Speech by The Hon Julie Collins MP

Equal opportunity for women in the workplace amendment bill 2012

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

This Bill amends the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999.

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

Improving women’s workforce participation is central to improving productivity and addressing current and future skills shortages.

This package of reforms delivers on the Government’s 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.

It is a significant reform to support and help drive improved gender equality outcomes in Australian workplaces.

It is an important component of the Government’s workforce participation and human rights agenda.

We said we would reform the Act to support gender equality and improve workforce participation and workplace flexibility – and that’s what we are doing.

This Bill will improve gender equality outcomes as well as simplifying reporting for businesses.

It will assist in striking the right balance between the need to drive and encourage change within business, without increasing the regulatory burden.

This legislation follows a review of the 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 made it clear that gender equality is essential to maximising Australia’s productive potential and to ensuring continued economic growth.

It has been estimated that closing the gap between men’s and women’s workforce participation could boost Gross Domestic Product by 13 per cent.

The Bill changes the name of the Act to the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 to emphasise the focus of the Act on gender equality in the workplace.

The name of the Agency is changed from the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

The title of the Director of the Agency is also changed to the Director of Workplace Gender Equality.

The principal objects of the Act are amended by the Bill to reflect the focus on gender equality in the workplace. They are:

  • to promote and improve gender equality (including equal remuneration between women and men) in employment and in the workplace;
  • to support employers to remove barriers to the full and equal participation of women in the workforce, in recognition of the disadvantaged position of women in relation to employment matters;
  • to 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);
  • to foster workplace consultation between employers and employees on issues concerning gender equality in employment and in the workplace; and
  • to improve the productivity and competitiveness of Australian business through the advancement of gender equality in employment and in the workplace.

The coverage of the Act is expanded to include men, as well as women, particularly in relation to caring responsibilities.

The new legislation will mean that for the reporting period commencing 1 April 2013, a relevant employer must prepare and lodge a public report containing information relating to gender equality indicators.

Smaller organisations with fewer than 100 employees will not be required to report, but they will be able to access the Agency’s advice, education and incentive activities.

The proposed outcomes-based reporting will streamline and simplify reporting.

This will deliver certainty to organisations in what they are required to report on and provide an invaluable means of measuring progress over time.

Organisations will be able to measure their performance against other similar organisations.

This change will represent the first time the Agency will be able to gather and analyse a rigorous and standardised data set.

We will know exactly what is happening, and where, in Australian workplaces regarding gender equality practices and outcomes.

Businesses will now be able to complete and submit reports online using a secure web-portal. Businesses have wanted this change and it will save them time and money.

The gender equality indicators are set out in the Act and include reporting on equal remuneration for men and women.

Equal remuneration is explicitly referred to in the objects of the Act. Organisations will be required to report on pay data. Salary data will be removed from the public reports.

More standardised data will provide insight as to where gender pay gaps are emerging or growing at the industry or sector level.

With the gender pay gap in Australia sitting at just under 18 per cent, this focus on equal remuneration is particularly important.

Over time, the legislation will enable the Agency to develop benchmarks. This will allow employers to consider their performance compared to others in their industries.

The legislation will also enable the Minister to set industry specific minimum standards, in consultation with industry and experts. These minimum standards will have to be determined before 1 April 2014.

Minimum standards will be used for the identification of those organisations that are struggling and the targeting of advice and assistance.

The new Bill will also allow for more transparency in reporting.

It will be a requirement that public reports be signed by the chief executive officer of the relevant employer. This will help to ensure that management at the highest level engages in the issue of gender equality.

A relevant employer must inform employees and shareholders that the report has been lodged and employees and employee organisations will then be provided with the opportunity to comment on the report.

The Bill also improves the transparency and fairness of the compliance framework and consequences for non-compliance.

Checks on the compliance of a relevant employer may be undertaken and may, by written notice, require a relevant employer to provide information that is relevant to the employer’s compliance with the Act.

Consequences for non-compliance, without reasonable excuse, include naming the employer in a report to the Minister or naming the employer by other means.

There are also possible consequences in relation to Commonwealth procurement, grants and financial assistance.

This new legislation puts gender equality in the workplace firmly under the spotlight.

This is an important reform aimed at the genuine and sustained removal of barriers to women’s full and equal participation in the workforce.

The Government is determined to improve women’s economic security – and this begins with fair and equitable treatment in the workplace.

This is a sophisticated and meaningful package of reforms – a significant step forward in enabling employers and Government to measure and drive better outcomes for women and men in Australian workplaces