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Tuesday, 29 May 2012
Page: 5971

Ms LIVERMORE (Capricornia) (13:26): I am pleased to participate in this debate on the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012, and I am pleased to be doing it at a time when the Minister for the Status of Women is at the table, because I know that this is an area that she is personally very committed to and that she has played an active role in consultations with important stakeholders. This bill makes a number of amendments to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999. The amendments deliver on a commitment made at the 2010 election to retain and improve the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act. In doing so, they draw on the results of a review of the act and the administering agency, the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, which was initiated in June 2009 by Tanya Plibersek, the former Minister for the Status of Women.

Among other things, these amendments go to things like changing the name of the act and its objects. They improve the coverage of the act and they will result in streamlining and simplifying the reporting regime for those employers who are subject to the act and in improving the compliance framework that currently applies. These are all positive and worthwhile changes. In this debate, however, just as important as what we are doing with this bill is why we are doing it. One reason is that the existing legislation and the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency date back to 1999. Since that time there have been many changes in Australia—economic, legal and social changes—so, of course, we need to make sure that our legislative framework stays up to date so that we continue to make progress towards our goal of advancing and achieving equal opportunity for women in Australian workplaces.

The fact that we have not yet achieved that goal of equal opportunity and, on some measures, have actually gone backwards is the other reason that the government believes that this issue deserves renewed focus and attention, including the new measures contained in this bill. I think that there is a perception out in the community that Australia does a lot better on measures like equal opportunity for women than we actually do. Part of that is probably attributable to our treasured view of ourselves as the country of the fair go for everyone. Discrimination and the idea that someone would not achieve their due according to their merit do not really fit with our popular image of ourselves. There is also a strong sense that the battle for equal opportunity for women is one that has been fought and won. When the Prime Minister and the Governor-General are women, together with a record number of cabinet ministers and a number of former and serving female state premiers, it is easy to assume that such a view is correct. Those women seem to symbolise a country where the last barriers to the women's equal opportunity in the workplace have not just been removed but smashed. But I am sure a lot of women who might be listening in to this debate could point to their own experiences that demonstrate it is not that simple and we cannot assume that equal opportunity exists in all or even most of our workplaces. If women feel that way, they are not alone and they are not imagining it.

Many gaps between men's and women's employment and pay are well documented and are actually quite large relative to international comparisons. I said there is a perception that Australia performs better on equal opportunity than we actually do, and I admit to being surprised at some of the figures and where we sit on international rankings for these measures. The issues paper prepared by the Office for Women for the review of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act provides an excellent summary of the current situation for Australian women.

The labour force participation rate of women in Australia has increased significantly over the last 30 years, from just 43.4 per cent in 1978 to 58.7 per cent in 2009. Obviously that represents a big step forward in women's financial security and independence as well as an increase in women's ability to participate in our society in areas beyond the workplace. That participation rate is, however, lower than the rate of participation for men, which sits at 72.1 per cent. Women's participation in the workforce has some key characteristics. For one thing, only 54.9 per cent of women work full time compared to 84.1 per cent of men. There is a dip in female workforce participation during the child-bearing years from 25 to 44 which is not evident in male working patterns. On the one hand that is not surprising, but on the other hand it cannot be dismissed that easily when OECD comparisons show that Australia has a lower participation rate for mothers with young children than countries like Canada, Sweden, the UK and the United States. That suggests we have to look closer at why rather than just assume it is all down to the personal choice of those women and their families.

Despite gains in participation rates over time, women's earnings remain persistently lower than men's. Occupational segregation between men and women continues to exist and male dominated occupations tend to earn more than female dominated occupations. The gender pay gap based on the average weekly ordinary time earnings of full-time employees barely narrowed in 25 years. From 1984 to 2009, it shifted from an 18.5 per cent deficit to a 17.4 per cent deficit. That is just 1.1 per cent in 25 years, although most people would have the perception that we have done much better than that. No wonder employees in the social and community services sector fought so hard to have their case heard before Fair Work Australia. The recent equal pay decision is a landmark shift and welcome recognition that women's work has to be properly and fairly valued if that gap between men's and women's pay is to be closed.

Women are less likely to be in leadership positions within organisations. Looking at the ASX 200 as a guide, there are more than 10 male directors to every female director and the gap for CEOs is even bigger. These individual statistics can be encapsulated by looking at where Australia sits on international rankings. When compared to other OECD countries with similar tertiary education levels, Australia has the fifth largest pay gap. The global gender gap index compiled by the World Economic Forum incorporates measures of workforce participation, remuneration and opportunity. That index placed Australia in 20th place in 2009, down from 15th in 2006, so there is a lot of work to be done. For 2009 that compares to New Zealand in fifth place, Ireland in eighth place and the UK in 13th place.

Any government concerned about both equity and productivity cannot afford to be complacent about our current performance in achieving equal opportunity for women in the Australian workplace. Those figures and international comparisons have a useful purpose to the extent that they remind us that challenges remain and that our responses to those challenges must be as relevant and effective as we can make them. But measures to improve gender equity and equality of opportunity in the workplace are not things we should do just for their own sake. There are real and tangible benefits to individual employees, businesses and our national economy that come from greater equality in our workplace. For example, research in the US has looked at the benefits of gender diversity to productivity. A 2004 report found that in four out of five industries in the United States, the companies with the highest women's representation on their top management teams experienced a higher total return to shareholders than the companies with the lowest representation of women.

When I read those results I do not assume that means women are better employees per se. My interpretation is that the presence of women in top management is a sign of a business that values all of its employees on their merits and has practices in place to support and mentor everyone. Obviously, the results of that good management show. It is a sign of a well managed business with strategies in place to get the best out of all employees, so it is no wonder that higher productivity and things like lower absenteeism and lower turnover et cetera flow from that. Encouraging or, in the case of this legislation, requiring companies to think along those lines and meet certain expectations in gender equality does have benefits for employees, benefits for business and, by logical extension, benefits to our economy as a whole.

Other research referred to by the minister in her second reading speech estimates that closing the gap between men's and women's workforce participation could boost gross domestic product by 13 per cent. In the context of some of the debates we have been having in this place in recent days about the pressure to find people to fill jobs in Australia, that is a figure that is very important to consider. So clearly there are good reasons for us to support improved gender equality outcomes in Australian workplaces. This bill seeks to do that by putting the focus of our efforts more on outcomes and indicators of business progress towards equality rather than simply requiring them to report for the sake of reporting. It also strives for balance between the need to meaningfully assess performance and compliance by businesses and simplifying their reporting process. I turn to some of the specific points about the bill. I said at the start that one of the things it does is to change the name of the act and also to change the objects of the act. The name of the act and the agency will be changed to focus more on gender equality rather than exclusively the equality of women. That is in recognition that gender equality has to be at the heart of what we are trying to achieve, whether that is gender equality of remuneration or, importantly, recognising the caring roles of both men and women when they seek to balance their family responsibilities with their working life. That is now expressly included in the new legislation.

One of the things that has obviously caught the attention of opposition members, and I believe forms the basis of some of their amendments, goes to the reporting requirements. One of the important points to make is that this legislation has been the subject of extensive consultation. It is the product of consultation with industry, with employee groups and with organisations with interests in women's situations in this country. This is not something that is being rushed through or dropped on anyone out of the blue; this is a result of consultation with those people with the biggest stake in it. The new reporting requirements on companies are to be phased in over time. In fact, one of the things that companies would have cause to complain about in the previous system was that the reporting guidelines were a bit vague and woolly; companies had an obligation to report but it was not entirely clear what they were reporting about or what the purpose of the reporting was other than simply meeting that legislative requirement.

The reporting requirements now go much more to indicators, so they are outcomes-focused rather than simply describing program or policies that might be in place within the business. Businesses will now be required, over time, to report against indicators such as the gender breakdown of their employees and the kind of consultation that goes on within the workplace around gender equality. Importantly, it is only applicable to companies with over 100 employees, so we are not requiring this obligation of smaller businesses. We are talking about medium to large companies who are caught in the legislation.

Very importantly, that new reporting is much more straightforward. There is a set of indicators that we require companies to report against, and that will now be able to be done online. This specifically addresses a point raised by representatives of industry, and makes it much simpler to do. The other point to make is that by reporting against those indicators it is actually giving the government and industry meaningful data—useful data. We are not just asking, 'Tell us what you do so everyone can feel good about it,' we are asking, 'Tell us what the actual results are; what does your company look like in terms of having a genuine commitment to gender equality?'

With that data the government is then in a position to look at what is happening industry by industry and to see where support needs to be targeted the most to assist companies to meet their obligations under this legislation; again, all working towards those objectives of greater equality in the workplace. That will flow through to greater participation in the workplace for women and, of course, all those productivity and GDP results that I talked about earlier. Ultimately, the data that is collected will lead to the establishment of minimum standards. That will be done by the minister in preparation for the 2014 reporting deadline. That, again, is a logical extension of making this data useful in actually addressing some of the problems.

In closing, I might just mention that the compliance measures are no different to those in the legislation under the Howard government. (Time expired)