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The face of gender-based discrimination in Australian workplaces

Sex Discrimination

UN Women 2013 International Women’s Day Panel: Implicit stereotypes, explicit solutions: overcoming gender-based discrimination in the workplace


Conference Room 2, North Lawn Building, UN
1.15 – 2.30pm, Friday 8 March



The different faces of gender discrimination in Australian workplaces and how national legislation and oversight institutions are contributing to address them in Australia

Thank you Aparna and UN Women for inviting me to be part of this International Women’s Day panel and I want to acknowledge the important work you do. As they say, the work of human rights starts at home.

Australia, as with other countries has seen significant progress in eliminating gender-based discrimination but there is still a long way to go before we reach full gender equality.

When I was first appointed as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner in 2007, I did a Listening Tour, where I went around Australia visiting women and men in different communities – and asked them – what do you think needs to be done to achieve gender equality in Australia?

The answers I heard highlighted the many ways in which gender-based discrimination manifests in Australian workplaces – and these include:

  • - The gender pay gap – women continue to receive 17.5 per cent less in average weekly earnings than men;[1]
  • - The under-representation of women in leadership positions in both public and private sector workplaces;
  • - The gender gap in retirement incomes and savings, which occurs largely as a result of the unpaid care women are required to do for their family or household members, including children, people with a disability, people with a chronic illness or older people due to frailty;
  • - And of course, violence against women – particularly domestic and family violence and sexual harassment.

Underlying these inequalities, are the myths and harmful gender stereotypes, which we need to challenge and transform. For example, the notion of the ideal worker in many workplaces still tends to be that of a man, who is available for work 24/7, unencumbered by any care responsibilities. This limits the opportunities for many women to participate equally in the workplace.

The Australian Human Rights Commission received over 1000 complaints under the Sex Discrimination Act in 2011-2012 - of which 15 per cent were complaints of pregnancy discrimination, 25 per cent were sexual harassment and six per cent were complaints of discrimination in relation to family responsibilities.[2]

However, in Australia we are fortunate that the government and business are doing a lot to address gender-based discrimination in the workplace – through national legislation and its enforcement, affirmative action measures, provisions for paid parental leave and flexible work and of course oversight institutions such as mine.

I think it would be useful to share with you some of the leading work being done in this area.

Firstly, in 2011, the Government commenced a paid parental leave scheme that provides 18 weeks of paid parental leave at the minimum wage.[3] In addition in 2012 the Government added two weeks of paid leave for dads and partners.[4]

Another important initiative has been the provision for a right to request a flexible work arrangement under the national employment laws. Although, to date this right to request has been limited to parents with responsibility for a child under school age or a child with disability aged under 18 years of age.[5] So it has been very encouraging that the Australian Government recently committed to expanding the right to request to be available to a broader range of workers including workers with caring responsibilities employees, including parents children of school age and workers experiencing family violence or providing personal care and support to a family or household member experiencing family violence.[6]

An important development for equal remuneration came about with the issuing of an equal remuneration order by Fair Work Australia in 2012 for the social and community services sector.[7] Fair Work Australia found that workers in this highly feminised sector are paid lower wages than public sector employees doing similar work, and that gender played a role in creating this wage disparity. This first ever successful claim for an equal remuneration order under the new national system means a significant advance in equal pay for women.

In terms of women’s leadership in workplaces, in 2011, the government set a target to have a minimum of 40 per cent women on Australian Government boards by 2015.[8] As of 30 June 2012, women held 38.4 per cent of Government board appointments.[9]

Equally in the private sector, as of 2011 the ASX Corporate Governance Council has implemented a diversity policy that requires all publicly listed companies in Australia to set gender diversity targets and report on their targets and provide explanations if they are not in place. Consequently we have seen the number of women on ASX Boards rise from 8.3 per cent in 2010 to 15.4 per cent in 2013.[10] Although we are yet to see equivalent increases in senior executive management positions.

In terms of oversight of the progress in this area, in addition to my own position, there has been the work of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. This Agency is an Australian Government statutory authority which aims to improve gender equality in Australian workplaces. The Agency works collaboratively with employers, offering advice and assistance to promote and improve gender equality in their workplaces.

From 2014, the Workplace Gender Equality Act will require employers in the private sector with 100 or more employees to report annually against identified gender equality indicators, such as, equal remuneration between women and men.[11]

Lastly, in relation to the impacts of violence against women and sexual harassment in workplaces, the Government has recently made important commitments to extend the right to request a flexible working arrangement to be available to workers experiencing domestic and family violence.[12]

Further, in relation to sexual harassment, in 2011, the Sex Discrimination Act was amended to strengthen the prohibitions of sexual harassment in workplaces and schools and prohibiting sexual harassment conducted through new technologies.

This is just a brief overview of some of the strategies being implemented in Australia to advance gender equality.

What leaders of business and government can be doing to eliminate discrimination and work towards gender equality

In Australia, through my work on as Sex Discrimination Commissioner I have found that despite much of the work that is being done through laws, policies and programs for eliminating gender equality there can be a lag between rhetoric and reality. One of the reasons for this can be that many initiatives tend to focus solely on engaging and changing women.

I find that such an approach doesn’t fully consider the site of power in most governments and business, which are still dominated by male leaders. Placing the onus on women also means that any failures tend to be laid at their door, rather than identified as systemic deficiencies.

This is why I think gender equality also requires the proactive engagement and personal commitment of men – particularly of the men who dominate the leadership in governments, corporations and communities.

Encouragingly, many organisations are realising that they need to stop treating gender equality as if it is just a women’s issue. Instead, women and men must be part of the solution together - transforming norms that entrench existing gender inequalities.

This is why, about two years ago, I established the Male Champions of Change leadership group in Australia.

The Male Champions are 23 male CEOs, Chairpersons and Government Leaders from some of Australia’s most influential public and private sector organisations - men who lead Australia’s iconic companies like Telstra, Qantas, Commonwealth Bank and Woolworths – men who lead global organisations like Citibank and IBM – and men who hold the most senior roles in Government from the Departments of Treasury, Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Public Service Commission and of course Lieutenant General Morrison, the Chief of Army, whom we have just heard from.

The Male Champions see gender equality as both a human rights issue and a business imperative. They use their collective influence to advocate for gender equality at both an organisational and national level.

Since their inception the Male Champions, as per their charter, have worked to create change in their own organisations, as well as being national advocates for gender equality – and have presented at more than 80 conferences and events , travelling from Washington, to Rio, to New Zealand and around Australia. There are now related champions groups in Western Australia, South Australia and New Zealand, as well as sector based groups such as one focused on companies involved in the built environment. There is also talk of setting such groups up, targeting the sectors of Engineering and Law.

In 2011, the group published an open letter reflecting on their experience in increasing the representation of women in leadership in their own organisations. Over 150, 000 copies of the letter have been distributed since it was launched.[13]

Currently, the Male Champions of Change are working on a series of monitored experiments to see what kinds of things can be done to shift the gender inequalities. Let me give you some examples of this work.

One of the areas they are working on is the ‘50/50: If Not, Why Not?’ initiative - through which leaders confront old norms and ask the question ‘why not?’ instead of ‘why?’, and apply this lens to all areas of the organisation in an effort to collect the underlying reasons which can either be ‘de-bunked’ as myths or addressed as significant barriers to women’s progression.

To give you an example of this in practice, one of the champions asked the question ‘why there weren’t 50 per cent women nominated for a leadership program they were offering in their organisation’? This led the organisation to re-examine the eligibility criteria for the program, which excluded many women who have not had the opportunity to work in the international programs. By re-setting the criteria to reflect other kinds of experience related to international programs, such as experience in managing overseas staff and offshore teams, they were able to increase the number of women in the program from 22 per cent to 35 per cent.

Another example is the work they are doing on looking at mainstreaming flexibility as a way of working, where it is role-modelled, encouraged and expected - not just accommodated.

A third area they are working in is Gender Reporting. The Male Champions are looking to develop credible and consistent benchmarks to track progression on gender equality. For the first stage of this project, all member organisations provided information on how they currently report internally and externally on gender. For stage two, the group is working together to develop recommendations for reporting – for example, if we are really serious about this, you would think that every leader in Australia would have some sort of gender balance target in their scorecard, ideally tied to a remuneration outcome where possible.

One of the things that I have found through the course of my work with the Male Champions of Change is that to engage with men and boys in a meaningful way, we need men not just to take an interest in these issues but to take action. And to get men to make the shift from interest to action, we need to personalise the issue of gender equality.

Whether male or female, the readiness of organisational leaders to personally own the case for change is essential. It is also incredibly powerful.

Right from the very first conversations we had I focused on making it personal. I remember the first conversation I had, when I began this group, with one of the members. This particular CEO had twins – a boy and a girl and I remember his deep concern that his daughter might not have the same opportunities as his son – all because she was a girl.

The Male Champions of Change has been a controversial strategy. Some thought I was suggesting that we women were waiting to be saved by corporate knights in shining armour galloping paternalistically into territory women have been working in for years?

This couldn’t be further from the truth. As one of the members explained ‘the rules of work have been invented by men for men’.[1] I believe that if we want to reshape those rules we need to work with men to do so.

So although it is clear to me that women’s voices remain critical to advancing gender equality and eliminating violence against women, what is also clear is that we also need men taking the message of gender equality to other men to achieve real change.

[1] Workplace Gender Equality Agency, ABS Average Weekly Earnings (Cat No 6302.0), May 2012.
[2] Australian Human Rights Commission, Annual Report 2011 (2012) p135. At (viewed 8 April 2013).
[3] Australian Government, Department of Human Services, ‘Paid Parental Leave Scheme for Employers’. At ((viewed 7 March 2013).
[4] Australian Government, Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, ‘Paid Parental Leave: Dad and Partner Pay’. At (viewed 7 March 2013).
[5] Fair Work Ombudsman, ‘Flexible Working Arrangements’. At (viewed 7 March 2013).
[6] Australian Government, ‘Fair Work Act amendment broadens right to request workplace flexibility’, 13 February 2013. At (viewed 28 February 2013).
[7] Australian Government, Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, ‘Fair pay for social and community service workers’. At (viewed 7 March 2013).
[8] Australian Government Office for Women, Women on Australian Government Boards Report 2009-2010: A statistical gender analysis of the composition of Australian Government boards and bodies 1 July 2009 – 30 June 2010 (2010).
[9] Australian Government, Gender Balance on Australian Government Boards Report 2011-2012 (2012).
[10] Australian Institute of Company Directors, ‘Appointments to ASX 200 Boards’. At (viewed 18 February 2013).
[11] Australian Government, Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, ‘Consultation Process to develop reporting matters under the Workplace Gender Equality Act’. At (viewed 7 March 2013).
[12] Australian Government, ‘Fair Work Act amendment broadens right to request workplace flexibility’, 13 February 2013. At (viewed 28 February 2013).
[13] Male Champions of Change, Our experiences in elevating the representation of women in leadership: A letter from business leaders (2011). At (viewed 8 April 2013).

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner