Speech by The Hon Julie Collins MP

ACTU National Congress Women’s Lunch, Sydney

Location: Sydney

Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me to share my views on the Gillard Government’s gender equality priorities and achievements.

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting and pay my respects to their Elders, past and present.

The last time the ACTU Congress met – a Labor Government had recently abolished Work Choices.

The Fair Work reforms initiated by Julia Gillard eliminated the injustices of the Howard industrial relations regime.

The reforms were especially important for women and their job security. They are over-represented in part-time and casual work.

We defeated Work Choices – but job insecurity is still a reality for Australia’s workers.

I know it is a major concern of yours – as it is for the Government.

The Government has driven significant progress, establishing an overarching framework for fairness at work, anti-discrimination and gender equality.

Earlier today, I launched the Government’s Statement on Women 2012, outlining these achievements with our first female Prime Minister.

Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act

Before discussing the Statement further, I would like to inform you of the progress of our 2010 election commitment to improve the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act and the renamed Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

In the last session of Parliament, I introduced an Amendment Bill which will drive improved gender equality outcomes for employees, particularly women, in Australian workplaces.

That Bill has been considered by a Senate committee, which provided its report last Thursday.

I am looking forward to seeing the Bill pass through parliament.

This will enable us to get on with the next stage of talking to stakeholders, including unions, about the detailed implementation of the reforms at the workplace level.

A very important aspect of the development of the Amendment Bill has been the consultation process.

We have taken consultation very seriously and I can assure you that, as union stakeholders, you have been well represented by very engaged and effective people.

In particular, I would like to acknowledge and thank Therese Bryant, Belinda Tkalcevic, Sue Lines, Rose Jackson and Ged Kearney.

Their work has greatly enhanced these reforms.

Once the legislation is passed by Parliament, I will be undertaking the next stage of talking to stakeholders about the detailed implementation of the Bill.

The Government regards the reforms in this Bill as very important.

They reaffirm our commitment to gender equality as pivotal to a society that is both prosperous and fair.

A society in which women have an equal access to secure jobs and proper wages, so they can establish a sound financial footing for themselves and their families. But we have some way to go.

Women’s workforce participation

Australian women are in the world’s top bracket for education – but their participation in the workforce is below the level this achievement would suggest.

Around 59 per cent of all women compared to over 70 per cent of men are part of the workforce – and men receive on average almost 18 per cent more in pay.

This is a concern to individual women and to the nation.

Workforce participation is central to a woman’s financial security and fulfilment.

It is also vital to improving our productivity and to addressing current and future skills shortages.

The Government has worked across a range of portfolios to address these issues.

And this is where the new Bill comes in.

Gender inequality is still a significant disincentive to women’s workforce participation

Many of you here today would be familiar with the intended reforms in the legislation and to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

There has been some debate about whether we have got the balance right.

Considering the number of key stakeholders involved, including employers, employee organisations and the women’s sector, this is to be expected.

I am confident the Amendment Bill delivers gains to employees, to the economy and to business and that overall it achieves a fair balance.

Importance of Government’s reforms

For trade unions, the Bill impacts you in two ways – in your role as representatives for employees and in your role as employers, if you have more than one hundred employees.

The Objects of the Act have been amended to:

  • Promote and improve gender equality in the workplace
  • Support employers to remove barriers to the full and equal participation of women in the workforce
  • Promote among employers the elimination of discrimination on the basis of gender in relation to employment matters, including in relation to family and caring responsibilities
  • Foster workplace consultation between employers and employees on issues concerning gender equality in the workplace
  • Improve the productivity and competitiveness of Australian business through advancing gender equality.

The Act explicitly acknowledges equal remuneration and family and caring responsibilities between women and men.

Employers will be required to report on tangible outcomes and practices, against defined gender equality indicators. The defined GEIs include:

  • The gender composition of their workforce
  • The gender composition of their boards and governing bodies
  • Equal remuneration between women and men
  • The availability of flexible working arrangements for employees and working arrangements that support employees with family or caring responsibilities
  • Mechanisms for consultation with employees on issues concerning gender equality in the workplace.

A standardised reporting and data collection framework, against the GEIs, will support data collection.

This will enable the Agency to develop a range of evidence-based resources including industry-specific profiles and benchmarks.

In turn, these resources will support the broader educative and advisory services of the Agency as well as allowing employers to measure their own progress against their peers.

I was pleased the ACTU submission to the Senate inquiry supported the enhancement of the Agency’s advice and educative functions.

Progress against the GEIs will be actively monitored by requiring the Agency to report biennially to Parliament.

We will then be able to target efforts where they are really needed, on an industry by industry basis, by the setting of minimum standards in relation to the GEIs.

The ACTU submission supports the principle that the framework of compliance and minimum standards is not to be punitive but rather, to be used as a positive guide to improving policies, practices and procedures within organisations.

And this is the approach we have taken with the legislation.

Cultural Change

The Amendment Bill aims to deliver real cultural change.

Cultural change that sees gender equality as the norm.

Time and again research has shown that, apart from being fair, this makes good economic sense.

Greater workplace equality at all levels of business doesn’t only benefit organisations in terms of attracting and retaining talent.

Women employees, at all levels – retained, valued and promoted – provide valuable returns to the company, the community and to the economy as a whole.

Women’s Statement

As I mentioned earlier, this morning I launched the Women’s Statement 2012.

This Statement – co-signed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard – lists the substantial raft of achievements our Government has made in advancing gender equality, set against the backdrop of our broader reform agenda.

Our Government is committed to add to this list of achievements for women.

We will do so with a strong focus on increasing women’s participation in the workforce and their economic security.

We will work together across our Government and with states and territories to identify obstacles to gender equality and to respond to them.

We will be focusing on areas of work like skills development, employment opportunities for Indigenous women, superannuation and retirement incomes, housing affordability and community-based mental health.

Legislative reform for gender equality

As the Women’s Statement demonstrates, the Government is already delivering on gender equality across a range of portfolios.

A number of reforms have enhanced and improved the legislative framework for equal opportunity, anti-discrimination and work and family flexibility.

Both the Fair Work Act and the Sex Discrimination Act now have enhanced protections from workplace discrimination, as well as actively promoting equal remuneration and family-friendly workplace practices.

The union movement can also be proud of its role in successfully bringing forward the SACS industry equal remuneration case to Fair Work Australia this year.

The historic decision to award equal remuneration to Social and Community sector workers is a significant advance for equal pay for women.

Of the 150,000 workers in the sector, 120,000 are women.

Other areas in which we are delivering on gender equality include our introduction of the historic Paid Parental Leave scheme.

More than 160,000 families have now accessed the scheme.

We have also increased the number of quality childcare positions to assist women re-entering the workforce, and increased the childcare rebate from 30 to 50 per cent.

We are also acting on improving pay equity.

This Government is also committed to increasing retirement incomes and superannuation and will build on the reforms already enacted with a new Superannuation Roundtable.

There have been many more achievements and initiatives of particular benefit to women, in health, in regard to carers and for parents receiving income support payments.

The Government will continue to work toward gender equality, fairness at work and ultimately a better, more productive economy.

We can’t afford to let the great gains made for Australian women in education, in health, and, indeed, in my own field of politics, be lost – we must, and we will, build on them.

Women’s executive representation

It is fantastic to see in the 2010 Women in Unions survey that women as a proportion of union membership reflect the growing number of women in the workforce.

But the representation of women in leadership and decision making roles is still nowhere near equal.

The Government has committed to a 40 per cent representation of women on Government boards by 2015.

I was proud to release last month the latest gender balance report which showed the proportion of women on Australian Government Boards now sits at 35.3 per cent – the highest ever.

In the private sector, the Australian Stock Exchange has implemented a program that has seen the proportion of women on the boards of the ASX200 companies rise from 8.3 per cent in 2008 to 14.2 per cent just last week.

I hope the union movement too can tap into this momentum and increase the number of women in senior positions across the movement.


The ACTU has provided great leadership on this front – with Ged Kearney being your third female President, following Sharan Burrow and Jennie George.

But we need to look to the day when there is nothing exceptional about having women in leadership positions

When having a woman Prime Minister is not remarked upon and when women take their equal place as participants in all sectors of the workplace.

Thank you again for having me here at your lunch today.