Speech by The Hon Kate Ellis MP

Women and Leadership Australia’s National 2011 Adelaide Symposium

Location: Playford Sebel, Adelaide

I would like to thank the Women’s Leadership Australia for convening this symposium – which I understand has been sold out (congratulations!).

It is wonderful to be here amongst such remarkable women.

I am especially delighted to be talking about gender equality in the workplace.

This is an important time. There is a mood for change.

I’d like to talk about the strong evidence base that is being established for action, as well as the growing body of research around the challenge of balancing paid and unpaid work, which we know has implications for women’s economic wellbeing – and the actions that we are taking to capitalise on this.

Mood for change

The good news is that I think that there is some genuine enthusiasm around at the moment for gender equality, in Government and in the business space.

I believe this is, in part, because we are building a quality evidence base to inspire action.

Using the language of productivity and economics, we are building a new constituency for gender equality – and I think that there is a real opportunity for us to keep telling this story and winning people over.

As much as we talk about gender equality as a matter of justice and rights, we also need to ensure that we are joined in this journey by those driven by self-interest.

I also think that this mood for change is inspired by a recognition that changes need to be made – not just for the benefit of women, but for the benefit of men too.

Gender equality is not something that women can achieve on our own. Men must be a partner in gender equality for it to be effective.

Economic evidence

I’d like to talk briefly about some of the evidence that is building around the economic implications, and the economic benefits of gender equality for Australian businesses and our country’s economy.

Australia has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the OECD.

But we also have a very low labour force participation rate for women – particularly for women aged between 25 and 44, the prime child-rearing age.

In the context of labour shortages being faced by our biggest industries, this is crazy.

Research also shows that here in Australia women remain grossly under-represented in leadership and management.

Figures released last October on Australia’s top 200 private sector companies, showed that women held only 8.4 per cent of board directorships and just 2.5 per cent of chair positions.

That is just five women chairs for 200 firms.

And this lower workforce participation and lower career prospects are resulting in a substantial pay gap (almost a million dollars over a lifetime) and, shockingly, 60 per cent of Australian women retiring with no superannuation at all.

Now obviously there are significant human impacts of this – but there are also economic ones.

When leading international company Catalyst analysed the Fortune 500 companies, it found a direct link between the success of an organisation and an increased number of women in executive roles.  Companies with the highest number of women on their boards had a 53 per cent higher return on equity, a 42 per cent higher return on sales, and a 66 per cent higher return on invested capital.

While the media spotlight can often be focussed on the issue of women on boards, it is not only these appointments that make a difference. It is equally important to have women progressing through the pipeline – from graduate recruitment to senior management.

International research indicates that there are positive business outcomes from greater gender diversity in management positions. A study of 1,500 business leaders world-wide by McKinsey showed that organisations with a higher proportion of women in management perform better financially, with 10 per cent higher return on equity, 48 per cent higher average earnings before interest and tax, and 1.7 times better share price growth than the average company.

Importantly for our country, the World Economic Forum has shown that there is a strong correlation between gender equality and national competitiveness.

Research by Goldman Sachs has shown that that if we closed the gap between workforce participation for men and women we would boost GDP by 11 per cent.

To put this in context: the booming mining sector currently contributes around 8 per cent to our GDP.

Improving women’s workforce participation could boost our GDP by 11 per cent.

That’s an entire mining sector and then some.

So the argument is clear – in order to be internationally competitive, Australian companies need to have women represented at every level of their company.

Not because it’s the right thing to do. Not because they’re in the grip of a feminist frenzy, but because it makes good economic sense.

Gender equity is a smart business decision – and it’s about time we ensured that all businesses knew it.

The evidence on the role of men

The second area in which I believe the evidence base is growing is around the role of men in gender equality.

The big surprise in the evidence is this: gender equality is not about women.

Over the past 20 years, we have been very focussed on increasing women’s participation in paid employment – but, we haven’t matched it with a decrease in unpaid work responsibilities for women.

Of course, there are structural barriers impacting women’s progress – but, additionally, we need to question the role of the overwhelming burden of unpaid work on the paid sphere.

Now, I don’t mean to sound like a traitor here, but a great degree of the evidence is telling us that we need to increase men’s opportunities and choices.

Specifically, we need to take a long hard look at how we support men to take a greater role in unpaid and caring work.

Today, I am pleased to launch two research reports commissioned by the Australian Government, which give us some valuable insights into these issues.

The first piece of research by Urbis Pty Ltd is a stock take of initiatives that work to support men to engage in caring and unpaid domestic labour.

In the second piece of research, the Social Research Centre and the University of Queensland have looked at the barriers and enablers for men to become more involved in sharing the care of children and doing more domestic work.

Both reports show that despite huge advances in attitudes, too many women in paid work carry the burden of a disproportionate load at home.

Interestingly, the UQ report found that this gap in unpaid work gets more significant with higher male salaries:

“The survey results suggest that the more money that men brought into the household, the less time that they spent doing housework and childcare.” (p3)

The good news is that most couples want to better share the paid and unpaid domestic work and the care of the children.

The Queensland University research found that about a quarter of all men surveyed wanted to relieve their partners by doing more domestic work and more of the child care.

The report found that:

“Over one quarter of men reported a desire to do more domestic work and almost one third of men reported a desire to do more of the parenting work.” (p81)

Importantly, the benefits of increased involvement of men in child rearing does not only benefit their partner – it benefits gender equality in subsequent generations.

The Urbis report found that:

“One key, but often overlooked aspect, and benefit of men’s involvement in the care giving of children is the importance of such involvement as a way to promote gender equality among children.” (p 17)

The reports show that there are initiatives that are critical to gender equality: flexible work arrangements for men as well as women; increasing take up of parental leave by fathers; improved father-inclusive child and family services; and valuing the work of carers.

And, of course, something very close to my heart: the importance of quality, affordable and accessible child care.

The UQ report found in particular that “working night shifts of being able to take work home was associated with increased time for men on housework.” (p3)

Unfortunately, many couples who participated in this research believe that they could not change their current situation – that they have limited options to secure a more equitable arrangement between them.

We know that this is true: addressing this issue of men’s participation in caring responsibilities is tricky.

Other research that I released earlier this year showed that men are not taking up flexible work practices in large numbers. And the problem appears to be a cultural one. Taking up part-time work or flexible practices still seems to denote a lack of ambition.

What is required to make this reform a reality is cultural change – within organisations, within workplaces, within the community and within families.

Where this body of evidence is leading Government policy?

Affirmative action or gender equality policies have been around for decades.

And yet, we still see women struggling, both economically and socially over their lifetime.

So the challenge for Government is: how do we respond to this new body of evidence and make policy that gets results for women and men in this country?

  • (a) Encouraging the balancing of work and care

In terms of the ratio of work and care, we must recognise that we can’t change the experiences of women in the workplace, without changing the experiences of men in the world of unpaid work.

As I have said – increasing men’s participation in caring responsibilities is as much a matter of cultural change as it is of legislative change.

Cultural change is not something that it is easy for Government to effect.

But that hasn’t stopped us from trying.

In 2009, we made changes to Australian workplace legislation to make sure that every Australian worker – man or woman – has the right to request flexible work practices.

Earlier this year, we passed amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act that makes sure that neither men nor women are discriminated against on the basis of taking up flexible work practices to balance their work and caring responsibilities

In addition to introducing Australia’s first paid parental leave scheme, we’ve also made it transferable between partners, so that families have a choice about who takes on the caring responsibilities.

In addition, we now fund an unlimited number of child care places to help providers expand existing services or create new services where demand exceeds supply – AND doubled funding for child care, making a record investment of $20 billion over the next four years.

And we’ve recognised the importance of men to achieving gender equality in this country through changes to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (known as EOWA).

We’re changing the purview of the Agency to include consideration of men’s access to flexible work practices and the sharing of care. We’re also changing the name of the Agency to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to reflect its broader focus.

  • (b) Realising the economic benefits of equality

In relation to policy reform to ensure that we secure the economic benefits of gender equality, we need to work closely with business and focus on the levers that drive them to change.

As part of the reform to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, we are making some changes to how businesses report gender equality within their organisation – so that we can get the best information about what is happening and how we can improve outcomes.

There is an adage that says: you can’t change what you can’t measure.

One thing that we know that we don’t have enough of is data – meaningful indicators of how women and men are tracking throughout their working lives.

At the moment, businesses with over 100 employees are required to report to EOWA about the policies and plans that they have in place to support women.

That’s a lot of paper. And a lot of excellent intentions.

But in the end, it is a lot of policies. It is not evidence. It is not data. It is not outcomes.

From 2013, businesses will be reporting on their outcomes – the proportion of women and men at different levels of their company, pay equity and the availability and take up of flexible work practices.

By collecting this data, we will be able to see where the gaps are, which strategies are having the greatest impact; what is working and what isn’t.

Importantly, we are going to be able to look at this data for particular industries.

We won’t be comparing apples and oranges. Clearly, what works in a bank, will not necessarily work in a mine.

But when companies are compared with companies in their own sector, it will be evident whether there are equal outcomes for women and men.

This will be clear, not just to Government, not just to the Agency, not just to the company but also to prospective employees, competitors and consumers.

We’ll also be able to see very clearly which companies are struggling and need the Agency’s help to improve.  And we’ve doubled the Agency’s resources so that they can do that.

In gathering this further evidence and compiling industry benchmarks, we can further demonstrate that those companies who are pursuing gender equality are indeed the ones reaping the productivity benefits – the most powerful motivator of further corporate change.

There are some important sanctions too.

In addition to naming non-complying companies in Parliament, as a Government, we will not contract with companies who do not comply with the Act.

To put this in context – the Australian Government spent more than $42 billion on procurement through over 80,000 contracts last year.

It’s a brave company that decides they can do without the opportunity to trade with such a significant consumer.

  • (c) Price on pollution, tax reform and super

So, those are some of the reforms that we are pursuing to ensure that companies and families are moving towards gender equality.

But, I also wanted to talk quickly about what we are doing about the people who are already experiencing the impacts of gender inequality; for those people who are experiencing the poor economic outcomes for women that I mentioned earlier.

I am particularly concerned about the 60 per cent of women who are retiring with no superannuation, who haven’t been able to build assets over their lifetime because of broken work patterns, lower wages and fewer opportunities.

These women are at risk of sliding into poverty later in life. And with the figure higher than 1 in 2 women – there is a good chance that someone you know will be in this situation.

Some of you may have heard that there is going to be a price on pollution in this country.

What you may not know is that as part of this package, there is some significant tax reform, which will go some way to helping women build assets.

As part of the Clean Energy Future Package, the Government is doubling the tax-free threshold.

In combination with the low income offset, this will mean that women working part-time can earn up to $20,542 per year and pay no tax – keeping everything they earn.

This is a genuine incentive for women to get back into work, to build assets for themselves and their future.

This change to the tax free threshold will impact the 3.7 million Australian women who earn under $80 thousand dollars per year.

These changes work in concert with the other initiatives that the Government is pursuing in this space – including, increasing the super guarantee from 9-12 per cent (which will benefit 4.1M women), and providing an annual super contribution of up to $500 from 1 July 2012 to those earning under $37k (the majority of whom are women).

These reforms mean that women who are now 30 with average weekly earnings and a broken work pattern will have an extra $78k upon retirement

We need to increase the profile of this issue – among women and in businesses.

And I’m not ashamed to say that we need to increase the profile of these important tax reforms that will benefit those women who are most vulnerable to economic instability later in life.


I know that gender equality is an issue that we’ve grappled with for decades.

And I know that people can become frustrated with the progress.

However, I believe that we are truly at a critical point where government, government institutions, business and the community are able to work together to secure meaningful change for men and women in this country.

I look forward to working with you to do this.