13 Oct 2011

The way ahead for the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency

by Helen Conway

EOWA is continuing with business as usual under the existing legislation as well as preparing itself to be able to administer the new regime under the proposed legislation.

The case for gender equality in the workplace is clear. It’s not just a matter of fairness. It’s also good for business and there’s a strong body of research to support this. Achieving gender diversity requires strong leadership and accountability systems which are rigorously enforced. Leading employers will step up and meet this challenge.

The 2010 Global Gender Gap Report issued by the World Economic Forum puts Australia at the top of the list for female educational attainment but ranks us at 44 for female labour force participation and at 59 for wage equality for women. This makes no sense and frankly is totally unacceptable. With low unemployment and significant skills shortages, it is obvious we should utilise all the talent, male and female, that exists in Australia. Companies with good diversity records will have a competitive advantage as they compete for talent, strive to retain that talent and look to improve productivity.

The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act and Agency (and their predecessors) have played a key role in facilitating efforts to achieve gender equality in Australian workplaces for the past 25 years, and this will continue.

In March this year, the Minister for the Status of Women, the Honourable Kate Ellis, announced a set of reforms to improve the Act and the Agency. The key reforms can be summarised as follows:

  • A new name and focus – The Act is to be renamed the Workplace Gender Equality Act and the Agency will be known as the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. The objects of the Act will also be recast to acknowledge pay equity and caring responsibilities of both men and women as central to gender equality.
  • Streamlined reporting – Reporting by organisations captured by the Act (that is, private sector employers with 100 or more employees) will be based on gender equality indicators focusing on outcomes for men and women in the workplace. Reports will have to be signed off by the CEO and an employee representative, lodged online and made accessible to employees and shareholders.
  • Compliance – Compliance will be assessed referable to industry benchmarks and progress over time. The Agency will be given power to conduct organisational reviews to ensure reports being submitted are accurate and employers are otherwise complying with the Act. In addition, measures to ensure employers who are non-compliant with the Act are not able to participate in Government procurement or receive Government grants will be strengthened.
  • Assistance – The Agency will develop industry benchmarks and industry-specific strategies for achieving gender equality. It will continue to provide advice and support to reporting organisations and, in addition, will provide advice and support to organisations with less than 100 employees who are not required to report.

The legislation to give effect to these reforms is scheduled to be tabled during the current sittings of Parliament, with the first reports under the new system falling due in 2013.

The Agency is currently continuing with business as usual under the existing legislation as well as preparing itself to be able to administer the new regime under the proposed legislation. The Agency is committed to continuing to work closely with business and ensuring the transition to the new legislative requirements is as smooth as possible.

Helen Conway

Helen Conway, the Director of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, is a guest writer on Insights. She has had extensive business experience. Following ten years in private practice as a lawyer, including seven years as a partner, Helen joined the corporate sector where she held various executive positions in companies covering the insurance, transport, downstream oil, retailing and construction industries. In addition she has held various directorships in the health, transport and superannuation sectors.

Helen has established a track record in the equal opportunity sphere focusing in particular on initiatives in support of women. She spent ten years on the NSW Equal Opportunity Tribunal including three years as its Senior Judicial Member.

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.