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Monday, 19 March 2018
Page: 1356

Senator REYNOLDS (Western Australia) (11:55): I, too, rise to speak on the Greens' Fair Work Amendment (Gender Pay Gap) Bill 2015. I'll start off by saying that there is absolutely no doubt that entrenched gender pay gaps exists globally, and that includes right here in Australia. But, like all complex problems, we need to adopt a comprehensive and evidence based approach to resolve it, instead of letting what I'd call simplistic populism guide us here in this chamber..

The gender pay gap is something that I'm very passionate about, and I know it's a passion shared by many across all sides of this chamber. But it does require a comprehensive suite of long-term and genuine policy changes to really address it. This amendment, as proposed by the Greens, would enact changes that will not work. The amendment was not even recommended by the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee, which tabled its report into this amendment in November 2016. The very reason the committee did not recommend this amendment is that there is simply no credible evidence that the mandatory removal of pay secrecy clauses will, by itself, reduce the gender pay gap. Instead, the committee itself recommended that government, employer and industry stakeholders and employee advocates collaborate to actively promote and implement best-practice strategies to tackle the gender pay gap in Australia's workplaces.

I know that the government does understand that the gender pay gap is a complex issue. It is influenced by a number of highly interrelated factors. There are many causes for the gender pay gap. So there can never, ever, be one effective solution—or a silver bullet, as those in the Greens purport there to be in this case. That's why this government has adopted a multifaceted approach to addressing equal pay. And I think it's starting to work. It's showing progress, because the gap is narrowing. Since 2014, the gender pay gap for average weekly earnings of full-time adult employees has reduced from 18.5 per cent to 15.3 per cent in November of last year. It fell one per cent in the last 12 months alone. That is still a sizeable gap, but progress nonetheless.

There would be no-one happier than me to see that gap narrow further, which is why I'm delighted that, on 6 July last year, the government released Towards 2025: an Australian government strategy to boost women's workforce participation. Unlike this amendment before the Senate today, that strategy acknowledges that the gender pay gap is about so much more than employees knowing each other's salaries.

The predominant issue is not about a man and a woman doing the same job and getting different pay. That does still exist, but I know there's been a lot of work done by the private sector, by companies, to look for the reasons for it and to close that gap. Also, the Fair Work Act in fact already includes equal remuneration provisions, which enable people to make an application to the Fair Work Commission for an order to ensure equal remuneration for work that is equal or at least comparable. And, as I said, there are many companies now, across many professions, who are actively seeking and taking measures to close this gap within their own firms.

I think this issue is more about women not being able to enter or re-enter the workforce at the same rate and at the same levels as men, often meaning that they have to take lower-paid jobs with less opportunity to access higher-salaried, full-time positions, they receive far fewer promotions than their male counterparts, and they also earn less of a bonus or a salary increase when they do move up the workplace ladder.

The gender pay gap is an issue that must be grounded in discussions about education and employment opportunities, adequate parental leave, affordable and easily accessible child care and far more flexible work arrangements not just for women but also for men. It's also about what subjects girls and women choose to study, what jobs they take and how they are treated in the workplace itself. But it's also about men's and women's domestic lives. Can women take time off to raise their families without jeopardising their careers? I do not see this as just a women's issue; it is equally a men's issue. Most children today have two working parents. But in most workplaces the burden still falls on women to take the majority of time off and also to take leave and oversee all child-rearing activities.

The reasons for that are quite complex, but I think it starts here in Australia, where we've been so incredibly successful in providing our young girls with equal opportunity in life. They have the same health outcomes as young boys and the same infant survival rates. We educate them well. We bring them up to be so full of confidence in themselves and their place in this world. In fact, we've done so well that girls mostly outperform boys in high school and also in university. In fact, more women graduate university than men. So our society has been incredibly successful in bridging that gap between young boys and young girls and young men and young women.

But that success seems to come to a screeching halt in many workplaces today. That is because we haven't made the changes. That is not only in terms of policy and regulation at the state and federal government level; it's also culturally and structurally within the organisations themselves. They haven't adapted fast enough to ensuring that both men and women, who both have children, have the same opportunities and the same responsibilities to look after their children. As I said, children mostly have two working parents. So it comes back to the point that this is not just a women's issue; it is equally a men's issue—or a two parents issue.

The government understands the complexities of this issue and takes them seriously. The strategy I outlined earlier details the measures we're taking—what is already working—and looks at additional measures that drive pay inequality. So what are some of the factors driving what the government is doing, and what more could we all do to address this issue? The first problem that we need to address is the fact that women are less likely than men to enter into, and progress in, higher paying careers and seniority. This is a problem that the government is very clearly tackling. A great example of the positive action the government is taking—and it is something I'm very passionate about—is women in STEM. And I would now like us to be to talking about 'STEAM', because enhancing the artistic, creative and innovative side of boys' and girls' characters and abilities is as important as STEM. But the fact is that women are less likely to enter high-paying careers—and many today have their foundations in STEM. In fact, 75 per cent of Australia's fastest growing careers and jobs today demand digital literacy and STEM subjects.

However, alarmingly, the number of girls studying STEM subjects is declining. Women are significantly underrepresented in fields like information technology and engineering—some of the highest paying jobs of the future. Today, less than 15 per cent of senior STEM research positions in universities are held by women, and women make up only about one-quarter of STEM workforces across all sectors. If we're truly going to bridge the gender pay gap once and for all, we have to redouble our efforts in getting women into STEM positions—or STEAM positions—across all sectors. The Greens proposal to allow workers to share information about what each other gets paid in these circumstances will do absolutely nothing to change the statistics. It won't ensure that more women study STEM and enter the high-paying jobs in this profession. It will not make a difference at all.

This government, unlike those in the Greens with this very simplistic, populist proposal, believes in a bottom-up approach led by the choices individuals make for themselves and their children in what they study, and by businesses taking more action to create change within their organisations for the better. This is why the government, through the National Innovation and Science Agenda, NISA, is supporting measures to encourage more women to embark on and remain in STEM related careers—importantly, including entrepreneurship. We're implementing strong measures to ensure women have the skills and support they need to work in growth industries, through the investment of $13 million over five years in jobs for these growth sectors.

The government is providing $2 million to set up the Male Champions of Change in STEM program. Male Champions of Change challenge men in leadership positions to step up beside women to drive cultural change on gender equality issues in major Australian organisations and industry sectors. While we've seen a great take-up of this program—particularly in larger private enterprise companies, who are making a real difference now in how they deal with both men and women and the opportunities for parental leave and for flexibility—which is incredibly encouraging, unfortunately we're not yet seeing much movement in a lot of the traditional STEM related industries and the IT sector. The adoption of the Male Champions of Change program is critically important in these sectors.

The government is also investing $8 million over four years towards projects that boost the participation of girls and women in STEM education careers, as I said, including as entrepreneurs. This first measure that I've gone through is all about long-term change to equality of opportunity, not the short-term populist fix proposed by those opposite. That's the first major barrier to the gender pay gap—engagement in the workforce and particularly in STEM—but the second issue that equally impacts upon the gender pay gap is a weak economy, which means fewer jobs. Demonstrably, in a weak economy women are disproportionately in lower paid jobs with less job security, superannuation and retirement certainty. To address this particular problem, the government is increasing women's access and readiness for employment not just in STEM but more broadly across all careers.

What does this mean for women? Our policies since coming to government have strengthened Australia's economy—so much so that nearly 970,000 Australian jobs have been created after four years. Nearly a million new jobs have been created, something those on the opposite benches rarely—in fact, never—give this government credit for. Let's have a look at those figures a bit further. Nearly 60 per cent of the new jobs created over the last four years have gone to women. Boosting women's workforce participation is an economic priority for this government. We have to create more new jobs in this economy, which we're doing, but we also have to make sure they're in industries and areas in which women can and will take up jobs. It's not just the right thing to do for our society; it's also the economically smart thing to do, because it has the potential to add over $25 billion to the Australian economy while at the same time strengthening women's economic security. That was the second issue and one of the barriers to closing the pay gap for women.

The third issue I raise in this chamber today is the fact that women are still predominantly the primary caregivers for their children, which impacts upon their careers, salaries, superannuation and retirement security. As I said, we have done a wonderful job raising our girls and our boys—smart, confident and highly educated—but we have not yet satisfactorily addressed the situation that many women find in the workplace today. We certainly haven't addressed the cultural barriers to men who have young children in the same way we have with their wives. We have to change the processes in companies, in organisations and in the public sector to make it equally acceptable, and in fact encouraged, that both a child's parents will equally take parental leave, and not just put the requirement on women, because we know—as it has been very well reported—of the impact that has on women and that it is a significant contributing factor to the gender pay gap.

To address this particular aspect, the government is addressing factors that take women out of work and keep them out longer than their male counterparts. This decreases their path to promotion and over the longer term it ultimately lowers their pay and superannuation contributions, which means that more women retire with less in their superannuation fund—on average, $100,000—and are much more likely to be subject to poverty in retirement.

The gender pay gap also often occurs because of a discrepancy, partially caused through this, in the promotion pipeline. If fewer women work in an industry, there will be fewer women to promote. But women are then caught in a double bind, because under many traditional promotion based systems in many organisations they are starting from behind if they have also taken time out of their careers to rear their children. Each absence from the workplace lowers their opportunity for promotion and therefore their ability to increase their salaries and their savings, particularly superannuation.

Much of this particular problem is an issue for organisations, public and private, to resolve in their own workplaces. It is an issue for leaders in companies to set the standards and to change policies and practices in their organisations. It is critically important, and I argue that it is great business sense, for a company to create a family-positive environment for both their men and their women so that both parents can take parental leave—that both parents feel it's okay if they need to take time off for sick children or for school holidays—and the assumption and the responsibility doesn't just default to the woman.

We also know that affordable and accessible child care is critical to supporting parents who are balancing work and family commitments. That's why we're making child care more affordable. This government has already made the most significant reforms to the system in over 40 years. The new childcare package is unashamedly targeted at supporting parents who access child care so that they can work more, or train, or study, or volunteer in their communities. These reforms in themselves are expected to encourage more than 230,000 families to increase their workforce participation, the majority being women. From July 2018, the government is removing the $7,600 annual rebate cap for families on incomes up to $185,000—that's 85 per cent of the families using child care. That is a good measure and it is something practical and tangible that can make a difference. Families earning more than $185,000 will benefit from an increased cap of $10,000.

The next barrier, the fourth barrier, that must be tackled is something I have already touched on. It is the unconscious bias that still exists in most organisations. Whether they be public organisations or private organisations, unconscious bias still exists and it contributes to gender pay gaps in those organisations. But it's great to see that the government is leading by example by implementing the Australian Public Service Gender Equality Strategy. This requires that every government agency set targets for gender equality in leadership positions and boost gender equality more broadly.

An honourable senator interjecting

Senator REYNOLDS: Cheap shot! We're also setting a target for men and women to each hold 50 per cent of government board positions overall, and we are strengthening the BoardLinks program. But there's still much more to the gender pay gap than all of that, and so much more that we have to do together.

Not all of this change can be led and implemented solely by a single level of government. So much of what causes the gap is cultural and requires a cultural shift, and that's something that only people in individual organisations can do. Federal government can set the path, it can set the example, but it cannot change the culture within organisations, whether they be private or public, large or small. We can lead the way, but we cannot change it on our own. I believe we should close the gender pay gap—in fact, it is a moral imperative for us all—but we need to do things to tackle the four main problems, the four main barriers that I've discussed here today. Sadly, the proposal by the Greens will impact on none of those problems. We can work on it together, and we should work on it together to make more change.