Skip to main content

Paid Maternity Leave: the question is no longer if, but when... (2008)

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

Paid Maternity Leave:
the question is no longer if, but when...


by Elizabeth Broderick

Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age

Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

May 2008

It is a great pleasure to attend my first national
PIR group conference here in Canberra. My predecessor always spoke highly of
the conferences so when Heather offered me the opportunity, I was keen to
participate. I have met with Heather and Stephen on a number of occasions now
and there are areas where it makes sense to come together. I would like to talk
about one of these areas – PML - in some detail today.

As some of you may know, my career to date has
largely been in corporate and professional services environments. So like many
of you here today, I understand the pressure of running a profitable business
– a business that exceeds the demands of its customer base for new and
innovative products and services whilst at the same time ensuring the
sustainability and development of its workforce. So in many of these matters
it is about finding a balance between the rights of employers and employees.

Today I have been asked to concentrate on the issue
of sex discrimination. The Sex Discrimination Act has been in force for nearly
25 years and there are still a number of areas where we do not have equality of
men and women in Australian workplaces.

In the last financial year HREOC received 472
complaints under the Sex Discrimination Act. 80 per cent of these complaints
involved discrimination at work. There were 170 complaints of discrimination on
the basis of pregnancy, and 186 complaints of sexual harassment.

As some of you may know, following my recent move
into the role I have spent the last 4 months on a national listening tour. I
wanted to get out into the community and hear from you – what do you the
women and men of Australia see as the pressing issues in 2008? And what ideas
do you have for change?

So over the last 4 months, I have been to capital
cities and regional and remote areas in all states and territories. Let me tell
you, it has been an incredible experience so far. From the mouth of the Murray,
to the remote communities of WA and NT, to the board rooms of Sydney and
Melbourne. I have met with many diverse groups of people – from abattoir
workers, young women, bankers, Chinese factory workers, African women, prison
advocacy groups, indigenous women, community workers, academics, business
roundtables, ministers and bureaucrats – to name just a

I have also started a virtual Listening Tour –
an online blog where people can contribute their experiences and ideas. I hope
the blog will be the beginning of a virtual community around the issues of
gender equality.

The listening tour has put the human face to the
issues of sex discrimination.

For example I have heard about:

  • Sexual harassment – One young woman working in
    the cleaning industry shared her experience of sexual harassment saying
    “We were playing around – mucking around – I knew he liked me,
    I didn’t like him back. He made physical sexual advances and I had to
    fight him off. He was the boss. It was my word against his – I
    didn’t raise it with the employer.”

  • Return to work - A participant at our Hobart
    community consultation told me “I have a daughter –in- law who works
    for a call centre, she fell pregnant and had a baby, at this time her boss said
    that if she wanted to come back she could (in 6 months). He gave her a hard time
    and said she had to work full time if she wanted to work. He did this because
    he thought women should be in the home. She ended up leaving, she knew it was
    discrimination, but she said ‘he is the boss’.”

  • Potential Pregnancy - One woman told me
    “I’ve had a comment about me that why should I be given a permanent
    job because I may have a baby soon. I’m not even

One of the strong themes coming out of the
tour has been the urgent need for a national legislated paid maternity leave
scheme. A scheme that keeps women attached to the workplace and redresses the
disadvantage they face in business because of their child bearing. I have been
asked to talk a little about where Australia is at on the issue of PML today.

The introduction of paid maternity leave schemes in
recent weeks by Myer, Aldi and Dominos Pizza are adding to the momentum for a
national paid maternity leave scheme.

It is great to see individual employers getting on
board with paid maternity leave and these recent developments are a clear
indication that the business case for paid maternity leave has got through on
some counts.

Paid maternity leave offers clear benefits in terms
of increasing the retention and attraction of women workers – smart
businesses already know this and have offered paid maternity leave for years.
Retention rates for some companies such as Holden and other ‘Employer of
Choice for Women’ companies are around 90 per cent. For businesses
employing highly skilled knowledge workers, this means a significant cost
saving. For many big businesses, gains for employees are now being made in the
area of paid paternity leave and, at the other end of the life cycle, elder care

This is fantastic and I for one will not stop
advocating for a better response from employers to the work and family needs of
their employees. There is certainly a lot more that can be done on a number of
fronts including increasing women’s and men’s access to genuine
flexible working arrangements and increasing the levels of women able to work
part time in senior roles. And don’t get me started on the need for job
redesign and changing the entire way we view work in the 21st

But I digress.

Statistics from the Equal Opportunity for Women in
the Workplace Agency show that the provision of paid maternity leave in
organisations with over 100 workers has doubled in recent
years.[1] This is, I believe, largely due to the
lack of national paid maternity leave scheme. Many employers are paying for paid
maternity leave now because the government does not.

What is concerning though is that on the whole we appear
to be going backwards in terms of provision of paid maternity leave.

The ABS figures released last week show that in the last
12 months, 6,800 fewer women have had access to paid maternity

This is a drop in the proportion of female staff entitled
to paid maternity leave from 47 per cent to 45 per cent.

While 45 per cent of women are entitled to paid
maternity leave, know from a previous ABS survey that only 34 per cent of
employed mothers access paid maternity

What these ABS figures do is add to the growing pool of
evidence in support of the need for a national, legislated scheme of paid
maternity leave.

Efforts to progress a national scheme of paid maternity
leave have been going on for many years now and let’s hope that the time
to induce is now finally fast approaching.

We know that it is women in low paid industries such as
retail and hospitality who are currently most likely to miss out on paid
maternity leave yet these are women who are most in need of it. Only 8 per cent
of women in elementary clerical, sales and service work receive paid maternity
leave.[4] These women are among the
lowest paid in the country.

Let me give you the human face of what this means for
Australian women.

One woman who I spoke to on my recent national Listening
Tour recounted her experience of having to go back to work two days after giving

The fact that we don’t have paid maternity leave
is a disgrace. When my second child was born, my husband wasn’t working,
so I had to go back to work after a caesarean after two days. I had no choice.
It would make a huge difference if we got 14 weeks to be able to physically

Another woman spoke of having to work late into her
pregnancy and then take annual leave:

I worked up until I was 38 weeks pregnant then took 2
weeks of annual leave because I didn’t have access to paid maternity

must also not forget that it is small business which is one of the largest
employers of women. Many of these businesses operate with very tight profit
margins it is simply not possible to fund paid maternity leave no matter how
valuable their workers are or how much they want to support their employees.
Only 15 per cent of women in firms employing less than 10 people can access paid
maternity leave.

These are just a few of the reasons why a national scheme
is necessary and why I will be continuing to advocate for paid maternity leave
along with a growing chorus of supporters.

There is now a critical mass on this issue.

The policy objectives for paid maternity leave, in my
view, are varied but clear.

They include:

  • The health and wellbeing of mothers and babies – so that women can recover physically and emotionally from
    childbirth, establish breastfeeding and bond with their babies.
  • Addressing women’s workplace disadvantage as a
    result of maternity
    – women receive unequal treatment in employment
    due to their reproductive role and paid maternity leave would help resolve this
    ongoing problem
  • Gender equality – paid maternity leave would
    more broadly increase women’s ability to participate on equal terms with
    men in public life, something the government is obligated to as a signatory to
    the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against
  • Economic security – provide financial
    support at the time of birth, income replacement, and assist in increasing
    women’s lifetime earnings capacity and their capacity to provide for their
    own retirement.
  • Social benefits – these include valuing
    motherhood, children, fertility and the dual role of women as both workers and
  • Benefits to employers and the economy – paid
    maternity leave would help reduce staff turnovers, attract skilled labour and
    help maintain an acceptable dependency ratio to support our ageing

These are important objectives to reach for so
that I don’t keep hearing the shocking stories I heard on my Listening
Tour for the remainder of my term as Commissioner. We are a highly developed,
rich nation and we can and should do better for women. Women have a right to go
through maternity safely and equitably and it is simply not good enough that
many of them are currently denied this basic human right.

It is also worth bearing in mind one of the key
stakeholder groups in this issue who do not have voice on this issue and who
rely on others to make the case for them: children.

We must also think about who we are as a country and what
works best for us in terms of our national social and economic

We are living in an increasingly global market and in
order to hold on to our skilled workers we must catch up with our international
comparators in terms of providing a package of paid leave measures that stack up
against those offered in other developed nations.

Although it’s not only developed nations that we
need to play catch-up with. Australia is among only five of the 166 ILO
countries that provide no paid maternity leave (the others being Lesotho,
Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and the United

One of the positive things about being among the last two
of the OECD countries not providing paid maternity leave is that we have the
opportunity to learn from other countries about what works well and what

We can learn from them where the incentives and
disincentives lie, what some of the positive and negative impacts are –
and what positive impacts we’d like to see for ourselves - , and how a
national scheme might interact with other work and family measure currently
being introduced by the new government.

I’m happy to see that the Productivity Commission is
examining the international landscape and I feel confident that they are going
to do the detailed modelling and analysis of possible schemes that is required
for the Australian public and, in the final instance, our elected
representatives, to make an informed decision about which one is right for the
Australian context.

It is a now a question of how and when rather than if, and
I look forward to continuing this debate over the next few months. Having
received a lot of support for this issue from the community during my Listening
Tour over the last five months, I have a clear mandate to focus my energy on
this task.

[1] The Equal
Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Survey 2005 – Paid Parental
report found that 46% of organisations are now providing paid
maternity leave, up from 41% in 2004 and 36 per cent in 2003. 32% of
organisations reporting to EOWA in 2005 provide their staff with paid paternity
leave an increase from 15% in
[2] ABS Forms of Employment, Australia, Nov 2007 Cat No 6359.0 (actual
figures: drop from 46.9 per cent to 45.4 per cent – this measures whether
women were entitled to PAID MATERNITY LEAVE, not whether accessed it. Figures
exclude owner managers of incorporated enterprises. These figures are different
from the ABS Pregnancy and Work Transitions survey data, which is
collected from birth mothers aged 15 years and over with at least one child less
than two years of age living with them at the time of interview. This survey
shows that 34 per cent of employed mothers accessed paid maternity leave.
[3] ABS Pregnancy and Work Transitions Australia Cat No 4913.0 Nov 2005.
[4] ABS Pregnancy and Work Transitions Australia Cat No 4913.0 Nov 2005. While
56% of Professionals took paid maternity leave, only 8% of Elementary clerical,
sales and service workers took paid maternity leave according to this survey.
Use of leave for the birth of the child was more prevalent within the public
sector (86%) than in the private sector (71%). While 76% of women in the public
sector took paid maternity leave, only 25% of women employed in the private
sector took such leave. Women in large firms (employing 100 people or more) were
more likely (56%) to take paid maternity leave for the birth than women in firms
employing less than 10 people (15%).
[5] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 'Launceston Community
[6] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 'Launceston Chamber of Commerce
Business Roundtable'
[7] Ida Oun and Gloria Pardo Trujillo Maternity At Work: A review of national
Findings from the ILOS’s conditions of work and employment
database ILO 2005.