ADJOURNMENT;Women in the Workplace – 26 Nov 2012

I rise tonight, in the short time I now have, to speak about equal opportunity for women in the workplace. It is a widely known fact that women make up around 50.2 per cent of the Australian population. However, perhaps what is less well known is just how few senior roles in Australian companies are filled by women. The figures are extremely disappointing, especially in the second decade of the 21st century.

The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency’s 2010 Australian census of women in leadership, conducted by Macquarie University, shows that women hold only 8.4 per cent of board positions and just eight per cent of executive key management personnel positions. To put it another way, in 2010 there were just six female CEOs and five female chairs in the top 200 Australian companies. I repeat: just six female CEOs and five female chairs in the top 200 Australian companies. Even more alarming is that only 4.1 per cent of line roles—those which are largely considered to be the pipeline to the executive key management personnel and CEO roles—were occupied by women and, sadly, the proportion of companies with no women executive key management personnel at all is a significant 61.9 per cent. There appears to be a systemic inequity in business culture which prevents talented and capable women from contributing at the highest level.

Government attempts to provide equal opportunities for women go back a considerable time, with the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act dating from 1986. Legislation that was passed last Thursday followed a review of that act by the Office for Women in the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. The review found that, since the act was last amended in 1999, there had been a number of economic, social and legislative changes, making it important for the act and the agency to provide a contemporary response to national challenges. The review also made it clear that gender equality is essential to maximising Australia’s productive potential and to ensuring continued economic growth.

It is still an unacceptable fact that an Australian woman earns, on average, around 17 per cent less than a man. It has been estimated that closing the gap between men’s and women’s workforce participation could increase gross domestic product by up to 13 per cent. This would, of course, be a significant boost to Australia’s economy.

I had a lot more to say on this issue tonight but I will cut short my speech as I do not have much time. I would like to thank my Tasmanian colleague the Minister for the Status of Women and member for Franklin, Julie Collins, for her hard work on the Equal Opportunity in the Workplace Amendment Bill. I know it is a cause that she is very passionate about. The government made a 2010 election commitment to retain and improve the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency and the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act and we have done so in the legislation that was passed last Thursday.

The government has an objective to create equality between women and men in the workplace and has changed the name of the act, the agency and the director to reflect this. Through the bill, the principal objects of the Workplace Gender Equality Act will be amended to reflect the new focus of the act to promote and improve gender equality in the workplace, with specific recognition of unequal remuneration and family and caring responsibilities as issues central to the achievement of gender inequality. The coverage of the act is expanded to include men as well as women, particularly in relation to caring responsibilities.

The agency’s advice and assistance function extends to all employers. However, only relevant employers, those with 100 or more employees, are subject to the reporting requirements in line with the current practice. This will make reporting simpler as well as more meaningful and useful. It will provide employers with the capacity to measure and understand gender equality within their workplaces, compared year by year and with other workplaces within their industry. It will make it possible for the agency to target assistance where it is most needed. Over time, the improved and standardised dataset will enable the minister to set minimum standards.

One of the functions of the agency will be to develop industry based benchmarks in relation to gender equality indicators. I had a few quotes I was going to give that show the support of bodies such as the ACTU and the Women’s Electoral Lobby but I will skip those for tonight due to the shortage of time. I am pleased to have been able to speak to the Senate, even though it was for a shorter time tonight, about the government’s efforts to create equal opportunities for women in the workplace. I think achieving equal opportunity for women in the workplace is an aim that all in this place should support. I was disappointed that the opposition put in a dissenting report on the committee inquiry into this issue.