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working mums denied flexible employment arrangements

Findings submitted to the Australian Human Rights Commission demonstrate that pregnant women and new parents are still being discriminated against in the Australian workplace.

In June 2013, the Attorney General’s Department asked the Commission to conduct a national review on the ‘prevalence, nature and consequences of discrimination in relation to pregnancy at work and return to work after parental leave’. The resulting National Review Issues Paper 2013 is due to be finalised by June this year.

In the interim, findings of groups such as the Australian Industry Group and YWCA Australia highlight prevalent cases of discrimination against pregnant women and new parents in the workplace. Furthermore, these findings point to significant barriers preventing these potential employees from otherwise joining the workforce.

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman Annual Report 2012-2013, pregnancy related discrimination remains the highest complaint for women to the Fair Work Ombudsman. This is referred to by the YWCA, whose findings demonstrate that insufficient support for new parents, (combined at times with discrimination), continues to be a significant barrier to women’s effective participation in the workforce.

Consequently, many women are being forced to choose between maintaining a career and raising a family. This is supported by reports such as that completed by Ernst & Young, which found that ‘Once women hit their mid-20s, female participation rates decline for the next two decades.’

One reason for this is the inflexible nature of some women’s current work arrangements. According to the Australian Industry Group, many women are being denied flexible work arrangements that would allow them to work part time or take more annual leave. As the AI Group points out, this particularly affects women working in award based industries like retail, social and community services, and hospitality due to the lack of flexibility in annual leave.

The impact of such inflexibility is significant across the Australian workforce, due to the mere face that employees within this category make up 1.8 million workers. The outcome is that many women are being discouraged from returning to work after having children.

Perhaps more concerning is the finding of the YWCA, who report that many participants in their survey did not realise that they were entitled to ask for flexible working arrangements under the National Employment Standards.

Consequently, AI Group national director Steve Smith has called for more flexibility in the current law to allow for this obstacle to be overcome.

‘If there was more flexibility in the Fair Work Act and in modern awards, it would assist women in returning to work, would increase employment participation in the workforce which is of benefit to women as well as the whole community and the employers who are suffering and skill and labour shortages.’

The YWCA has echoed this call for legislative change. In particular, its submission recommends strengthening the Sex Discrimination Act to include recommendations to provide greater support for women. The YWCA has also called for reviews of current childcare systems to increase accessible and affordable childcare for Australian workers.

Furthermore, YWCA notes that for any changes to be effective family friendly workplace practices need to be applied to men as well as women for this objective to be achieved. As it states in the report, ‘Building workplace cultures that support pregnant employees and employees returning from parental leave is critical to achieving gender equality’.

Whilst the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has refused to comment on any particular submission received so far, she has stated that she wants to make more positive changes for pregnant women in the workplace.

As Ms Broderick told the Herald Sun, ‘Women are critical to building a strong economy in this country and unless we support women’s role in child-bearing by creating strong workplace cultures that don’t discriminate against women, we won’t have a strong economy and the prosperous economy that we want it to be.’

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