10: Sex and Age Discrimination
from the Acting Commissioner
For the past eight months I have worked with the staff of the Sex and Age
Discrimination Unit to continue the projects begun by the former Sex
Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward. Ms Goward left HREOC in March 2007
following a leave of absence in November 2006. The Unit’s major project
throughout this reporting year is the women, men, work and family project, which
entered its final stage with the launch of the It’s About Time:Women,
men, work and family final paper in March 2007. The paper, with its 45
broad-ranging policy recommendations is a tribute to the hard work and vision of
Ms Goward, who initiated the project and engaged public debate on the
It’s About Time addresses one of the biggest challenges facing
Australian society in the 21st century; balancing paid work with
family responsibilities. A common theme in the stories HREOC heard during this
project was the issue of time: time pressures, conflicting demands on time and a
desire for more time to spend with family and community.
Managing time is of course not only about individual choices and capacities,
but about social values and the support that is offered by governments and
workplaces. In response to what the Australian community told us, It’s
About Time sets out a holistic framework for addressing the many aspects of
the work and family issue, as well as priority measures to assist men and women
to strike a better balance between paid work and family life.
Chief among HREOC’s recommendations is the proposal for new legislation
to provide protection from discrimination due to family responsibilities –
a Family Responsibilities and Carers’ Rights Act. If implemented,
this Act would provide more comprehensive protection for men and women with
family and carer responsibilities by making discrimination on the basis of
family and carer responsibilities unlawful in all areas of employment. The new
Act would also include a right for workers to request, and have reasonably
considered, flexible work arrangements to meet family responsibilities.
In my time as Acting Commissioner, I have had the opportunity to travel
around the country promoting the paper and its findings in a series of community
forums. Listening to the feedback at these forums, it is clear that work and
family issues are not only relevant to employees balancing paid work with the
care of small children. Time pressures affect individuals and families across
the life course. A life cycle approach to these issues is therefore needed if we
are to adequately support all forms of care, including elder care and care for
people with disability.
We must also approach this issue from the perspective of gender equality.
Increased paid work opportunities for women over the past 20 years have not
produced a corresponding change in the division of unpaid responsibilities
between women and men in the home. The effects of this situation can be far
reaching; the experience of providing years of unpaid caring work can leave
women with limited employment opportunities resulting in poverty in their later
While women complain of high paid and unpaid workloads, men in full-time
work, especially those working long hours, complain of a lack of access to
family life. HREOC deliberately sought men’s views on this issue during
this project; incorporating their perspectives is a key part of forming
solutions to poor work and family balance. Men in senior management roles are
particularly well placed to lead cultural change in the workplace by putting
into practice the policies that many businesses now proclaim.
Workplaces are changing further as the so-called `baby boomers’ are
ageing at a time when women are giving birth later in life, thus increasing the
likelihood of dual caring responsibilities for both children and ageing parents.
In the current tight labour market, many large employers are already responding
with policies that assist employees with various caring responsibilities. Many
are also recognising the skills that mature-aged workers can bring to their
business. There is more work to do in this area however, with research
commissioned by the Sex and Age Discrimination Unit showing that ageist
stereotypes among employers are a significant barrier to the employment of older
workers. In response, the unit is currently developing a national age
discrimination community awareness strategy to encourage positive attitudes
towards older workers.
The Sex and Age Discrimination Unit has undertaken a range of other projects,
including educational materials for Indigenous women on pregnancy and work.
These materials were produced in partnership with the National Network of
Indigenous Women’s Legal Services and were developed through a series of
consultations with Indigenous women in Perth, Kununurra and Port Augusta. There
has been a high take-up of these resources among the Australian community.
Our continuing research partnerships remain a useful source of information
for the Unit, helping us to develop evidence-based policy while also providing
resources for other agencies as well as the general public.
In addition, we have continued our involvement in a range of international
activities, all of which highlight the unique place that Australia has in
working within our region to promote the principle of gender equality and
After more than five years as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, the
departure of Ms Goward left a large pair of shoes to fill. While it is never
easy to follow on from such an effective advocate for the rights of women, I am
grateful to have had the opportunity to steer the work of HREOC in this area
during my time as Acting Commissioner. I also look forward to welcoming the new
Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, when she takes over the
role in September 2007.
10.2 Research and
10.2.1 Paid work and family
responsibilities – It’s About
Time: Women, men, work
In June 2005 a project on women, men, work and family was launched with a
discussion paper called Striking the Balance:Women, men, work and family.
The project examined the particular pressures facing men and women who seek to
combine paid work with family responsibilities. A total of 44 public
consultations and focus groups were held across Australia throughout 2005-06,
and, along with 181 submissions and roundtable discussions, fed into the final
stage of the project – the development and release of the It’s
About Time: Women, men, work and family Final Paper in March 2007.
The It’s About Time:Women, men, work and family final paper and
an accompanying community guide were launched at Blake Dawson and Waldron on 7
March 2007. The Acting Commissioner, actor and former carer Charles
“Bud” Tingwell and humorist/writer Wendy Harmer spoke at the event
which was attended by approximately 130 people and attracted significant media
It’s About Time was distributed to approximately 650
stakeholders including all federal Members of Parliament and Senators, policy
makers, non-government organisations, employers, unions and interested members
of the public. The paper and community guide were also made available online.
The launch was followed up by a number of community, business and academic
forums around the country to disseminate the findings of the paper and gather
feedback on the paper’s recommendations. To date, forums have been held in
Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Darwin and Sydney with Hobart to
follow. The community forums were organised in partnership with local
organisations, such as state and territory equal opportunity and
anti-discrimination agencies and universities. Employer forums were held in
Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, and were hosted by the Diversity Council
Australia as part of their Diversity Practitioners’ Forum.
10.2.2 Research Benchmarking
Women’s Wages and Conditions
The Sex and Age Discrimination Unit, along with the National Foundation of
Australian Women and the Women’s Electoral Lobby, commissioned research by
a consortium of academics (Women in Social and Economic Research - WiSER - based
at Curtin University of Technology) into current pay and conditions for women in
the labour market.
The research collated all available data relating to women’s pay and
conditions in Australia and gave a snapshot which provides a benchmark against
which future research on women’s employment can be measured. The research
also identified gaps in currently available data and put forward recommendations
about further research and data collection relevant to women’s employment
in the context of the new workplace relations framework.
The final report of this research, the Women’s pay and conditions in
an era of changing workplace regulations: Towards a Women’s Employment
Status Key Indicators (WESKI) database report, was released on 11 September
10.2.3 Trafficking in Women
The Sex and Age Discrimination Unit continues to monitor the situation in
relation to trafficking of women in Australia, and has regular contact with
non-government agencies, academics and government agencies on the issue, as well
as with the US State Department which prepares an annual report of each
country’s response to the problem.
10.2.4 Qualitative Research
of Age Discrimination
In the second half of 2006 HREOC contracted Social Change Media to identify
key issues facing older people as a basis for determining the focus of a
national community awareness strategy about age discrimination. This internal
research showed that age discrimination is prevalent in Australia, that there
are considerable barriers to preventing age discrimination in employment and
that ageist stereotypes amongst employers are a significant part of the problem.
This research is currently being used to develop the Sex and
Age Discrimination Unit’s community awareness strategy on age
10.2.5 ARC linkage project
‘Parental Leave in Australia: Access, utilisation and
The Sex and Age Discrimination Unit, on behalf of HREOC, is an industry
partner to the Australian Research Council (ARC) linkage project ‘Parental
Leave in Australia: Access, utilisation and efficacy’. The project
aims to: provide benchmark information on access to, and utilisation of,
parental leave in Australia; identify parents’ preferences and unmet needs
for parental leave; and assess broader implications for gender equality. Lead
researchers are Dr Gillian Whitehouse and Dr Marian Baird.
The research team released its survey data in November 2006 and made it
available on the University of Queensland website.
The third stage of the project – household interviews – is
currently nearing completion.
10.2.6 ARC linkage project
‘Impact of Parents’ Employment on Children’s Well-being: The
influence of employment quality, time and activities with children, and
The Sex and Age Discrimination Unit, on behalf of HREOC, is an industry
partner to the ARC linkage project ‘Impact of Parents’ Employment on
Children’s Well-being: The influence of employment quality, time and
activities with children, and parenting practices.’
Lead investigators are Dr Michael Bittman, Dr Jan Nicholson and Dr Lyndall
Strazdins. Other industry partners are the Queensland Commission for Children
and Young People, the Queensland Office for Women and the NSW Commission for
Children and Young People.
The research is progressing with preliminary findings presented and discussed
at various national and international conferences.
It is expected that some papers with results of the study will be available
around October 2007.
10.2.7 ARC linkage project
‘Australia’s response to Trafficking in Women: Towards a model for
regulation of forced migration in the Asia Pacific
The Sex and Age Discrimination Unit, on behalf of HREOC, is an industry
partner to an ARC Linkage project ‘Australia’s response to
Trafficking in Women: Towards a model for regulation of forced migration in the
Asia Pacific Region’. The project is investigating gaps in
Australia’s legal and policy response to trafficking in women.
Lead investigators are Professor Bernadette McSherry, Associate Professor
Susan Kneebone and Dr Julie Debeljak. Other industry partners are ACIL Australia
Pty Ltd, the federal Attorney-General’s Department and World Vision
The project aims to evaluate Australia’s response to trafficking in
persons, particularly women and children, from the perspective of criminal
justice, international human rights law and migration law.
The project is currently in its second phase. Investigators are interviewing
government and non-government representatives in Australia and the Asia Pacific
Region. To date they have conducted interviews in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia,
and are planning to conduct interviews in Myanmar in coming months.
Preliminary findings have been presented at a number of national and
international conferences and seminars.
10.3 Education and
10.3.1 Materials for
Indigenous Women on Pregnancy and Work
Following a recommendation in HREOC’s 1999 report Pregnant and
Productive: It’s a right not a privilege to work while pregnant, the
federal Attorney-General’s Department requested that the Sex and Age
Discrimination Unit produce culturally-specific education materials on
pregnancy, potential pregnancy and breastfeeding discrimination in the workplace
for Indigenous women.
The materials consist of a folder containing 12 fact sheets covering
information about pregnancy and work along with a more general brochure about
unlawful discrimination and Indigenous women. The materials include information
on parental leave and information on returning to the workplace with young
This project was funded by the Attorney-General’s Department, the
Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination and the Office for Women and was
carried out in partnership with the National Network of Indigenous women’s
The Attorney-General launched the materials at HREOC on 29 August 2006. The
then Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward and Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma also spoke at this event. The
materials have been distributed to Aboriginal Legal and Medical Services,
community legal services, women’s legal services, Indigenous
organisations, women’s organisations, legal centres, unions and other
relevant organisations and government agencies around the country. Hundreds of
kits have also been distributed as a result of orders received following the
launch. The materials are also available on HREOC’s website.
10.3.2 Community Awareness
Strategy on Age Discrimination
Based on the Sex and Age Discrimination Unit’s
research on age discrimination issues, a community awareness strategy on age
discrimination issues is being developed. The elements of the strategy include a
revised age discrimination brochure incorporating focus group feedback, the
development of a print advertisement campaign and web-based materials aimed at
overcoming negative stereotypes and discrimination against older
10.4.1 Human Rights Technical
The Sex and Age Discrimination Unit is working with the International
Programs Unit on domestic violence activities of the Australia-China Human
Rights Technical Cooperation Program. The then Sex Discrimination Commissioner
Ms Goward participated in an Anti-Domestic Violence Workshop led by the All
China Women’s Federation in Urumqi Xinjang Autonomous Region on 26 and 27
July 2006 as part of the Human Rights Technical Cooperation Program activities.
10.4.2 Japan International
Labour Foundation (JILAF)
The Sex and Age Discrimination Unit met with a 12 member delegation of Women
Trade Union leaders on 1 February 2007. The Japan International Labour
Foundation (JILAF) sent International Exchange Teams consisting of women trade
union leaders of RENGO (Japanese Trade Union Confederation) in order to promote
international cooperation by exchanging views on labour, economic, social and
gender equality issues. The purpose of the delegation was to deepen the
understanding on gender equality issues and to learn about women and work issues
10.4.4 Visit by Papua New
The then Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward met with two political
party General-Secretaries from Papua New Guinea on 24 October 2006. Ms Joyce
Grant, Secretary-General, of the National Alliance (part of the governing
coalition) and Ms Monica Hasimani, Secretary-General, PNG Greens Party. The
women had been in Australia undertaking the Political Party Development Course
conducted by the Centre of Democratic Institutions at the Australian National
University with other political party leaders from South East Asia and the South
Pacific. The visit to HREOC was organised by the federal Office for Women.
Department Australia-China Legal Professional Development Program
A member of the Sex and Age Discrimination Unit met with Ms Li Xin, Division
Director in the International Judicial Cooperation Department of the Supreme
Prosecution Service in China, to brief her on the Unit’s work. Ms Li
visited HREOC as part of the Attorney-General Department’s Australia-China
Legal Professional Development Program.
10.5 Exemptions under the Sex
10.5.1 Forensic Technology
Forensic Technology Pty Ltd, trading as Crisis Support Services (CSS), is a
non-profit organisation that provides a range of counselling and community
support services. It offers counselling for men, via both the Mensline Australia
family and relationships operation and Suicide Helpline services.
CSS sought an exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act to:
- advertise nationally for and recruit male counsellors to join their Graduate
Trainee Program; and
- at the end of the program, to offer employment to as many male counsellors
who completed the program, as it considered appropriate.
The applicant stated that a need for male counsellors had arisen in relation
to CSS’ counselling services due to increased use of these services by men
who request to speak to a male counsellor. The application noted that the
current gender ratio of staff at Mensline is 35:65 (male: female) and documented
some evidence in support of the preference of male callers’ requests to
speak to a male counsellor.
HREOC accepted that, based on the gender-ratio and small number of staff at
Mensline, it is currently unable to accommodate the number of requests it
receives from men to speak to a male counsellor.
HREOC also accepted that some men, particularly those from culturally and
linguistically diverse backgrounds, have difficulty seeking assistance or
counselling from a female in times of crisis.HREOC was of the view, however,
that the current evidence was inconclusive as to whether men generally preferred
to speak to a woman or a man in a situation of crisis.
HREOC granted the exemption for one year and noted that stronger supporting
evidence might lead HREOC to consider granting the exemption for a longer
The Sex and Age Discrimination Unit contributes to legislative development by
making written and oral submission to Parliamentary and other inquiries. A list
of these submissions can be found in Chapter 3 of this report, Monitoring Human
Former Commissioner Goward, the Acting Commissioner and the Sex and Age
Discrimination Unit were involved in approximately 50 meetings and made over 70
speeches during 2006-07. A selection of these, listed below, can be accessed on
HREOC’s website at: www.humanrights.gov.au/about/media/speeches/sex_discrim/
The following speeches were presented by Commissioner Goward.
- ‘Making the Boom Pay,’ the 2006 Economic and Social
Outlook Conference, Melbourne, 3 November 2006.
- ‘Healthy Workforce,’WA
State Health Conference, Perth, 2 November 2006.
- ‘Is it profitable for small business to be family
friendly,’ NSW EEO practitioners Association Seminar, Sydney, 25
- ‘Age Discrimination and in relation to older people with
disabilities,’ Centre for ageing and Pastoral Studies Conference,
Canberra, 28 September 2006.
- ‘Work Life balance,’ Diversity Practitioners Forum,
Sydney, Melbourne, Wollongong, September 2006
- ‘Embracing, Challenge, Diversity and Change,’ Pilbara
Women in Management Conference, WA, 21 September 2006.
- Men’s health, work and family,’ Australian Market
Research Society Conference, Melbourne, Brisbane, Hobart, September 2006.
- ‘Adult Learning,’ Adult learners Week, Sydney, Melbourne,
Brisbane, Hobart , 4-9 September 2006.
- ‘Sex Discrimination Act,’ National Conference of Muslim
Women,’ Canberra, 1 September 2006
- ‘Implementation - Growing the potential workforce by attracting
people from different backgrounds,’ Resources and Infrastructure
Industry Skills Council, Sydney, 23 August 2006.
- ‘Striking the Balance,’ Australian Institute of Family
Studies, Melbourne 17 August 2006.
- ‘Striking the Balance and The Law,’QUT Faculty of Law
Public Lecture Series, Queensland12 July 2006.
- ‘Demography, Destiny and Public Policy’, Social and
Economic Policy Public Lecture Series, Canberra 11 July 2006.
- ‘Economic growth and community development,’ Wakefield
Development Council Forum, South Australia, 6 July 2006
- ‘Making the most of the ageing workforce,’ Newcastle
Business Club Lunch, 4 July 2006.
The following speeches were presented by John von Doussa QC in his capacity
as Acting Commissioner:
- ‘Working Time and the Work-life
Balance,’ Melbourne Institute Public Economics Forum, Canberra, 26
- ‘It’s About Time: Women, men, work and family,’
Community Forums, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide, Darwin and Brisbane,
March to June 2007.
- ‘It’s About Time: Key findings from the women, men, work and
family project.’ Australian Institute of Family Studies Seminar,
Melbourne, 12 April 2007.
- ‘It’s About Time:Women, men, work and family,’
Final Paper launch, Blake Dawson and Waldron, Sydney, 7 March 2007.