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Monday, 18 June 2012
Page: 6714

Ms VAMVAKINOU (Calwell) (15:33): It is a pleasure to follow the member for Kingston in speaking to this Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012. This bill amends the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 to deliver very importantly on a 2010 election commitment by the government to improve women's workforce participation. This proposed legislation presents a new framework for encouraging gender equality by removing those disincentives that mitigate against the equal participation of women in the workforce. It also fulfils a dual purpose of supporting improved workforce participation—particularly that of women and carers—as well as reducing, more importantly, the regulatory burden on business. This is a timely bill and the government must be commended for its determination to implement these important changes because they are defining changes that will make a real difference to women and men in the broader workforce.

Many of us still struggle to comprehend in today's society—living in one of the most democratic countries in the world—why it is that wage parity, practical employment structures and cracking that infamous corporate glass ceiling sadly still elude many women. In contemporary Australia, where women are encouraged to achieve and contribute to the workforce, the issue of gender inequality as a significant disincentive to women's workforce participation must be challenged and addressed. While much of this workplace discrimination may not be intentional, it does highlight a need to challenge the manifestation of entrenched views based on gender differences in the workplace. Many of those entrenched views stem from practices that are driven very much by gender stereotyping and expectations.

One of the most obvious differences and, therefore, stereotyping practices is that women are by nature designed to bear children, and men are not. With that comes a whole lot of other gender intricacies. Rather than be left to continue to make it difficult for women to participate in the workforce, these intricacies should be embraced and catered for, knowing that one size does not fit all in the workplace and that we need the flexibility to accommodate and therefore maximise workforce participation for women and men. The truth is that many prospective employers do tend to adopt an attitude that avoids employing or promoting women because it is perceived that they are more likely to have family-work balance issues that, if the truth be said, are not necessarily problems for prospective male employees. That is not to say that men do not have responsibilities to their families, but existing traditional workplace conditions together with social expectations have created a workplace culture which traditionally made it easier for men to participate and harder for women to participate. So we need to change our attitudes and, if we are to change the culture in the workplace as it relates to the participation of women and men, we need to encourage more women into the workforce and we have to act via legislation to ensure that these changes are implemented and we get a more equal playing field. That is why I support this bill.

Our community has changed and is changing around us, and it expects government to act and to respond to those changes. The introduction of this bill ensures that we are steadily working our way through our attitudes and practices on gender equality issues and the responsibilities of both genders when it comes to the balance between work and family. The introduction of this amendment bill follows a review that found that, since the act was last amended in 1999, there have been a number of economic, social and legislative changes that require the agency to provide a more contemporary response to these changes. The government undertook extensive consultation with industry, employee organisations and the women's sector and, in doing so, drafted legislation that is finely balanced—legislation that all parties are comfortable with and which is very much about supporting employers to achieve cultural change. It most certainly is not about punishing employers or setting unreasonable standards that they cannot meet.

Importantly, the government is acting by introducing this amendment bill because the review made it clear that gender equality is essential to maximising Australia's productive potential and ensuring continuing economic growth. Closing the gap between women's and men's workforce participation is estimated to have the potential to boost gross domestic product by some 13 per cent. But, more importantly, it also has the potential to improve the lives of the broader Australian community in so many ways beyond the GDP.

I do want to draw the House's attention to the recently released report by the Grattan Institute, Game-changers: economic reform priorities for Australia. In that report it is affirmed that the participation of women in the workforce is one of the three major areas that were identified by the Grattan Institute for increasing Australia's GDP. The issue of women's participation is a game changer. It is worth up to $90 million or so in GDP increase over the next decade. So it is a significant issue and cannot be ignored.

This bill makes the appropriate changes in order to take advantage of the participation of all Australians—in particular, women—in the workforce. It changes the name of the act to the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012, and the name of the agency from the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

The principal objectives of the amendments are to promote and improve gender equality, including equal remuneration between men and women in employment and in the workplace. It aims to do this by supporting employers to remove barriers to the full participation of women and men, recognising the disadvantaged position of women in relation to employment.

I cannot see how the aims of this amendment bill can be anything other than positive. Gender equality in Australian workplaces is important for women, it is important for men, it is important for businesses and it is important for the economy. And it is very much a win-win for all—for employers, for employees and especially for women. And it is, of course, a win for Australia's GDP capacity.

I know that my constituents would benefit greatly from achieving gender equality in the workplace. They certainly will be better off with the stated aim of this bill, which is to close the gap between men's and women's participation. Many people in my electorate talk about their responsibilities to their children, their aged parents and their disabled family members. They all talk about their ways of finding strategies to balance these responsibilities with the need to work. So I am absolutely certain that they will welcome this bill. In particular, there are many women in my electorate who go about the daily business of balancing work and family commitments. These are women who must look after their children but must also work, and in most cases they are the low-skilled women who are also in low-paid jobs. Then there are the young women in my electorate—those who are single and those who are highly-skilled, career-focused women who will largely rely on changes in the workplace culture to pave the way for a change of attitude that will enable them to face less discrimination as they pursue their careers and life's ambitions and choices.

So I am familiar, as all of us should be, with these community attitudes and how this bill will assist in making their lives a little easier as it will allow them to participate in the workforce. This is especially so for the women in my electorate, and I want to make a special mention of the many refugee women who have settled in the federal seat of Calwell. These are women who have come from less democratic and equitable societies—women who, in addition to working to support their families, have also to pick up the pieces of broken lives and lost homes; women who have fled war, who have feared and continue to fear for the safety of their loved ones, but especially for the security and the future of their children; women who have overcome horrors that we here in Australia have never experienced. Yet these women persevere, and they form a part of the socioeconomic and cultural diversity of the Australia community and, indeed, the Australian workforce. They are grateful to be here, as waves of migrants before them were; they are grateful for the opportunity. But they are more often than not the most likely to be excluded from workplace participation and they, like the rest of the Australian community, deserve a fairer, more equal playing field. We all deserve a society and a workplace that caters and allows for greater gender equity and flexibility. That is how we ensure a happier, fairer and more equitable society. Of course change is never easy, but in some circumstances it cannot be brought on soon enough. The time has come to address the obvious and allow workplaces to meet the needs of our changing societies, and I commend the bill to the House.