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Gender equality act won’t fix discrimination, but it will make employers accountable

Women will now have access to information about the equality practices of prospective employers. AAP/Julian Smith

We’ve all seen the reports of studies demonstrating women’s inequality at work. It is well established that women are disproportionately under-represented in higher paid positions and industries, and that there is a gender pay gap of 17.5% between men and women. Lack of pay equity and equal opportunities are the elephants in the room for every woman in the Australian workforce.

Although the causes are complex, research suggests they are based in deep cultural expectations and stereotypes that are not to do with the efforts of individual women at work. Studies have shown that when identical CVs are sent out with male and female names attached, the male CVs receive more interest from employers and more favourable assessments. So these issues can’t be simply dismissed as the result of lack of interest by women. Instead, we need to look at the ways workforce structures and practices, developed to suit the historical male role of full-time breadwinner, might tend to exclude women and limit their opportunities.

Australia’s legislation requiring employers to provide equal opportunity programs for women at work (the Equal Employment for Women at Work Act 1986 has now been amended and renamed the Workplace Gender Equality Act. It now aims to ensure equality at work for both women and men, with a focus on sex discrimination and treatment of workers with caring responsibilities.

Who’s covered?

The act applies to the same employers as the previous law: all higher education institutions and non-government employers of more than 100 employees are covered. The exclusion of small businesses appears to be an acknowledgement that smaller organisations may not have the human resources capacity to comply with the requirements. Public employment is also excluded.

Some areas, such as Commonwealth authorities and some state government employment are covered by other laws that impose equal employment opportunity requirements, and the law assumes that governments will adopt their own measures on gender and other grounds such as disability.

What’s new?

Over its 26-year life, the Act has had limited impact on gender inequality at work.

The new requirements apply to employers for the next reporting period ending in March 2014. Employers will no longer have to prepare an equal employment opportunity program to lodge with the renamed Workplace Gender Equality Agency set up by the Act. Instead, they will be required to report on “gender equality indicators”. These will include:

  • The gender composition of the workforce, and of any governing body such as a council or board of directors.

  • Equal remuneration between women and men in their workforce.

  • Availability and usefulness of employment terms, conditions and practices relating to flexible work, or supporting employees with family or caring responsibilities.

A new level of publicity will also be added. Most of the data reported to the Agency will be publicly available, and employers will be required to notify employees and shareholders of their reports and allow them an opportunity to comment. As a result, the Act will now require the production of data on employers’ performance that is widely disseminated and publicly available. This approach accords with the modern management maxim “what gets measured gets done”, and that transparency improves accountability, ensuring that actions are taken.

Minimum standards will be defined over time by the minister responsible via regulation from 2013. These are intended to be industry-specific, and failure to comply with minimum standards will be a breach of the Act. The Agency will be required to report to the minister every two years on progress towards equal opportunity for women at work.

Will it work?

Will it make a difference? It is clear that deep cultural change will be needed to move away from stereotypical expectations about the incompatibility of femininity and leadership; women’s inherent responsibility for childcare; and the “normal” worker being a full-time worker free of caring responsibilities according to the historical male model. In individual organisations, change occurs when it is championed with commitment from the top.

Law is limited in the extent to which it can force organisations to change their ways. It is not an automatic or complete solution. But the new approach has substantial potential to increase the accountability of organisations and encourage change in the necessary direction.

It will begin to build a record of data about gender equity in individual organisations and the workforce generally that is not otherwise available. Individual women will even be able to check the gender equity record of organisations they might be seeking work with.

The Act seeks to balance the need for change with the interests of employers in manageable requirements. Time will tell whether this balance has been effectively struck or needs further adjustment.

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