Speech by The Hon Tanya Pibersek MP

“Women’s Business – Current issues and future agendas” colloquium

Location: Sancta Sophia College, University of Sydney



Thank you Associate Professor Baird for your introduction.

I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional owners of this land, and pay my respects to their elders.

As you know, it’s a special International Women’s Day this year. It has been a century since clothing and textile workers in New York led 15,000 women to march through the streets of New York City in the first of many marches demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. This was one of the key events which led to the establishment of International Women’s Day.

It was a time of enormous political and industrial activity in New York, including public meetings like the one Mrs Maggie Hinchey, a laundress, spoke at 1912:

“You cannot call it a family and a home where the working people go for seven short hours to rest their weary bones. The man cannot make both ends meet; the woman goes out to help, and what becomes of the children? She cannot put them in a nursery when she works fourteen and seventeen hours – those are not nursery hours. She is too tired to give them care and food when she comes home”.

The activism of those brave women is a forerunner of the campaign led by the unions against Work Choices. That campaign was instrumental in the defeat of the previous Liberal Government.

Centenaries offer an opportunity to consider our past and confront the challenges of our present and future. It’s great that this moment of reflection comes early in the term of a new government. We’ve had an incredibly exciting few weeks, with the first welcome to country in the federal parliament and the apology to the stolen generations, the signing of Kyoto, the repeal of Work Choices – the list goes on. The fact that we’re delivering on our promises, though, doesn’t mean there isn’t more to do; other challenges to take on.

The Rudd Government’s Women’s Agenda

Under the previous Liberal Government, the women’s portfolio was downgraded. Programs were started and never finished. For example, just before the well researched and evidence-based No Respect No Relationship advertising campaign was launched, the Prime Minister pulled it from distribution and used the funding to instead send out the infamous, ‘alert but not alarmed’ fridge magnets.

The Office for Women was excluded from playing a serious role in advising the government on how existing and prospective policies would affect women.

That has to change.

I am starting my work in two key areas: safety and economic security.

In the area of women’s safety from violence, we are introducing a National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children. We’re working hard to meet our commitments and I expect the membership of the National Council, which will lead the Plan, to be announced in the coming weeks.

The Government has also already begun the process necessary for Australia to become a party to the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Economic security and financial independence

With a rapidly ageing population, I believe it is vitally important that we work to improve women’s economic security and independence.

On average, a woman will earn less than her male colleagues as soon as she enters the workforce regardless of her career, industry or level.

Women working full time will still earn on average about 15 per cent less than men working full time (ABS).

We used to put this down to the gender segregation of the workforce, but 2007 Graduate Statistics show that new male graduates’ median starting salaries were $45,000, compared with starting salaries for female graduates at $42,000. Salaries for male graduates rose $3,000 in 2007, while female graduate salaries increased by only $2,000.

Women in the ASX Top 200 companies – amongst the highest earners in the country – earn less on average than their male colleagues too – that’s not about industry segregation.

However it’s also true that women are more likely to be in part-time and casual employment and less likely to be employed in occupations which offer overtime.

The gap between women’s and men’s earnings reflects a number of complex and interrelated factors including:

  • the broad undervaluation of women’s skills;
  • occupational and industrial segregation;
  • the prevalence of gender stereotypes; and,
  • in some cases, outdated ways in which remuneration is calculated.

Women may also be more vulnerable in the workplace because of the type of work they are likely to be employed in.

As at May 2006, women on Australian Workplace Agreements earned 81.1 per cent of male average hourly total earnings, while women on Collective Agreements earned 89.5 per cent of male average hourly total earnings.

Women on awards earned 103.3 per cent of male average hourly total earnings.

When comparing all methods of setting pay, women earned 88.2 per cent of male average hourly total earnings.

Paid Maternity leave

A woman will have a 1 in 3 chance of having access to paid maternity leave, dependent on what type of industry she works in.

Paid maternity leave is least common in industries such as hospitality and retail.

These industries happen to be sectors which employ large numbers of women.

In addition, paid maternity leave is more likely to be available to women on high incomes. Female employees earning between $1,000 and $1,400 per week are most likely to have paid maternity leave provided, whilst females earning under $400 per week are least likely.

Family friendly workplaces

For a woman starting a family, it will be difficult for her to find a job where she will be able to juggle breastfeeding, part-time work, flexible hours and the other necessary arrangements which would enable her to work at the same time as raising a young child or children.

Security in retirement

A woman is more likely take time out of the workforce – and for longer periods – than her male colleagues, because she is more likely to be the primary carer of children and dependent relatives.

This means that her retirement savings are more likely to be inadequate – a problem exacerbated in single-income households.

According to the 2006 Census, women comprised almost three quarters (71 per cent) of lone person households for those aged 65 years and over.

Women’s superannuation savings still lag considerably behind those of men.

The Association of Superannuation Funds of found that the average balances achieved in 2006 were $69,050 for men and $35,520 for women. The average retirement payouts in 2006 were $136,000 for men and $63,000 for women.

Legacy of the Howard Government

The overwhelming evidence is that things did not get better for women at work under the previous Liberal Government – in some respects the situation became worse.

We have witnessed over the past decade, a missed opportunity for us to catch up with our competitors and comparator economies.

In recent years, the approach to workplace relations neglected to recognise that not everyone in the labour market was on equal footing.

This was especially important for low-paid women, particularly those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

But it was also important for employees who were not on equal footing with their employers i.e. the majority of the workforce.

The previous Liberal Government was also negligent in providing women with decent standards and services to support them to maintain their work and home lives such as access to affordable and quality child care.

The Rudd Government

But it is not all doom and gloom.

There are constructive and practical measures which, when implemented together can improve women’s economic security and financial independence throughout their lifetime.

The new Government has brought with it an enormous reform agenda: a clear idea of who we can be. There’s quite a list of things that need to be done yesterday.

This has prompted Canberra jokes that Kevin 07 has evolved into Kevin 24/7. They’re largely true.

The Rudd Government is committed to reducing and ultimately eliminating the earnings gap between male and female workers.

Exactly how and over what time frame we do this is the challenge.

Working towards equality in the workplace begins with the abolition of Work Choices and the AWAs which were so harmful for the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers – many of them women.

Under the new workplace relations system, the Government will ensure that all Australians have a right to a fair minimum wage. In addition, your right to penalty rates, overtime payments, holiday and redundancy pay will be protected.

The Government plans to phase in the new workplace relations system, so it is in full operation from January 2010.

The Government’s new workplace relations system will give families the opportunity to make their work arrangements more family friendly, such as by giving both parents the right to separate periods of up to 12 months of unpaid leave and the right to request flexible work arrangements until their child reaches school age.

The Government will also implement new measures to protect employees from unfair dismissal, while ensuring that small business operators aren’t caught up in vexatious claims or forced to pay ‘go away money’. The new unfair dismissal protections will be simpler and fairer – balancing the rights of workers with the need of employers to manage their staff.

We have already started building a modern workplace relations system that balances flexibility for employers and fairness for employees.

My Equality Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency helps over 7,000 businesses each year with pay equity issues, improving female employee’s access to training and development and reducing the occurrence of sex-based harassment and gender stereotypes in their workplaces.

The Government will also help ease the pressures on working mothers and their families by delivering a comprehensive work and family plan and establishing an Office for Work and Family.

We’re creating better quality and more affordable and accessible child care.

We are introducing initiatives to encourage more family friendly workplaces including the right to request extra parental leave and flexible working conditions.

We have international evidence that these strategies work. Since 2005, the United Kingdom has provided employees with the right to request flexible working arrangements and the majority of employers (65 per cent) found that the regulations had made a difference to their businesses’ operating costs.

And, as announced on February 17 this year, the Productivity Commission will conduct an examination on paid maternity, paid paternity and paid parental leave. Many parents need financial support at the time of the birth of a child and there is much debate about how this assistance should be delivered. I know that there are experts on paid maternity leave in this audience and I would like to encourage you to make a submission to Robert Fitzgerald Productivity Commission Commissioner who will be heading the paid maternity leave inquiry.

The collective and slow process of change

The issues you will be talking about today will be integral to our future discussions regarding women, their working conditions and beyond.

I am looking forward to the exciting challenges ahead and to working with you to improve the lives of Australian women.

We’re not always going to agree, but I can assure you that we will listen.