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Speech by The Hon Tanya Pibersek MP

Launch of the Workplace Ombudsman Women’s Forum

Location: 10 Macquarie Street, Sydney

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Acknowledgements

  • Aunty Sylvia Scott
  • Linda Burney, NSW Minister for Community Services
  • Nicholas Wilson, Workplace Ombudsman
  • Tara McCarthy, General Manager, Workplace Ombudsman
  • Workplace Ombudsman Executive Board
  • Kate Cotis, Senior Workplace Inspector, founder of the Women’s Forum
  • Janelle Fryer, Workplace Inspector, founder of the Women’s Forum
  • Ladies and gentlemen

Introduction

In preparing for today’s launch I have come across some interesting facts.

The word Ombudsman is of Swedish origin and loosely translates as ‘grievance person’.

The first official, recorded use of the term in a modern context was in 1809 when the Swedish Parliament established the office of Justitieombudsman, whose remit was to look after citizens’ interests in their dealings with government. 1

Today, many countries have adopted the Ombudsman concept.

As you all are well aware, the role of the Workplace Ombudsman is to ensure workplaces are compliant with federal workplace relations law.2

In June, a campaign targeting the hair and beauty industry in Western Australia recovered almost $40,000 in underpayments for 34 workers after audits of 81 premises identified 29 breaches of workplace laws.3

In December 2007 random audits found that less than half the restaurants and cafes in central and northern Queensland were complying with workplace laws.

This resulted in more than 270 workers being reimbursed around $97,000 as a result of being underpaid.4

Women often have a different and more challenging experience in the workplace. While it is important to acknowledge recent successes to improve women’s equal employment, it is also worthwhile to reflect on where we’ve come from.

As recently as 1975, for example, women were not permitted to become tram drivers. In that year, Joyce Barry, a long-time tram conductor, famously stated in a union meeting:

“I don’t need a penis to drive a bloody tram!”

Joyce Barry went on to become Melbourne’s first female tram driver in that year, 1975.

She said: “The first trip was rather traumatic because it was public news and no matter where I went people were talking and saying ‘There’s a woman driving the tram!”

“The hardest thing was to drive that tram properly and not make any mistakes because at first people were very critical, but it was pleasing to have the comments come through the press that it was a pleasure to sit behind a woman driver.”5

This may seem humorous to us now, but what is less funny is that discrimination today is often more subtle and covert than that experienced by Joyce Barry in her 19 year fight to be allowed to drive a tram.

The latest data from the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) has been significant in this context.

EOWA’s 2008 Women in Leadership Census found that the number of women on boards and in executive management has declined over the last two years.

In addition, the number of companies with no women executive managers has actually risen since 2006 – from 40 per cent to 46 per cent.6

As the former Director of the EOWA, Anna McPhee said last year:

“The dearth of women at the top levels of business is the result of fewer opportunities, hostile cultures and outdated work practices that haven’t kept pace with women’s increased education levels, experience and ambition to be among the people influencing Australia’s future.”

As Ms McPhee emphasised, these findings highlight a … chronic waste of female talent”. 7

It is not just women occupying top corporate positions, however, who experience inequities in the workplace.

Women and men are segregated in the Australian labour market, with the majority of women engaged in a narrow range of occupations traditionally considered suitable for women, for example – nurse, teacher, child care worker.8

These ‘women’s jobs’ have historically been assigned a lower value in terms of skill requirements and remuneration.9

Because of their caring responsibilities, women are frequently congregated within part-time and casual positions.

These jobs tend to provide less access to training and more limited opportunities for promotion and career development than positions occupied by full-time employees.10

In addition, women have less access to overtime and over-award payments.

Women workers receive a significantly lower level of discretionary payments, particularly over-award and bonus payments, than do men.11

Sex discrimination and sexual harassment can affect any employee.

However, the evidence indicates that sex discrimination and sexual harassment overwhelmingly affect women more than men.12

While we have come a long way since Joyce Barry’s epic fight for equality on the tramways, the battle is not yet won and the journey is not yet over.

I cannot therefore over-emphasise the importance of organisations which help this fight.

I would like to congratulate Kate Cotis and Janelle Fryer for coming up the idea.

I would also like to congratulate the Workplace Ombudsman’s executive

I have made improving economic security and independence, reducing violence, and ensuring women’s voices are heard at all levels of decision making my three priorities as Minister for the Status of Women.

Some of the initiatives in the economic security area include:

  • Reforming the workplace relations laws to deliver a system that is fairer and more flexible for working parents (of course the Workplace Ombudsman is integrally involved in that process).
  • Asking the Productivity Commission to examine paid maternity, paternity and parental leave and better ways to support families.
  • Improving the accessibility, affordability and quality of child care and have established an Office of Work and Family.
  • Reviewing the tax and pension system to optimise their capacity to deliver assistance to those people who need it the most, including for the significant number of single aged pensioners who are women.
  • Reviewing participation requirements for those on pensions and parenting payments.

In addition, I am seeking a much stronger partnership between men and women to share fundamental activities – such as caring for children and other family members.

It is generally acknowledged that women tend to be the primary carers for young children and dependent adults.

Women also continue to bear the major responsibility for unpaid domestic work.13

This means that women bear a double burden, work and caring, that impedes their workforce engagement.

Why is this important?

Women benefit from equality with better life opportunities, greater independence and higher incomes.

But so do men.

Limiting women’s employment opportunities through discrimination, inflexible workplace or social expectations also limits men’s opportunities to become equal parents and hands on nurturers.

Recent events in the United States with the election of the first African-American President show that things can change.

To quote another inspirational African-American, Constance Baker Motley:

“Something which we think is impossible now is not impossible in another decade.”

Ms Motley was the first black woman in the U.S. to become a Federal Judge.14

I hope we are at the beginning of a new era of community discussion around gender equality.

Conclusion

To paraphrase the words of great American feminist, Gloria Steinem:

We know that we can do what men can do, [but it’s still not widely appreciated] that men can do what women can do.

That understanding is absolutely crucial.

We can’t go on doing two jobs.15

I wish you all the very best with the Workplace Ombudsman Women’s Forum.

ENDS

  1. Office of the Ombudsmen, New Zealand (.www.ombudsmen.parliament.nz)
  2. Australian Government Workplace Ombudsman, (www.wo.gov.au)
  3. Hairdressers and Beauty Salons Earmarked for Scrutiny, Media Release, 20 October 2008, Workplace Ombudsman, (www.wo.gov.au)
  4. Restaurants, cafes reimburse 270 staff after random audits find underpayments of $97,000, Media Release, 31 August 2008, (www.wo.gov.au)
  5. Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Office of the Status of Women, Women in Australia, 2004, PM&C, Canberra, 2004.
  6. 2008 EOWA Australian Census of Women in Leadership – Women’s glacial progress melts away, Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, Media Release, 28 October 2008, (www.eowa.gov.au)
  7. 2008 EOWA Australian Census of Women in Leadership (www.eowa.gov.au)
  8. Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Submission to the Inquiry into pay equity and associated issues related to increasing female participation in the workforce, p.10, (www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/ewr/payequity/subs.htm)
  9. Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Submission to the Inquiry into pay equity and associated issues related to increasing female participation in the workforce, p.10,(www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/ewr/payequity/subs.htm)
  10. Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Submission to the Inquiry into pay equity and associated issues related to increasing female participation in the workforce, p.10, (www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/ewr/payequity/subs.htm)
  11. Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Submission to the Inquiry into pay equity and associated issues related to increasing female participation in the workforce, p.13,(www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/ewr/payequity/subs.htm)
  12. Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Submission to the Inquiry into pay equity and associated issues related to increasing female participation in the workforce, p.14,(www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/ewr/payequity/subs.htm)
  13. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, It’s about time: Women, men, work and family, HREOC, Sydney, 2008.
  14. 1001 Feminist Quotes, The Feminist E-Zine, (www.feministezine.com/feminist/quotes)
  15. About.com, Women’s History, Gloria Steinem Quotes, (http://womenshistory.about.com/cs/quotes/a/qu_g_steinem.htm).