The Sydney Morning Herald

By Melissa Grah-McIntosh

When Australia voted in a Coalition government on the weekend, we voted for a policy that could kick-start a solution to one of the biggest questions around gender equality in the workplace — how do we get more women from middle management into executive leadership?

If we could solve this issue, we could forever change the landscape of our country's workforce, our economic future and the future for our little girls who want to lead.

The incoming government's paid parental leave policy may be an economic winner for parents but it also has the potential to be a big winner for women's careers. And, if we are innovative, we could be coming up with practical solutions to the global problem of a lack of women in leadership.

We know it's a global issue. Female executives such as Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead) and Princeton's Anne-Marie Slaughter (Why Women Still Can't Have it All) in the US are writing about it. Their messages are becoming a worldwide phenomenon and the women themselves are reaching the dizzying heights of celebrity.

We know it's a huge issue here in Australia. Analysis by Australia's Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows that women hold only four chief executive positions and make up only 10.7 per cent of executive management positions in our ASX 200 companies.

One of the major factors contributing to the problem is we're not doing enough to help women on maternity leave reboot their careers when they want to return to work, so they can reach the leadership positions to which they aspire.

What's the solution? And how does it relate to the new government's paid parental leave policy?

The economic position of big businesses that will be paying the 1.5 per cent levy for the Coalition's policy will be no different.

As the Herald reported: ''The standard company tax rate would be cut from 30 per cent to 28.5 per cent as part of a separate policy. Adding back a 1.5 per cent levy for companies earning more than $5 million would leave those companies about as taxed as before (except that the levy would only be applied to that portion of their earnings above $5 million).''

Companies no longer obliged to pay parental leave are likely to dismantle their policies or wind them back. This is a big deal.

According to Professor Marian Baird, of the University of Sydney, about 50 per cent of large businesses are providing paid parental leave at the rate of somewhere between nine to 12 weeks' income replacement.

Westpac, which introduced paid maternity leave in 1995, and was Australia's first publicly listed company to do so, now pays 13 weeks on full salary. But the question isn't about how much these companies have been paying, it's what are they going to do with the money they used to invest in parental leave. They could take a back seat on the issue by merely running with the 1.5 per cent levy but, in today's hyper-engaged recruitment market, that doesn't make for a good message.

Or, they could use the chance to innovate, creating real workplace change to benefit men and women.

This could lead to the creation of tailored parental leave programs, where an employee can stay opted-in to their careers. Because many of us aren't completely switching off when we're having babies. We're blogging, communicating online and starting businesses.

Education programs could be developed using MOOCs (massive open online courses). These offer the expertise of the world's best universities including Harvard, Stanford and MIT, enabling women to take part in further education at a time that suits them.

Innovation in online networking and social media technologies could create valuable new mentoring and sponsorship opportunities.

And we can lead the world in showing how it can be done. Major global companies, particularly those in the US that are experiencing the same issues we are when it comes to a lack of women in executive leadership positions, could look to Australia and our innovative parental leave programs for the solutions.

Importantly, any parental leave program needs to be available to both women and men. As US authors Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober argue in Getting to 50/50: How Working Couples Can Have It All by Sharing It All, we should be equally sharing the responsibility of career and family.

The economic and social benefits of helping women stay engaged by their careers will far outweigh any cost and logistical barriers of corporate parental leave programs working alongside the federal government's proposed paid parental leave policy. Such programs will make the opportunity for progression into leadership for women across business, industry and the professions so much clearer.

This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald