'Mindless bias' holds women back

SUBLIMINAL and intangible discrimination is holding women back in the workforce and helping to entrench the nation's gender pay gap, a report argues.

The report, commissioned by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, urges companies to look ''below the surface'' at ''irrational'' bias against women, arguing not only that they are excluded from leadership roles but are also ''held to account for being women''.

It finds that while some of the 17 per cent earnings gap between men and women can be explained by different occupational choices and other factors, most of the wage difference was ''explained by being a woman or by being a man''. And it warns that companies' attempts to reform their workplaces can be undermined by unconscious bias, especially against women in roles of authority.

The committee's report, launched yesterday by the Status of Women Minister, Kate Ellis, comes amid intense debate about the lagging representation of women in senior roles.

Speaking at the launch in Melbourne, Ms Ellis warned that quotas for female representation - staunchly opposed by many in corporate Australia including the Australian Institute of Company Directors - were still ''on the table'' and could be introduced if things did not improve.

''We are saying very clearly to corporate Australia, we want to work in partnership with you to change this - and it's an offer that I hope corporate Australia will take that up and we don't have to take that conversation any further.''

Asked yesterday about the portrayal of women in the media, Ms Ellis said there was sometimes unequal treatment ''handed out'', and said the treatment of the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was ''a case study before our eyes''.

''I think there's a really interesting issue, where often I will be encouraging people where if you see unfair treatment, if you see discrimination you should stand up and call it out for what it is,'' she said.

''In politics, there's often the opposite pressure, where if you do that constantly it looks like female politicians are whingeing and they're not tough enough to handle the environment.''

She said her office was collating examples of the media dealing with gender issues in ways that were not ''acceptable''.

According to the government's latest census of women in leadership, last year females made up just 8.4 per cent of directors and 8 per cent of executive managers in ASX200 companies.

The report calls for companies to adopt a range of reforms, including making their workplaces more flexible and setting targets for gender diversity.