Speech by The Hon Kate Ellis MP

Celebrating 100 years of International Womens Day – where to from here

Location: National Press Club, Canberra

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Yesterday was the centenary of International Women’s Day – a day for reflection and for joyous celebration.

We reflected upon the substantial achievements for and by women over the past 100 years. We reflected on the debt of gratitude owed to the reformers, the trailblazers, the visionaries and the firebrands – both women and men.

Their work has not always been easy.

Results have often come after decades, not months or years.

But today we turn our minds to the challenges of the future, to the battles still ahead for Australian women.

There was a lot of discussion yesterday about women in the workplace and I want to speak extensively to you about that today.

However I want to begin by speaking about an issue that isn’t often discussed in open forums like this one and that is violence against women and their children.

Violence against Women

Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan once said that: “Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation and it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace.”

You might think that in an equal, developed and indeed peaceful country like Australia, that the vast majority of our citizens live lives that are rarely impacted by violence.

The reality is that in Australia, 1 in 3 women has experienced physical violence since the age of 15. Almost one in five experiences sexual violence in her lifetime.

To put that in perspective, every woman you saw passing by you in the street on the way to work this morning is more likely to have experienced physical or sexual violence than to have divorced parents; more likely to have experienced violence than to have been born overseas and even with the world leading levels of educated women in our country, a woman is more likely to have experienced violence than to hold a bachelors degree.

Research conducted in Victoria only a couple of years ago revealed that intimate partner violence is the leading cause of death, disability and injury amongst women in that state who are aged between 15 and 44.

There is a similar story to be told right around the nation.

I use these statistics because of their impact, because I know that they will shock you, as they have shocked me. I use them to demonstrate to you just how widespread the problem of violence against women in our country truly is.

I use these statistics to ask for your acknowledgement of the terrible hurt and injustice that so many Australian women have faced and will continue to.

But in using these statistics – we must ask ourselves the question of why the figures shock us, why these figures come as a surprise?

It is because we don’t regularly hear the personal stories of women who have faced violence. We don’t take the first step of acknowledging, discussing and establishing the dialogue about the magnitude of this issue permeating our culture and community.

To be frank, it is pretty evident that many in our community feel uncomfortable talking about violence against women.

This is true of many organisations, of public discussions and forums.

It is also true of the media.

The issue of violence against women inevitably fails to make it to air or to print.

Maybe it is because it is depressing, maybe it is because there is an assumption that this is one of the challenges for women we’ve ‘ticked off’ the list – maybe it is an issue that just doesn’t sell newspapers.

But let’s just be honest, unless you want to question the statistics then there is no reason why an abuse of this magnitude should not be at the forefront of public awareness.

Every week, I receive emails from women who have been the victim of domestic violence. The stories are truly heart wrenching.

I hear stories of women who have been forced to cower behind furniture, to hide their children from the impending blows of a wooden plank, to be forced into sexual intercourse against their will.

I hear stories of women who have suffered terrible injuries in the short term – from cuts and bruises, through to miscarriage and temporary loss of hearing or vision.

I hear stories of women whose injuries do not end on the night of the violent acts taking place.

Violence leaves its mark long after the black eyes fade and the adrenalin dissolves.

It is clear that we need to reset the way our community deals with violence against women.

This includes talking about the issues, treating the victims of violence with respect, treating their stories with dignity and not dismissing them because they may make us uncomfortable.

If it is the role of the media to report on critical issues and represent more broadly what is happening in our community and of course to reflect upon it – then surely the sheer volume of violence against women means the issue deserves to be covered?

These women feel entirely alone.

And when they turn to community discussion and debate they seldom hear any stories of women experiencing what they have, which only serves to compound their isolation.

We need to bring this into the open.

Until we can confront the reality of violence and its impacts on our sisters, mothers, wives and daughters – it will continue to be one of the great unresolved challenges of our community both here and abroad.

And just as each of us has a right to live a life free of violence, we have a responsibility to ensure that others can to.

That responsibility starts with acknowledging the problem.

Last month, I launched internationally Australia’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. As you may know, this 12 year National Plan is a significant achievement for our country.

It is the first time that our entire nation has come together, Commonwealth Government and every State and Territory – regardless of political persuasion – and taken action to eliminate violence against women in a coordinated and determined way.

It is the first time that we have focussed so strongly on prevention. It is the first time we have looked to the longer term and worked to build respectful relationships and gender equality to prevent violence from occurring the first place.

Our Government has already committed $86 million to initiatives in the Plan.

Today I announce that applications will open next month for $3.75 million in Local Community Action Grants, with applications for these grants opening in April this year.

We know from research that violence prevention programs are more effective in producing change in attitudes, beliefs and behaviours if they are substantial projects, sustained over time.

These grants will allow communities to tackle the challenges of actually acknowledging and addressing the cultural change required to prevent this violence from happening in the first place.

The statistics I presented you with a moment ago around the prevalence of violence here in Australia are incredibly disturbing.

Sadly, in our immediate region, they are even worse. In some Pacific countries, as many as 2 in 3 women experience violence.

The Australian Government takes very seriously our obligation to step up and help promote the human rights of our neighbours and build communities in which women can be confident and safe.

We are and will continue to be a leader in our region on this issue.

Women in the workplace

I speak first of violence because until we address this issue, women are not fully free to enjoy the rights and opportunities offered by education and employment. But of course there are further issues – how women are faring economically is a matter that goes to the heart of women’s equal participation in all aspects of Australian life.

There has been a lot of talk in recent days about the appointment of women to boards and its role in making Australian businesses more profitable.

We know that there is a dearth of women in leadership positions in this country and it is in the best interests of our nation economically to ensure that these trends are reversed. However lack of leadership opportunity is not the only challenge facing women in the workplace.

The persistent gender pay gap of some 17 per cent is a reality that women face every day.  The implications of the pay gap lasts throughout a woman’s life and amount to a 25 year old woman earning some $1 million less over her lifetime than a man of the same age.

The Australian Government believes that this is fundamentally unfair and that is why we are proud to have created a legislative framework – through the Fair Work Act – to allow pay equity claims to be heard.

Our Government is supportive of the ASU claim that is currently before Fair Work Australia and we have made that clear in our submission.

We are serious about achieving equal pay, which is why my colleague Senator Jacinta Collins is chairing a new national consultative group that will manage the implications of the sector’s equal pay test case going forward.

It is important to recognise though, that the gender pay gap is one symptom of a broader and more fundamental problem when it comes to women in the workplace.

The fact is that even though women are joining the workforce in greater numbers than ever before – insidious structural and cultural barriers to their full participation remain.

The cultures of our workplaces have changed so as to permit women’s entry but they have not changed so as to foster women’s promotion and opportunity.

We know that whilst we have made extraordinary progress in women’s access to education and ensuring we have a qualified and skilled female workforce – blockages remain to women rising through middle management to the senior ranks of Australian workplaces.

We know that this is often attributed to time out of the workforce as a result of child bearing and rearing but the fact is that many women without children have experienced the same blockages.

Anecdotally we know that many women who do leave the workforce to have children do not feel supported when they seek to return and are not given the flexibility they need to balance family and work.

Our focus is often on the number of women directors on boards and in the senior ranks of big business but the problem is broader than that.

We must address the promotion of women through the pipeline and appropriately foster their career advancement.

There is a veil that currently exists over Australian business that prevents us – as governments and as a community – from seeing what is really going on when it comes to women’s employment on an equal footing with men.

We don’t get reliable data or reporting.

We can see the inputs – but we can’t see the outcomes for women in particular industries or businesses.

Often we access reports and policies – but not to the numbers.

And it is the numbers that can tell us the real story of what is happening in Australian workplaces.

Once we have that data we need real and meaningful ways to give more than just gentle encouragement to businesses that don’t make the grade.

We need greater resources to show businesses how they can improve and we need greater clout to be able to prompt real action to improve gender equity.

And that is what we are going to do today.

Reform of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency

The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency is a central part of the Government’s framework for addressing gender equity in the workplace.

We have undertaken a review of this Agency, in close consultation with business, unions, researchers and women’s organisations.

This morning I announced that Ms Helen Conway would serve as the new Director of our Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency – affectionately known as EOWA.

Ms Conway comes to this role with impressive professional and legal credentials and has held senior leadership positions across corporate Australia.

I am delighted to welcome her and wish her the best in the job ahead.

And I am delighted to be providing her with a pretty hefty ‘to do’ list – as she will be leading this Agency into a new phase of its existence.

Today, I am pleased to announce a suite of significant reforms to the Act and to the Agency that will give EOWA the powers it needs to really drive gender equality in Australian workplaces.

I am determined for us to create a level playing field for women and men in Australian workplaces and I am looking to employers to help make this a reality.

Firstly, our Government will almost double the funding for the Agency, adding $11.2 million to its existing resources over the next four years.

This will ensure the Agency has the resources to achieve real results for Australian women.

For the first time businesses will be required to report on the indicators that matter – on the actual figures of gender composition of their organisations and their boards, on their employment conditions and whether they have flexible work practices for men and women.

Where previously businesses were required to establish and report their workplace equity plans, programs and processes – we are now asking them to tell us about tangible outcomes – how women and men are actually faring in the workplace.

No more good intentions – we want good outcomes.

Under these reforms, we are doing away with reporting on hollow plans and promises.

Businesses will no longer be able to pay mere lip service to gender equality, while women languish in the lower ranks.

For the very first time, pay equity will be enshrined in the objects of the Act and businesses will be required to report against it. This will allow us to see where gender pay gaps are emerging or growing.

We will put more checks in place and we will keep businesses honest in a few important ways.

There will be regular spot checks to ensure that the information that organisations are providing to the Government actually matches how they conduct their day to day business.

And annually both CEOs and employee representatives will be required to sign off on reports – to verify their accuracy and whether they are a true illustration of what is happening in workplaces.

We will remove the power of the EOWA Director to waive the requirement that a business has to report.

We want to know what is happening in all businesses with more than 100 employees – no exceptions.

We are also working across Government to develop options to improve the capacity of EOWA to access reliable information to identify the one third of Australian businesses who should be complying with the Act but are currently escaping their obligations.

Underpinning this new reporting framework is a substantial investment in a new IT system. Rather than the paper-based system used to date, businesses will be able to report on-line using a secure web portal.

Businesses will also be able to get support and advice online – linking them to electronic tools, resources and live support.

The online reporting system will be backed up by a sophisticated data management system, which is capable of flagging organisations for attention. The system will also allow the Agency to develop industry and sector-based benchmarks.

It will deliver companies with information on their own progress but through streamlining reporting we will also reduce the paperwork and cost burden – saving businesses time and money.

Importantly, we will give businesses the support that they need to improve gender equality in their workplace.

We will introduce mobile support teams of Agency staff that can be deployed to provide advice, work plans and resources to businesses who request it.

Smaller size businesses will also be given access to these new support mechanisms – so that we can boost their performance when it comes to gender equality, while not landing them with an administrative burden which is too hefty for a small business to sustain.

Under these reforms – for the first time – we will enshrine in legislation that the Government only does business with companies who comply with the Act.

Non-complying businesses will not be eligible to receive Government-funded grants or industry assistance programs.

Government trade with non-compliant organisations will not just be discouraged – it will be the law.

The Government is using its power as a consumer to say that unless you are actively pursuing gender equality in your workplace, then we are not interested in doing business with you.

We will also reward those who adopt best practice in workplace equality through public acknowledgement, a new reputation index and employer of choice designations that are based on gender equality outcomes.

The role of men in achieving gender equity

I have just outlined a long list of reforms to EOWA and its underlying legislation – reforms that will move the Agency and its functions forward, to address the very real challenges facing women in Australian workplaces today.

But in talking about women in the workplace we tend to skip over a fairly critical part of the equation – that of course, being the role of men.

In a recent panel discussion I was involved in to discuss women in corporate leadership, one member observed that women, whilst qualified tend not to put their names forward for promotion into senior roles.

Now without for a minute suggesting that the low number of women at the top is our fault – I think it is worth further exploring this notion.

If women are indeed not putting themselves forward then why would that be?

I think that it might have something to do with the fact that whilst we have been exceptionally good at increasing women’s participation in the workforce in recent decades – we haven’t matched it with a decrease in unpaid work responsibilities for women.

We want to boost women’s roles and responsibilities in the corporate world but we’re making little to no progress in easing the burden of domestic and caring duties at home.

Last week I released research, which our Government commissioned from the Australian Institute of Family Studies on fathering in Australia.

It confirms that fathers in couple families still do less than 30 per cent of the domestic work and only marginally more of the child caring.

Importantly, it also shows that this is not ideal for men either with 63.7 percent of fathers believing that work responsibilities had caused them to miss out on home or family activities that they would have liked to have taken part in.

Interestingly, it showed that a little under two thirds of men said they had not had to give up an opportunity at work because of their family or home responsibilities.

I doubt you could say the same for most working women.

We need to move beyond the outdated notion that women’s equality in the workplace is just about women.

I know that on paper flexible work policies may be available but we must recognise that there are significant cultural barriers to men taking up these options.

Many men report that they fear going part-time may be seen as a lack of ambition, a lack of commitment, rather than a decision that promotes the best outcomes for Australian businesses.

Helping people to manage their work and family responsibilities in an equitable way is the best path to ensuring that women and men are on equal footing both economically and socially.

I find that we talk so much about equality between genders in the workplace but rarely talk about equality when it comes to caring responsibilities.

For me, it is two sides of the same coin – we must support both women’s participation in the workforce and men’s participation in caring and unpaid domestic work.

To do one without the other is futile.

This reality is at the heart of the final reform that I want to mention today.

We are at a point where we must recognise that gender equality is not a just a women’s issue.

In line with this shift of focus – I am also pleased to announce today that EOWA will be renamed the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and the corresponding legislation will also be renamed the Workplace Gender Equality Act.

These reforms will also see the expansion of the Act to encompass women and men.

This will be supported by strengthening the objects of the Act to better reflect the challenges facing women in the workplace, such as pay equity and the sharing of work and family responsibilities between men and women.

It is a cultural issue.

It is a structural issue.

And it is an issue for both genders.


With the delivery of the world-leading National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children and the strengthened Workplace Gender Equality Agency – I am confident that as a Government, we are taking powerful steps to advance the status of women in this country.

Over the last 3 years, our Government has done the hard work to introduce practical supports to improve women’s lives.

We have introduced the Fair Work Act, giving women back the rights in the workplace that they lost under Work Choices.

We have doubled funding for child care affordability.

We have increased the aged pension for the 70 percent of aged pensioners who are women.

And we have introduced the nation’s first paid parental leave scheme.

Today I have touched on two of the great challenges facing Australian women – violence and workplace equality.

There are more.

As a Government, we will be continuing to remove the barriers that prevent women from having a fulfilling working life and making changes that will allow women to build their economic security, free from discrimination and from violence.

Ultimately, it is only through the interaction of these policies can we establish the conditions for women and men to be on equal footing in Australia.

And that is what we are determined to do.