Speech by The Hon Julie Collins MP

Opening Address at The National Assembly On Gender Equity and Inclusion

Location: Melbourne

Good morning and thank you to Suzi Finkelstein for welcoming us all to the first National Assembly on Gender Equity and Inclusion.

I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation who are the traditional custodians of this land and pay respect to their elders past and present.

My thanks to Women and Leadership Australia for organising this event.

It’s a pleasure to address such a diverse group from business, peak bodies, academia and the women’s movement.

We all recognise the economic and social gains gender equality offers.

The Gillard Government, like many Labor Governments before it, is committed to making gender equality a reality.

Labor’s commitment to advancing the status of women

The Labor Party has a strong history in advancing the status of women.

We live this commitment in the way our party operates.

We’ve set an affirmative action policy and promote a culture that actively supports women’s participation and leadership.

The success of this culture is clear.

We are proud to have Julia Gillard as Australia’s first woman Prime Minister.

And we are proud to have the highest of number of women in the Federal Ministry in the history of this country.

We also live this commitment through the game-changing reforms we’ve introduced in this term of government and previous terms.

Historically, we have driven major policy that has made a real impact on women’s lives such as the ratification of the UN Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women and the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

More recently, we brought in Australia’s first ever Paid Parental Leave scheme – around 150,000 families have now accessed the scheme.

We’ve increased the rebate for out-of-pocket expenses for child care, from 30 to 50 per cent – this has a big impact in the take-home wages of women returning to work.

We introduced the Fair Work Act, which includes provisions for equal pay for work of equal value.

These provisions have enabled the recent Fair Work decision on community sector wages granting 150,000 workers in the community sector a pay rise. The vast majority of these workers are women.

Government’s reform priorities

It was the Labor Government of Bob Hawke which appointed Australia’s first Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women in 1983.

There are two reforms in particular I’d like to talk about today – reforms that go straight to the heart of women’s economic participation, women’s leadership and gender equality.

The first is the target, set at the 2010 election, to achieve 40 per cent representation of women on Australian Government boards by 2015.

The second is the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012, which I introduced into the House of Representatives last month.

Gender Balance on Australian Government Boards

The Australian Government is dedicated to seeing greater gender balance in the nation’s boards and in leadership roles.

We have started to effect change in our own backyard through setting a 40:40:20 target for gender balance on Australian Government boards by 2015.

That is, a minimum of 40 per cent women and 40 per cent men on Australian Government boards.

This is the same model the Australian Labor Party has adopted to drive affirmative action within our ranks.

And it works – nationally the Labor Party has 37.2% women in the lower house and 39.8% in the upper house.

There is no shortage of women seeking leadership opportunities.

Around 2000 applied for the 70 scholarships the Government announced in 2010-in partnership with the Australian Institute of Company Directors-to attend directorship courses.

Having equal representation of men and women in top level decision-making positions has many benefits.

Gender balance on boards improves governance and leads to more informed and stronger decision-making – quality outcomes result when women’s needs and interests are also represented.

Gender balance has also been found to increase the economic performance of boards.

For Australian Government boards, this means better informed public policy and stronger economic outcomes.

Today, I am releasing the Gender Balance on Australian Government Boards Report 2010-2011.

Report highlights

The report shows we are making good progress to reaching our 40 per cent target by 2015.

At 30 June 2011, the percentage of women on public boards was 35.3 per cent-an all-time high for the Australian Government.

Four government portfolios met or exceeded the gender balance target of 40 per cent.

Eight portfolios had between 30 and 40 per cent women on their boards.

These figures are a positive sign that the 40 per cent target is helping to create a change in attitudes towards women and leadership.

We still have a lot of work to do, but we are up to the task and I am confident that we will get there.

The private sector

I also want to note some of the excellent work happening in the private sector to increase women’s leadership.

Women make up only eight per cent of senior executives and 13.8 per cent of directors of Australia’s top 200 companies.

I’m pleased to say many parts of corporate Australia are stepping up.

The revised ASX Corporate Governance Principles and Recommendations came into effect in January 2011. They require ASX200 companies to set targets for increasing the number of women on their boards and at senior-executive level.

The Male Champions of Change initiative – convened by Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick – involves high-profile male leaders from some of Australia’s most influential organisations using their collective weight to drive gender equality.

By making sure women’s representation in leadership is elevated on the national business agenda, these business leaders are working towards better outcomes for business and the economy.

Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012

Gender equality in the workplace is the aim of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012.

This piece of legislation is about removing barriers to women’s full and equal participation in paid work.

This legislation is also about improving productivity and competitiveness of Australian businesses.

This Bill will also play a role in increasing women’s representation of boards, through supporting women’s participation across all levels of the workforce, right up to senior management and decision making positions.

Gender equality in the workforce – the current situation

The cold, hard facts tell us how far we have to go to achieve gender equality in Australian workplaces.

Women are leaving school as well educated and skilled as their male counterparts.

Yet, only 59 per cent of women are participating in the workforce, compared with over 70 per cent of men.

This ranks Australia 45th in the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap when it comes to labour force participation.

Around 43 per cent of women participating in the workforce are working part time.

Casual and part-time work suits many women – but it also means they earn less and their employment arrangements can be less secure.

Even women working full-time earn less than their male counterparts. The gender pay gap in Australia is almost 18 per cent – one of the highest in three decades.

The gender pay gap starts early – within the first year of completing a tertiary qualification.

In December 2011, the median full-time salary for a male graduate was $52,000, compared with $50,000 for female graduates.

Women and men’s different experiences in the workforce have long-term implications.

Women are more vulnerable to poverty in retirement.

The average superannuation balance for Australian women is 40 per cent below that of men and average payouts are half those of men.

Women make up around 70 per cent of single age pensioners.

Addressing these inequalities all comes back to breaking down the barriers for women’s workforce participation.

Increasing workforce participation won’t just help individual women – the benefits are far-reaching.

Supporting women to join, re-join, or stay in the workforce can help solve the skills shortages problem that many Australian businesses are facing.

And closing the gap between women’s and men’s workforce participation could boost gross domestic product by 13 per cent.

What the new Act will do

The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012 has a strengthened focus on gender equality – the coverage of the Act has been expanded to both women and men.

The Act will be renamed the Workplace Gender Equality Act and the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency will be renamed the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

It acknowledges pay equity and access to caring responsibilities of both women and men as central to achieving equality.

It aims to assist businesses change their organisational culture and advance gender equality in their workplaces.

The existing Act was introduced under the Coalition Government in 1999 and is not achieving to a satisfactory level its most basic role – to have businesses with 100 or more employees lodge annual reports on their workplaces containing gender-based data.

There are still one-third of employers who don’t lodge – despite the current Act allowing the naming of employers who fail to fulfil these obligations.

They can also be excluded from Government contracts.

One key way of encouraging reporting is to make the process easier – and the new Act does this.

Reporting will now be standardised, based on gender quality indicators and will be industry specific.

Employers will be able to lodge their reports online – as they’ve requested.

They will no longer have to write a long description about plans and policies. Instead, they will provide key gender-specific information like the number of employees, their leadership level, their type of employment and what they are paid.

The Government is giving the Agency an extra $11.2 million – a doubling of funds – and a large part of that will be used to provide practical help and advice.

We’re also making the reports more useful – for everybody concerned.

The practical data in the new reports will allow employers to compare themselves accurately to others in their industries.

They will see where improvements can make them more competitive and more productive.

For the first time, the chief executive of a company will have to sign off its report. This will ensure senior management is aware of gender equality issues and becomes involved directly in driving positive change.

With the new, better data, the Agency will also be able to see where there are gaps emerging or improvements being made and structure its assistance and advice accordingly.

Another important new element is the introduction of minimum standards.

Minimum standards are intended to help employers achieve the base level needed to derive gains from good and fair people management.

They will be developed in close consultation with employers and employee organisations and will be subject to scrutiny by Parliament.

Many of you in this room favour a mandated quota approach. I sympathise with the frustration and anger of seeing women still being short-changed – and worse – after 25 years of equal opportunity legislation.

But this new Act is about trying to change the culture, by education and by raising awareness.

The whole process of transparent reporting, peer comparison and education will drive sound and competitive workplace practices.

At the end of the day, employers know gender equality is good for business and productivity.

The Government has consulted extensively with industry, employee organisations and the women’s sector in drafting this legislation.

We are absolutely committed to continue this consultation throughout implementation.

The Amendment Bill is currently being considered by a Senate committee.

I know that, like me, you will all watch the progress of this legislation with keen interest.

This is a much needed reform – for women and men, for business and for the Australian economy.


There is no quick fix when it comes to advancing women’s leadership, increasing women’s economic participation and gender equality more broadly – it is about sustainable long-term change.

Speakers here today from the women’s sector, working on achieving equality for decades, will attest to this.

The Government is playing its role in helping advance gender equality, along with individual men and women and business leaders.

I applaud your hard work on this important issue.

Enjoy this conference and I look forward to hearing back on the many ideas that will be generated here.

Thank you.