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In Brief: Government passes Workplace Gender Equality Act


A step towards legislated equality was taken in Canberra last week, as the Senate passed the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill. The Bill will replace the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 with the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012. The changes have largely been welcomed by leading Australian women, though some still hold reservations.

The new Act demonstrates the shift in societal attitudes to the roles of women and men. The Act emphasises the importance of equal pay and opportunity in the workplace, while acknowledging the role that shared caregiving in the home plays in establishing gender equality. As part of the reformed Equality Act, employers will report against standardised gender equality indicators (GEI). The GEI will provide the Government with measurable data on the progress of gender equality across various industries.

One of the principle objects of the WGE Act is to promote and improve gender equality in the workplace, specifically regarding remuneration. The Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed in August that there is a 17.5% gap between Australian male and female weekly earnings. The Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, has welcomed the stronger focus on this issue. Ms Broderick stated ‘recognition in the Act of equal remuneration strengthens capacity for closing the gender pay gap.’

Commissioner Broderick highlighted the national benefits of providing equal opportunity for women in the workplace, arguing, ‘Enabling greater participation of women in the workforce will also make a significant contribution to strengthening Australia’s productivity.’ She also praised the new reporting standards, and the consequences of non-compliance with the Act.

The Australian Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry also released a statement supporting the Act. The AWCCI condemned the Government’s past treatment of women, but tentatively praised this latest legislation. ‘The government has to date shown that women living in Australia are not a significant priority; the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 is a step in the right direction,’ said AWCCI Chief Executive, Yolanda Vega.

However, founding chairwoman of Women’s Leadership Institute Australia, Carol Schwartz, said on Thursday that the legislation does not go far enough. Schwartz has called for temporary quotas for the appointment of women onto boards of all public companies.

She writes: ‘in as little as five years, quotas for women on boards would see the executive pipeline fill with well-qualified and meritorious women, and feed into high functioning, diverse boards. This is fundamental for the next generation of women and the economic prosperity of Australia.’

The Act prevents the discrimination against employees on the grounds of gender, but does not enforce a quota system. While the consequences for non-compliance to the Act are rather limited, employers may be exposed to financial penalties or be ordered to pay damages if discrimination on the grounds of gender occurs. One positive element of the Act’s record system is the opportunity for female job-seekers to view the record gender equality of various organisations.

Despite its shortfalls, the Act is a show of good faith from the current government. The 1999 Act resulted in serious change across Australian workplaces, and it is hoped that this progress will continue under the current Act.

Do you think the government does enough to promote gender equality?
What do you think are the biggest inhibitors of gender equality in the workplace?
Would quota systems result in sustained change in attitudes to women?

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4 thoughts on “In Brief: Government passes Workplace Gender Equality Act

  1. Are you sure this is a good thing? This is surely an example of a Labor government saying ‘x is bad, we don’t want x, we will pass a law outlying x and x won’t happen’. In this case ‘x’ is the pay gap between the sexes. But will passing an ‘equal opportunity for women in the workplace’ amendment really make any difference at all? Or is it just there to let everyone know that Labor cares about this issue?

    I suspect it won’t make any difference at all. Many of the obvious reasons for the gender pay gap can’t be easily dealt with. (Women and men tend to work different hours, have different attitudes to work; men tend to be more upfront in asking for pay; women and men tend to work in different professions, etc). Making substantial changes to the gender pay gap would, I suspect, involve legislation that interfered in the free operation of businesses AND in the freedom of male/female workers to begin and end jobs when they wanted.

    The law seems pretty futile to tell you the truth; it’s just like saying ‘crime is bad, let’s outlaw criminals’ – ie it’s contradictory and self-negating. It’s already illegal to discriminate against people in the workplace, or anywhere else. What purpose – aside from Labor Party electioneering – does it really serve? Nothing as far as I can see.

  2. Hey,
    Thanks for your feedback!
    While I agree that every political announcement should be met with a healthy dose of cynicism, I personally feel that this legislative move is a good one. The gender gap is a real problem, and needs talking about. Even if it is possibly more symbollic than anything, it’s a step along the right path.
    I think it serves the purpose of highlighting an attitude problem in our culture that values the work men do above that of women. Okay, women might be less likely to ask for a raise, but if you look at the statistics, they are also much less likely to be given the opportunity to be in a position of earning as much as men (such as as a CEO or in other management positions). So by changing the law, the government is at least indicating that is this no longer an acceptable reality.
    Readers can find out more at:
    http://www.eowa.gov.au/Information_Centres/Resource_Centre/Statistics/Gender_Pay_Gap_Fact_Sheet_May_2012.pdf

  3. Hi Amy, I don’t really think that legislative changes are any good if all they do is communicate things to the public – ie, act like another public relations arm of the government. Laws are surely there to curb those things which are wrong (stealing is illegal, murder is ilegal, etc). If the main reason a bill is passed into law by a government is to indicate something needs to change without providing a clear rule (eg, men and women HAVE to be paid equally in all cases), then what use is it? Surely it can only hamper liberty, by creating the need for more regulation – and (as in the case of the Sex Discrimination Commission), creating new bodies which require substantial public fees to be kept running (ie, drawing on the taxes of all Australians which they could have kept for themselves).

    It’s something that seems nice but actually creates a lot of needless complexities. As far as I can see the law will be either useless or will interfere in people’s lives in a troublesome way.

  4. Pingback: Feminist News Round-up 10.12.12 | News | Lip Magazine

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