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Larissa Waters: Women in the workplace

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Larissa Waters 21 Nov 2013

What do you think drives the difference we see in the performance of girls at the end of their school and indeed in graduation rates, yet there are stark figures about workforce participation? In your view, what are the main drivers of that real turnaround?

Senator WATERS: I was likewise very interested in the report that the COAG Reform Council released just this week. Senator Tillem has asked many of the questions I had about pay equity. What do you think drives the difference we see in the performance of girls at the end of their school and indeed in graduation rates, yet there are stark figures about workforce participation? In your view, what are the main drivers of that real turnaround?

Ms Conway: What we see at graduate level is a lot of organisations recruiting almost equally young men and young women, but as the years go on we see those numbers decline as far as the women are concerned. It is probably fair to say that the biggest barriers are cultural barriers, in the first instance, a lot of bias and the circumstances and structures within workplaces embedded by us in human rights systems and the like, and then there are structural barriers including the inability to organisations to mainstream flexible work and to put in place provisions for flexible careers and the other major structural barrier is childcare. The need for flexible, affordable, accessible child care is obviously something that will drive better workforce participation and currently it is a big structural impediment to the workforce participation of women.

Senator WATERS: Pardon my ignorance. Can you update me on what is being done, if anything, about flexible work hours? What are our current legislative parameters and have there been any moves to make those a bit more progressive?

Senator Abetz: I can assist in that regard because that is under the Fair Work Act. The current legislation has provisions for individual flexibility arrangements. Regrettably, those individual flexibility arrangements have been substantially curtailed in both modern awards and enterprise agreements. In our policy released four months before the election we indicated that we sought to give full expression, as originally intended in the legislation, to individual flexibility arrangements, including the extension of the period when you could unilaterally terminate such an arrangement. Under the current legislation it is 28 days. The Labor Party's own Fair Work Act Review Panel suggested that that 28 days should be extended to three months, or 90 days, and we adopted that as part of our policy platform before the last election.

One of the reasons we believe it is very important is the area of child care. If a parent makes arrangements for child care within individual flexibility arrangements and the boss unilaterally, with 28 days notice, can say, 'End of story', good luck to that parent in seeking to make new childcare arrangements within 28 days. From that perspective, I think that three-month period will provide better protection for workers who have childcare requirements and will assist in their work-life balance. The whole individual flexibility arrangement regime under Labor, which will be continued under us, would be subject to a 'better-off overall' test. In other words, the worker would have to be better off overall in any individual flexibility arrangement.

Senator WATERS: Thank you, Minister. I myself will do a bit of research around that as well. Again, because I am relatively new to this area, can you assist me by explaining what the scope of your agency's work is.

Ms Conway: The agency is focused on efforts that will improve and promote gender equality in Australian workplaces. Under the new legislation, the Workplace Gender Equality Act, we will receive output data from organisations in the private sector with 100 or more employees around their gender performance. The model of the agency is that we are a light-touch regulator, and our work is underpinned by working collaboratively with the employers. The reporting that employers have to do for the agency will give us that data. We will then look at that data and convert it into benchmarks. We will create benchmarks, as we are required to do under the legislation, in relation to those general equality indicators.

Senator WATERS: Are they enforceable benchmarks?

Ms Conway: No, these are benchmarks simply for educational purposes. The benchmarks will be by organisational size and by industry sector. Organisations will be able to see what their performance is against these general quality indicators-how they compare with their competitors, how they are tracking by time. But, most importantly, it will enable them to identify where they have issues and how they can most effectively and efficiently apply the resources they might have available for this area to improve their performance. Similarly, it enables us to effectively and efficiently apply our resources to help them. Many employers are saying to us that this is data they have never had and they would really like to have. So, for us, the engine room of the legislation is getting this truly standardised, unique data that nobody else collects, putting it into a form that is very useful for employers and driving change through working collaboratively with employers.

Senator WATERS: May I ask what is possibly a silly question-

CHAIR: There is no such thing!

Senator Abetz: I always get worried when senators say, 'This might be a silly question.' Usually it is a lot better than a silly question.

Senator WATERS: I am interested in the interaction between the Sex Discrimination Act and this new workplace act. How is it not against the Sex Decimation Act to have a gender pay gap for one but to have these other forms of discrimination in the workforce on the basis of gender?

Ms Conway: It is true that under the Sex Discrimination Act you are not entitled to discriminate on certain grounds in certain areas, including employment, but of course you have to be able to establish legally that you are being discriminated against on a particular basis.

The interface between the two agencies works this way: our charter is to work with employers to help them put in place the structures and the systems to improve workplace general quality. The Sex Decimation Act facilitates individual complaints around incidents of alleged decimation, and of course there are other provisions under that act that enables the commissioner to do certain things.

It is a slightly different orientation from us; our orientation is very focused on employers and working with employers to try and drive change within workplaces as opposed to working with individuals or working within a policy space.

Senator WATERS: It sounds like both are very much needed-thank you for that. Just on that gender pay gap again, my understanding-and please correct me if I am misinformed-is that we have currently got, as you said, a gap of about 17½ per cent and that this has increased in recent years; it used to be about 15 per cent. If that is the case, do you have any sense of why that is?

Ms Conway: It is reported by ABS on a regular basis and it moves from period to period. Over the last two or three decades, it has moved between about 15 and 18 per cent-sometimes it will move up a bit; sometimes it moves down a bit. It generally stays within that band of 15 to 18 per cent. Why is that so? I think the reason for that is that we have been unable to substantively deal with the various factors that are driving this gap, and they are complex and many. The way to deal with that differs, and there needs to be a collective effort to deal with the different factors to make an impact on the figures.

Senator WATERS: I want to leave that issue and move to a more specific one-again, pardon me, if I am underinformed. I understand there are about $1.2 million Australian women who experience domestic or family violence and, obviously, this can have implications for their ability to attend and perform in the workplace. Is there anything being done to try and extend those workplace discrimination protections to victims of domestic violence?

Ms Conway: Much of that is outside my area of responsibility. What I can say is that there are specific reporting matters that organisations have to report against in the reporting form they will give us that involves support for those who are suffering domestic violence, but otherwise that is outside my area.

Senator WATERS: Who would I take that up with, just out of interest?

Senator Abetz: Ultimately, that is a policy issue potentially for government but also for the Fair Work Commission, if submissions are made, but it is one of those fraught areas.

If I may just take a little bit of time just in case I be misinterpreted: I was on the inaugural committee and honorary legal adviser of a women's shelter in my home state of Tasmania in the local community for about a decade. I represented many a victim of domestic violence, and so I trust my volunteer work in that area will be recognised before I make this observation: that if extra paid leave or entitlements are to be given to these victims, it will mean that the business, often the small business, will have to pay for the consequences of the perpetrator. Often, if somebody-and this is very realistic-might have to take a week off work, for example, because of domestic violence, a small business, if they are to be paid during that time off work, have to find a replacement worker. If it is a small business that all comes out of the family budget at the end of the week, so the mum and dad running that small business pay, and the perpetrator of the violence does not have to pay for those consequences.

I think that we just have to be very careful as we go down that road to make sure that there are not unforeseen consequences that could be highly prejudicial especially to small businesses. That is just one thing I would ask be taken into account. Having said that, my heart goes out to victims of domestic violence. It is horrendous and should be abhorred by everybody.

Senator WATERS: On that point. Minister, are there any protections against dismissal of workers suffering domestic violence if they have not been able to attend work in the normal manner, as opposed to your issues about payment, which I will do more research on before I make any comment about?

Senator Abetz: Possibly these questions might be better when the department comes on later this evening to give advices to that. I daresay one's sick leave medical certificates et cetera would carry you for a period in any event, but how much further that goes, I confess I am not sure.

Senator WATERS: Thank you, I will take that up at the appropriate time. I have just one final issue. The question of quotas for women on boards has been raised already, and obviously the Business Council has recently made perhaps an unexpected and very welcome suggestion in that regard. I am interested in what the policy rationale is for not having a quota. Why do we not already have one given that we have quite a few countries that indeed have that with successful effect? Does the agency consider that within your scope?

Senator Abetz: That is more a policy decision for government. In the past, it has not occurred and it would be fair to say that this government would not be minded to adopt a quota system. It believes in equality of opportunity and that has to be pursued, but equality of outcome, I might say, often demeans the currency of what should be a genuine merit selection process. So we would say that equality of opportunity, yes, but not necessarily forcing an equality of outcome where you might not be getting as good an outcome.

Senator WATERS: And again we come back to structural deterrence which in fact influences your logic there.

Senator Abetz: So rather than forcing an 'equality', those structural issues need to be addressed to ensure that you then get the desired outcome.

Senator WATERS: I look forward to the new government addressing those, and I might add that I think this is the only time that the government has not taken the advice of the Business Council of Australia. It is sad in this instance that you are not following their lead.

Senator Abetz: We do not always follow them. But, if I might say, the paid parental leave scheme that we as a government have championed in fact deals with some of those very structural issues of which you speak, where we can achieve the outcomes without the imposition of artificial quotas.


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