A wake-up call on unconscious bias about gender

  • By Zilla Efrat

FINSIA’s latest Gender Divide Survey reveals a big difference in the views of men and women on the gender pay gap and evidence of sexual harassment or sexism in the workplace in financial services.

The findings are a wake-up call to the industry to become aware of the operation of unconscious bias about gender inequality and put in place processes to counter it, says FINSIA CEO Chris Whitehead.

The survey, conducted every two years, compares the views of those in the industry with data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) to see how closely aligned perceptions are to reality.

The WGEA data revealed that financial and insurance services remain the industry with the largest gender pay gap — 27.5 per cent for total remuneration and 21.2 per cent for base salary.

This is more than six percentage points higher than the average total remuneration pay gap for all industries, which stands at 21.3 per cent.

But FINSIA’s survey, held during the same period, found that 77 per cent of the male respondents were neutral, agreed or strongly agreed that the pay gap was grossly exaggerated, compared to 40 per cent of women.

FINSIA Diversity Advisory Council chair Linda Maniaci says the survey highlights the need for more concerted action, with a focus on much more sponsorship of females into leadership opportunities.

“The findings of the survey beg the question: is the frustratingly slow progress we are making in areas of gender equality in our industry down to the different lived experiences of men and women in our industry?

“We need to do more to ensure women are provided with the same career opportunities as men – particularly when they display the same leadership qualities as their male counterparts. We all need to work harder to challenge unconscious bias and myths regarding merit.”

Maniaci adds: “We’re not talking about just mentoring – many women already have the skills and leadership qualities required for a successful career in our sector. But what we need is active sponsorship and genuine advocacy for women, from both males and females.”

She says it’s worrying that the financial services industry lags so far behind every other industry when it comes to inequality over pay.

“What’s concerning for an industry that is as heavily focused on incentives and bonuses as financial services is that the pay gap is worse percentage-wise when they’re taken into account,” she says.

Whitehead says the strong differences between male and female perceptions may be indicative of gender bias and may be the reason why improvement in gender equality is so slow.

“More than 25 per cent of males believe the extent of the pay gap is grossly exaggerated. Yet only 6 per cent of women believing this is not the case – clearly a gender divide in the perception versus reality,” he says.

“Given that such different perceptions prevail, it’s not surprising female respondents are more likely to feel comfortable raising gender equity issues only with other women.

Whitehead says another concerning aspect was sexual harassment or sexism in the workplace.

“Since our last survey in 2018, the spotlight has shone brightly on sexual harassment cases in Australia’s most powerful workplace, Parliament House,” he says, noting it is alarming to see that financial services is not immune to sexism and sexual harassment.”

More than half (51 per cent) of the female respondents and 35 per cent of male respondents said they have occasionally experienced, or known someone to experience, harassment and/or sexism in the workplace.

“This concern is compounded by what appears to be an increase in discomfort – from both women and men – about speaking up about issues of gender inequality, says Whitehead.

WGEA Director Mary Wooldridge said the research brings to life some of the trends in the agency’s own dataset.

“Our most recent data has identified what we refer to as an action gap: organisations may take the first steps to try to understand the gender pay gaps in their workforce, but then fail to take any action to address them,” she says.

“In our most recent employer census from 2019-20, we saw a 6-percentage-point drop in the number of employers taking action to close their gender pay gaps: nearly half of employers who did a gender pay gap analysis failed to take any action to close the identified gaps.

“The FINISA results similarly illustrate this divide between knowledge and action. Businesses need to continually improve their policies and practices to ensure women and men are valued and treated as equals in the workplace.”