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Tuesday, 28 March 2023
Page: 68

Ms TINK (North Sydney) (18:39): In the words of the great Kofi Annan: 'Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.' The gender pay gap that remains prevalent in Australian workplaces holds our society and our national economy back, and it taints our human rights reputation worldwide. In this context, I stand to welcome the Workplace Gender Equality Amendment (Closing the Gender Pay Gap) Bill 2023 and its provisions towards closing the gender pay gap in Australia. But I do so with caution, as, by its very nature, this bill presupposes that simply shedding light on the facts will force a change across our society. Sadly, there are many examples where simple factual knowledge changes nothing. To this end, we must acknowledge that this is just one step towards achieving gender equality in the workplace and creating safer, fairer workplaces for all. We must acknowledge that there is still a long way to go and many deeply ingrained societal barriers to overcome.

There is strong support for this bill from human rights and advocacy groups as well as businesses, with many stating that it is an overdue step forward for Australia, and I honestly could not agree more. The gender pay gap proves that gender inequality remains a persistent, deeply ingrained issue in our Australian society. It is widely recognised that, from the early stages of their career until they retire, women in Australia experience gender inequality in the workplace despite record women's workforce participation. This is also even though Australian women continue to outnumber men at every level of higher education, with women accounting for 57.3 per cent of undergraduate degrees and 56 per cent of postgraduate degrees in 2018 alone. For such a fortunate country, it sincerely baffles me that this remains true. How is it possible that, in this day and age of education and empowerment, simply being a woman creates disadvantage in Australian workplaces—let alone the additional disadvantage that comes with being a woman with an intersectional characteristic, such as being of a culturally or racially marginalised background or having a disability?

I'm grateful the government are beginning the work that is required and I applaud the Minister for Women for leading the government in realising their commitment to implementing the recommendations from the 2021 Review of the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012. However, again I must emphasise that this is just the first step, with the measures in this bill only implementing, in part or in full, four of the 10 recommendations from that review. It's a strong first step in the right direction, and closing the gender pay gap is crucial to Australia's economic future and our aspirations to be an equal and fair society for all.

All of us in this place, then, must do all we can to accelerate the rate of real change on workplace gender inequality, whilst ensuring a manageable reporting load for businesses. Women's employment, believe it or not, is growing at a rate nine times faster than the rate for men, yet Australia's gender pay gap currently stands at over 20 per cent, with women, on average, earning nearly $27,000 less than men each year. This is not a discussion, then, about equal pay; rather, this is a discussion about the very real and already existing difference between the average earnings of women and the average earnings of men. It essentially reflects how differently we value the contribution of men and women in the workforce.

Statistically speaking, being a woman increases job insecurity, vulnerability to discrimination in the workplace and difficulty in maintaining a successful career, especially if you want to have a family. Women often face bias in progression and promotion opportunities, as many employers simply do not offer promotions to employees who are in a part-time role—and, let's face it, part-time roles are staple fare for mothers who are primary carers.

I recently undertook a survey on paid parental leave across my own community of North Sydney, and what was really interesting was that the vast majority of feedback made it evidently clear that mothers find it especially hard to manage a healthy work-life balance, because of the unique difficulties faced by women in the workforce. One woman actually told me that being a full-time carer for a young child is such an undervalued role in society. She referred to the enormous undertaking of raising a healthy, happy, kind child with both parents working, which, in her words, 'You have to do to live in Sydney.' Another woman reported that her contract of employment and the lack of job stability had impacted her ability to plan for a family. She was, quite literally, feeling like she was having to decide whether she should start a family and leave her job, or stay employed. The fact that anyone is put in this position, where they feel that they cannot financially afford to have a family in this country, is unacceptable. The cost-of-living crisis is becoming unbearable for all Australians, and we cannot afford for the gender pay gap to exacerbate that.

The WGEA review report solidified these thoughts. It concluded the gender pay gap in Australia was not closing fast enough. There were 10 recommendations made in that report, all aiming to accelerate this action and increase transparency in the process. I am pleased that this bill implements, in part or in full, recommendations 2, 3, 5 and 9 of that review.

I believe these amendments are a good start and a strong step in the right direction. I specifically acknowledge the improvements made to ensure greater transparency around the pay gap. With that said, we do still urgently need to improve standards of behaviour and integrity in our workplaces. And while this might start with greater transparency, transparency in and of itself will not be enough. Accurate and truthful reporting on the gender pay gap information will provide a good foundation but, as I said earlier, access to accurate information doesn't always drive behaviour change. It will take far more than this to fundamentally shift the dial. The fact that the bill will rename minimum standards as gender equality standards does mark a significant shift, however, as it changes the day-to-day language that we use in this area. Language is an incredibly powerful tool to drive real change.

The Senate committee inquiry heard, from expert witnesses, that data shows that relevant employers easily meet the current minimum standards, with 99.2 per cent of relevant employers doing so in the last reporting period. Let's face it. If this is the case, then the current minimum standards are setting the bar way too low.

The National Foundation for Australian Women commented that this is likely due to the fact that most employers already have standing policies on sexual harassment, to comply with other state and federal legislation, making the minimum standards functionally meaningless. In this context of such deficiencies, various submitters argued the minimum standards need to be outcome based and time bound. This would ensure, year-on-year, that employer performance against the gender equality indicators can be assessed on something greater than the simple presence of policy documents.

Many in my community of North Sydney are still bemused that it is only recently that a code of conduct for parliamentarians, their staff and all that visit parliamentary workplaces has been developed and endorsed. On this basis, the fact that this bill also supports the implementation of the recommendations of the Respect@Work report more broadly, by including sexual harassment and harassment on the grounds of sex or discrimination as gender equality indicators in the act, is welcomed and long overdue.

Last year it was estimated that the total financial cost of workplace sexual harassment in the Australian economy was $3.8 billion, and this is likely a conservative estimate with most of the costs associated with the lost productivity, which is approximately $1.8 billion, borne by Australian businesses. This furthers the truth that closing the gender pay gap requires a multifaceted approach, and it is in the best interests of our society and our economy to get this right. I support the suggestion of the Greens senators that it is essential that we assist businesses to meet and beat their responsibilities.

While reform in this space has been slow to eventuate, change in now coming thick and fast, and we must ensure businesses, especially smaller businesses, have the support they need. This could include: ensuring the Workplace Gender Equality Agency has adequate resources to identify companies struggling to close their gender pay gap, and to be resourced to deliver targeted training and workplace consultation; assistance in the development of action plans; and support for managers of similar organisations that have successfully closed their gender pay gap to mentor others.

I've repeatedly noted in this place, across portfolios, that the legislation being put forward by this government is a welcome first step, but it cannot be viewed as a final step. Rather, this bill builds our floor. We must reach for the ceiling to ensure we take real action to achieve gender equality. I note assurances from the Office for Women that further progress will be made by the government, and that the bill, yet again, is a first step forming only part of the architecture supporting gender equality, and it should be viewed in conjunction with the remade instruments and further consultative measures. In this context, this bill, like many other pieces of legislation that have passed through this House since the new government took power, is, again, a promise that more will follow in quick succession. On that basis, I would note that my community and I are looking forward to seeing further reform come through this place soon. As Mike Honda stated, 'Equal pay isn't just a women's issue; when women get equal pay their family income rises and the whole family benefits.'

In this context I also want to take the opportunity to call for improved support for families and unpaid care as a relevant next step. I've been vocal about the need to improve our Paid Parental Leave scheme in Australia, and I welcome the progress that has been made in that space. International experience tells us in no uncertain terms that the fastest way to address the gender pay gap is to introduce shared paid parental leave. As the Grattan Institute has noted in a report, 'Greater sharing of child care is one of the best ways to improve women's economic security.' That is why I continue to call on the government to set 26 weeks as the minimum length of paid parental leave, increasing to 52 weeks based on the Scandinavian shared care model so that parents can decide how to use the available support that suits them and allows for women to work if they want to. We also need to ensure that families have access to quality and affordable care to allow those that either wish or need to return to work to do so. This means not only affordable but also accessible early childhood education.

The interruption of superannuation for paid parental leave and those in unpaid care positions, the majority of whom are women, must also be addressed. Ideally, men and women should have equal opportunity to work and to care for their families. The gender pay gap should not be about a woman's choice to be in the workforce or to be a full-time carer.

There are additional vulnerable communities living in plain sight who will not necessarily benefit from any of the developments that have been discussed previously tonight, and one of those communities is single-parent families. The fact is that punitive budget saving measures backed by both major parties in the last decade have left single-parent families, most of whom are headed by women, in an unsufferable situation. It is a wicked choice to ask someone to make when they are literally trying to weigh up whether they keep their family together by staying in a violent relationship or risk sinking into poverty when they choose to leave it. We cannot let these families and these women continue to go unseen and unsupported. If genuine equality is what we are sincerely pursuing, this cannot be allowed to continue.

In conclusion, while this bill does represent long overdue progress in closing the gender pay gap, it is only a small part in achieving larger, broader reform of our human rights legislative framework in Australia. As this bill is considered we must look at it through our current human rights framework, which, while far from perfect, requires us to consider our obligations to protect individual social and economic rights, which includes the right to work. I look forward to a time when the gender pay gap is closed and Australian workplaces are full of thriving, safe, progressive and fair environments for all. But this will not happen without significant and concerted effort. I commend this legislation to the House but note that it is the beginning, nowhere near the middle or the end.