’re continuing to feel the consequences of the 2021 Delta lockdowns today – the reality is Australia is no longer the attractive place it once was to live and work. People won’t simply forget that Melbourne at one point was the most locked down city in the world. We’re pleased to see a willingness from the government to help fill the immediate job vacancies by supporting more migrant workers and upskilling Australians. We must do both, but it’s women who hold the key.

With the Federal Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit set down for September, it’s important that women are a key focus. They are the backbone of the retail industry, making up more than half of our workforce. Despite this, women only occupy 27 per cent of board positions with Australian retailers and just 17 per cent of our sector is led by female CEOs. It’s not good enough, and governments, employers and employees have an important role to play in driving the cultural change that is so desperately needed to achieve gender equality and better outcomes for women in Australia.

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