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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