The experience of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander women in the workforce is unique. They are vulnerable to discrimination and disadvantage on two fronts - the first being their Aboriginality and the second being their womanhood. This makes Indigenous women one of the most disempowered groups in Australia, as the layers of their identity compound the issues that they face.

The seemingly extra high hurdles that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women face date back to colonisation. The patriarchal system that was introduced with the colonisation of Australia, meant that the role Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women played in society was dramatically reconfigured and diminished, due to the discriminative government policies that stripped them of their rights.

The effects of this inequality are still felt to this day with the very prominent gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, as well as the disparity between Indigenous men and women.

The disadvantages and prejudice that Indigenous Australian women face, has contributed to a workforce participation rate of only 51.5%, which is notably lower than than the workforce participation rate of all women in Australia (59.2%), and that of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men (65%).

These workforce participation rates indicate that the plight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is real and the challenges that they face when trying to secure employment is often significantly higher than other marginalised groups.

Some of the most common barriers that prevent Indigenous women from entering the workforce, include:
- Employer discrimination and unfair treatment
- Lower levels of education
- Poorer general health and well-being
- Higher likelihood of experiencing poverty
- Residence in areas with few opportunities
- Caring responsibilities for children and family commencing at an earlier age
- Higher rates of family and domestic violence experienced by Indigenous women

Minimising these challenges will help to encourage more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to enter the workforce, empower their families and overall community, and positively boost the Australian economy.

Employment is transformational as it provides greater financial independence, improves living standards and quality of life, and builds skill sets that are important for future job opportunities. This helps to break the vicious cycle of unemployment that tends to be more common amongst Indigenous women, and sets a positive benchmark for future generations. All that’s needed is the initial opportunity to get the gears in motion.

There are a number of programs and initiatives aimed at reducing the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the workforce, as well as delivering Indigenous women from the disadvantages that they face.

One of the most prominent initiatives aimed at assisting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women secure employment, is Towards 2025. Although Towards 2025 is a government initiative aimed at boosting the overall workforce participation of women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are a key target group. The Towards 2025 government strategy has identified the unique challenges (as outlined above) that are hindering them from entering the workforce, and take a holistic approach to addressing the issue.

Federal funding has been committed to a diverse range of programs and causes, including, but not limited to:
- $55.7 million for the Closing the Gap - Employment Services Package, which includes boosting Jobactive to deliver up-front intensive employment services to Indigenous people.
- $138 million for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students through the Government’s 1967 Referendum 50th Anniversary Indigenous Education Package - $41 million will be specifically allocated to helping Indigenous women and girls access education and employment
- $25 million under the Third Action Plan to support Indigenous women experiencing domestic and family violence.
- $263 million to expand the ParentsNext program.

Indigenous Women in Labour Hire

Labour Hire, much like the greater employment landscape in Australia, is also experiencing low levels of participation from Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander women.
This is largely due to the fact that the main industries that labour hire agencies tend to serve are male-dominated, such as mining and construction.
In general, women only make up approximately one third of labour hire workers, and presumably an even smaller fraction of this cohort is comprised of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

Pushing for greater diversity and improved representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in the labour hire workforce is essential, as it adds new ideas and perspectives, and creates a larger pool of talent with varying skills and experiences.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have proven time and time again that they are invaluable additions to any industry, so providing greater support and encouraging increased engagement in the labour hire industry will be tremendously beneficial for all parties involved.

Some strategies that could help improve employment prospects for Indigenous women in labour hire, include:
- Providing formal education and training opportunities to increase their skill levels and employability.
- Providing continued support and mentorship throughout their labour hire experience.
- Customising assistance for the unique needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in the workforce.
- Implementing policies and procedures to ensure equal employment opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.
- Building and nurturing a culturally sensitive work environment, that accommodates the family and/or community obligations of Indigenous women.

Despite the underlying disadvantage that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experience in the workforce, and their relatively low rates of participation, Indigenous women are excelling professionally and paving the way for the next wave of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.
More needs to be done to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have access to the same employment opportunities, there are higher rates of participation across industries, and they continue to flourish in the workforce.