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Tuesday, 29 May 2012
Page: 5968


Dr STONE (Murray) (13:11): This bill amends the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 and amends the name of the act to the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012. It will provide for both men and women. Anthropologists have quite a simple test for gender equity in a population. They simply ask the women whether, in the next life, they would like to return as a male or a female. In Australia, almost overwhelmingly women tend to respond that they are very happy with their gender and would like to return as female, which is unusual when you consider the realities of the inequity of women's experience in the workplace. Violence is much more likely to occur on women in a domestic situation and women in Australia have more financial difficulties, during what is usually a longer life than men, living in poverty.

This bill's equality focus is specifically on remuneration, but it takes on board the fact that accommodating family and caring responsibilities is central to the achievement of gender equality in the workplace. One of our key difficulties in Australia is that we continue to have inflexible workplace arrangements. Under Labor, sadly, workplace arrangements have become even more likely to be ruled by regulation and a lack of flexibility that does not reflect the seasonal work situation, for example, or women or younger people's need for part-time work and work on days other than the traditional working week of Monday to Friday. Our country is getting more straitjacketed rather than less when it comes to opportunities for women to participate.

Our culture continues to expect women to be the main carers for children, the elderly and the disabled. At the same time, of course, most women have an economic imperative to support their families by earning outside the home and bringing home a salary. So we have a serious problem in Australia. We expect women to do it all—to have the babies and to care for the elderly parent or the disabled. We expect women to do volunteer work relating to their family's education experience, but we also expect those same women to earn an income outside the home in an inflexible workplace.

This bill introduces new functions for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, including to develop, in consultation with relevant employer and employee organisations, new benchmarks in relation to gender equality indicators. I hope we look at best practice internationally, because Australia has a great deal to learn, particularly from the experiences of some of our counterparts in developed northern European countries. The bill introduces a new reporting framework in which relevant employers are required to report against new gender equality indicators. The problem with this bill is that we do not have those equality indicators yet determined. It is not clear when and how the indicators will be presented to us, but we do hope that it will be in a very consultative mode. Employers who do not meet the minimum standards of these yet-to-be-identified benchmarks will be provided with assistance and advice from the agency. All employers will have access to education advice from the agency.

There is no doubt that Australia continues to fail women in the workplace and, even with these name, act and age changes and new benchmarks, we have a very great deal of territory to cover before we can stand tall in comparison to other developed nations and say that our women in the workplace have a fair go. For example, in the quarter ended February 2012 the gender pay gap between men and women doing the same or similar work stood at 17.4 per cent. This is one of the highest wage gaps in the developed world. The average weekly ordinary time income of females—this is full-time work—was $1,186 per week. Compared to men, it was $250.50 less per week.

The figures show that the gap has not changed from 12 months ago. Over the last 18 years the pay gap has, in fact, increased by 1.5 per cent. So, we are going backwards in the equality of pay for men and women doing similar or the same work. That is quite extraordinary especially when you realise that Australian women have access to, and are accessing and excelling in, formal education qualifications. Australia's women are the most likely to have finished secondary school and have tertiary education qualifications compared to most other developed nations. We are out there getting the education but we are not then achieving the extra productivity that can come from that education in the workplace. This is a serious loss for the women and it is an even greater loss for the nation as a whole.

Figures from the September 2011 ABS Survey of Income and Housing showed the average account balance in 2009-10 was $71,600 for men but only $40,400-odd for women—almost half. Sixty per cent of women retire with no superannuation at all to support themselves financially. They are destined to be dependent on welfare. If they do not own their own home—and given most women in older age are alone and not partnered—this is a recipe for a long life in poverty. For those at retirement age who do have superannuation—and, as I said, 60 per cent of women do not—the retirement payouts in 2009-10 were about $198,000 for men but only $112,000 for women.

This is why I am so angry about Labor's new Paid Parental Leave policy. It is such a cheapskate, mean and tricky offer when for years they had promised that a paid parental leave scheme would be something that women could use to help guarantee their futures in lifelong earnings and lifelong opportunities. The fact is, Labor's Paid Parental Leave policy does not pay superannuation. Women will continue to experience the gap in superannuation payments while they are bearing their babies and taking leave. Of course, the coalition's paid parental leave scheme does include superannuation and it also pays women up to a threshold the equivalent of their earnings prior to taking their paid parental leave.

Because the superannuation system is linked, obviously, to paid work, it overwhelmingly disadvantages women who have to move in and out of the paid workforce to have their babies and have their families. Some women also have to take part-time work during some of their most concentrated child-bearing and child-caring stages. The enormous superannuation gap between men and women reflects that broken work-lifetime experience of women in Australia, and that simply should not be the case. Women are more likely to be in casual and part-time work, and they are often more likely to be in work that is paid in cash—again, without superannuation. All of this means that we continue to have a horrific gender pay gap and a gap in retirement savings between men and women.

Besides the gender pay gap women are also significantly under-represented in Australia in senior management and on boards. We have tried to address that by naming and shaming the top boards of companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. It was interesting that, when that was first introduced, we immediately had a scurry and flurry of women being placed on boards. The realities are that in very recent times the numbers of women on boards has shrunk even though it can be shown again and again in very comprehensive research that, when a company does employ women in senior management, they are more likely to be more profitable. Having said that, in fact, women are most likely to be on boards of not-for-profit organisations. It is, again, a very different experience for men and women in the workplace.

I would be remiss if I did not refer to the fact that workplace violence is more likely to be experienced by women with very serious consequences. Women also experience sexual harassment and workplace bullying. There is a report from 2011 by the Victorian work cover authority which estimated that workplace violence costs some $57 million per annum in lost productivity and associated support costs. The research indicated that we have a very serious problem in our workplaces which affects the safety of many women. It costs millions of dollars, but we do not know how many millions exactly. All we understand is that many women are driven from the workplace by abuse. They suffer consequences if they report violence, bullying or harassment, and they often carry scars of those experiences for a very long time. While there are serious consequences from workplace violence for both men and women, of course, we know much less about the experience of workplace violence on women and its effects. The seriousness of workplace violence is further exacerbated, as the problem does not stay in the workplace after the worker has left for the day but spills into the life of the individual in their homes and in their communities. It can undermine family and community life. Then, of course, many women are subjected to domestic violence, even those women who are not employed outside the home. So it can be a very tough world for women, particularly for young mothers who do not have a partner, young women who have left school early who seek to gain some employment at a time when their children are old enough and who then find great difficulties with childcare costs and with access to childcare places. I think the behaviour of this government in relation to access to child care and the introduction of regulation and national frameworks which have made child care beyond the financial reach of many working families is just unconscionable.

We know that there are alternatives to family day care and long-day care—that is, children being minded in someone else's home or in a specially established workplace. We know that many would prefer to have in-home care, especially for their young children or where they have to do shift work or work on weekends. Those women, though, are branded by Labor as elitist, rich complainers when we come to discuss in-home care for children of working parents. I think we have to very seriously consider that if a woman or a family needs in-home care for their children then they should be allowed to pursue that with appropriate regulation but also with appropriate supports and protection of that worker in that home based workplace. But to simply brand that as elitist is absolutely ridiculous and also hypocritical, when you look at the number of women in this place in the government who themselves used or use home based carers for their children but deny it to women who know that it is actually a cheaper option than having their child placed in a childcare agency or a childcare centre for more than $100 a day.

I have to say that this bill is clearly about a very significant problem in Australian society, the problem of equal opportunity for men and women. But it also highlights a problem we have in Australian society, where we educate our women, our girls to a standard that is in many instances higher than their male counterparts. For example, we now have more women completing tertiary education than men, and in some faculties like law and, indeed, medicine, women have drawn up to the numbers of men and surpassed them in course entry and course completion. Having said that, women's participation is a lost opportunity for Australian society, when the economy does not have the advantage of their full-time work for long enough or does not allow these women to dip in and out of the workplace as they choose to have their children or when they have to take up the responsibility of caring for the elderly or disabled in their family network. I think it is very important that men in Australia understand that caring should not only be the prerogative or the expectation for women. Men also have to step up to the plate and understand that job-sharing caring and sharing responsibilities in the family is not only important for the woman's own self-fulfilment but can also enhance the life experience of fathers and men in the broader Australian community.

This is an important bill. We have some amendments being proposed, but I strongly support the underpinning values that this bill represents. However, in Australia I do not think we can yet stand tall or proud when it comes to the situation of women in the workplace. The statistics are bald and stark, when we compare our experience with those of women, in particular in northern European countries. I am also concerned that this bill leaves a lot unsaid and it will have to be improved when we gain government. (Time expired)