Gender equality at work: the Labor legacy

Despite criticisms that Julia Gillard has overplayed the gender card, the policies of her government have put in place a framework for true gender equality in the workplace. AAP/Alan Porritt

I was recently phoned by a journalist and asked to reflect on what the Labor government had done for gender equality.

I started to jot down a number of reforms on the back of an envelope and surprised myself, and I thought the journalist, with the wide array of reforms introduced since 2007, many of which have gone under the media radar.

My quick scan suggested that while incomplete, and in some parts inadequate and/or contradictory, under Labor some serious steps have been taken to develop some important gender equality infrastructure.

When the article appeared the weight of my reported comments was almost entirely negative. I had referred to the inexplicable decision to move the group of sole parents, overwhelmingly women, who had been in receipt of parenting payment before July 2006, on to Newstart as “reprehensible”. That remains my view, especially since most of these recipients had been complying with the same activity requirements as parents already on Newstart, making the asserted policy rationale of increasing employment participation an implausible one.

Nevertheless, in my conversation with the journalist I drew attention to a number of important reforms that did not make the cut in the final media report. At a time when all nuance seems to have been lost in the polarised media pre-election reporting it is worth highlighting just some of these initiatives.

The big-ticket item is of course a national Paid Parental Leave scheme, introduced in 2011. Now that we have PPL, the fierce debate about whether we ought to have a national scheme at all has receded quickly into the background. The debate is now not if we should have a national scheme, but the form it should take. This is a major advance given almost 30 years of advocacy needed to get a national scheme and should not be taken for granted.

Many other innovations have slipped under the media radar. How many Australians know, for example, that in 2008 Australia signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)? While Australia has been a signatory to CEDAW since 1983, signing the Optional Protocol provides a mechanism for individuals and groups whose rights to gender equality are not protected under Australian laws to seek redress.

In 2011 the Australian government also ratified the ILO Part-Time Work Convention. Such ratifications are mostly symbolic. But they serve as a statement to the Australian and international communities that Australia takes gender equality seriously and is prepared to be held to account, also providing tools for advocates to do just that.

Another very recent reform is the establishment of a Pay Equity Unit in the Fair Work Commission. While well overdue - it was recommended by a House of Representatives committee in 2009 – such specialist expertise is badly needed within Fair Work Australia and more generally to better tackle the persistent gender pay gap. While appearing in the federal budget papers, this reform has had scant press attention.

Much media interest in gender equality issues focuses on the dearth of women on company boards and in senior management. There is little reporting about issues facing low-paid women or those in precarious employment. Reforms to superannuation, including a government contribution for low-paid workers, and increases to the tax-free threshold all benefit low-paid women.

The federal government has also put its money where its mouth is, ensuring its share of funding to support last year’s equal pay case for many low-paid community service workers. It has instituted innovative procurement mechanisms to address the very low pay (and the consequent problems of attrition and retention) in the female-dominated aged care and child care sectors. The Aged Care Workforce Compact and the Early Years Quality Fund will provide additional funds to service providers who pay higher wages.

There has been other legislative reform as well. The Fair Work Act (FWA) restored the status of awards, on which many workers in feminised sectors rely for their working conditions. The FWA also provides updated equal pay provisions, which facilitated the community sector equal pay case. In 2011 improvements were made to federal sexual harassment provisions and to provisions protecting workers with family responsibilities.

In the last month we have also seen the coverage of those eligible to request flexible working arrangements extended to workers who are carers, older workers, workers with a disability and workers experiencing family violence. This broadening of eligibility is an important advance, despite the continued reluctance of the government to provide an appeal mechanism when a request is unreasonably refused, such as in the UK and New Zealand. While not without flaws, the recent Gender Equality in the Workplace Act places renewed emphasis on the need for gender equitable change at the workplace level.

Some of these reforms are incomplete and there remains some tension and debate about the effective implementation of others. However, taken together they represent real steps towards building the infrastructure necessary to provide a basis for gender equality at work.