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Monday, 18 June 2012
Page: 6683

Mrs ANDREWS (McPherson) (13:23): I rise today to speak on the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012 and I welcome the opportunity to speak specifically about the issue of gender equality in Australian workplaces. The bill being debated today seeks to amend the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 by firstly changing the name of the act to the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012, with the objects of the act to be amended as wel1. The bill will expand the advice and education functions of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, with changes also set to be made to the compliance framework for employers. The coverage of the act is set to be widened, with men being covered as well as women, and it is extended to all employers and employees in the workplace.

The issue of gender equality is a very important issue for the coalition and is an issue which I personally find very significant, having graduated as a mechanical engineer and spent much of my professional working life in male-dominated industries. I would like to make it clear from the outset that women and men can and should contribute to all aspects of Australian life in their own ways. In relation to employment opportunities for men and women, I strongly believe that businesses should be employing, retaining and promoting individuals based on merit, not on their gender. It is a core belief of the coalition that government interference into the life of individuals and businesses should be minimised as much as possible. I therefore do not support efforts that seek to increase the level of government interference in the workplace.

I would like to begin my contribution to this debate by highlighting several concerns I have with this bill. I have already mentioned my objection to unnecessary government interference in businesses' ability to employ individuals based on their merit. I therefore have concerns that this bill may impose additional red tape for business and therefore unacceptable increased levels of regulation. The two main concerns that I have relate to the cost to business and whether the new reporting framework actually simplifies and streamlines the reporting requirements for employers. I also have concerns about whether the Workplace Gender Equality Agency will have the necessary resources to carry out its expanded role, and why the new term 'employee organisation' is inserted into the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act.

In relation to the first issue I have, with regard to the costs to business, it seems unlikely that resourcing costs will decrease, as is claimed by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. The changes proposed in this bill go further than the gender equality rules which apply now to ASX listed companies. Currently, ASX listed companies are required to comply with the ASX corporate governance principles and publish workplace gender diversity policies and have their objectives for achieving these policies disclosed each year. These companies are also required to release information that shows the proportion of women in the company and how many women are in senior management positions as well as on the organisation's board. The provisions of this bill should not be going further than the current obligations on companies, as it is likely that additional costs will be imposed on these businesses through the reporting requirements this bill proposes.

The second concern that I have relates to the bill's proposal to simplify and streamline reporting—however, it is not clear how the new reporting framework will achieve this goal. Under the proposed new reporting framework, employers must report against gender equality indicators. This must be a public report prepared by the employer and it is required to contain matters specified in the legislative instrument made by the minister. The bill, however, does not make it clear what 'matters' are to be specified and there is therefore uncertainty for employers about what they must report on under this proposed new framework. Because of this uncertainty it is difficult to see how reporting for employers will be simplified and streamlined.

This brings me to the two additional concerns I have, which, again, deal with some uncertainty with what the bill seeks to achieve and the provisions' ability to achieve these aims. Firstly, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency is given expanded roles to provide targeted advice and assistance to relevant employers, so that they can promote and improve gender equality in relation to minimum standards. As this is an expanded role, it appears that the agency would require additional resources to effectively undertake this role; however, it is unclear from the bills whether these additional resources will be provided. Secondly, the term 'employee organisation' is already given meaning under section 12 of the Fair Work Act 2009; however, this bill also inserts a new term into the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act. Clarification needs to be made in relation to this provision, as it seems unnecessary to include a new term when it already exists in the Fair Work Act. These are the technical issues with the bill; however, we must remember that there are larger issues relating to female participation in the workforce which deserve greater scrutiny.

I would now like to highlight some recent statistics which give us an idea of how the current workforce as a whole looks. The recent labour force statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics give us a snapshot of the female participation rate in our workforce. I have picked a period from earlier this year. The participation rate for females during the February period, seasonally adjusted, was 58.7 per cent. This is significantly lower than the male participation rate during the same period, which was 71.7 per cent. I would also like to point out that the number of females employed in total for February is significantly lower compared with males. According to the ABS, there are over 5.2 million females employed, while there are over 6.2 million males employed. More than double the number of females are employed part time compared with males, with figures showing part-time female workers at about 2.374 million compared with just over one million males employed on a part-time basis. If we look at the employment of women in different industries, it becomes clear that there are specific industries where the employment of women is significantly lower compared with males. A look at 18 different industry groups reveals that only six industries have a majority of women employed either part time or full time. These industries are retail trade, with 56.4 per cent; accommodation and food services, with 55 per cent; financial and insurance services, with 50.9 per cent; administrative and support services, with 52.3 per cent; education and training, with 69 per cent; and health care and social assistance, with 78.8 per cent. A further seven industries have female part-time or full-time-equivalent employees at levels that are below 40 per cent: agriculture, forestry and fishing; mining; manufacturing; electricity, gas, water and waste services; construction; wholesale trade; and transport, postal and warehousing. The construction industry was at the lowest level, with women comprising only 11.6 per cent of employees. These statistics clearly demonstrate that we need to get more women into the workforce and improve their representations in industries almost across the board.

I am an enthusiastic advocate for improvement in the labour force participation rates for women and know that we can enhance our contributions to the economic and social wellbeing of Australia. In fact, earlier this year I raised these issues in this place and emphasised the need for work to be organised so family responsibilities can also be balanced. The figures I mentioned earlier regarding women predominantly taking up part-time work further justify my claim.

In concluding today I repeat my call to break down the barriers impeding improved female participation rates in the workforce and getting women back into the workforce. If we are serious, we need to identify what those barriers are and we need to take positive action to encourage and support more women in maintaining their place in the workforce or re-entering the workforce. Two issues have been identified to me very clearly within the electorate and quite widely around Australia. The first issue is good-quality and affordable child care. The second is an issue that, as I have indicated previously, I have touched on already in this place—work organisation to make it more appropriate and more attractive for women with family responsibilities to re-enter the workforce.