Date: 
Friday 30 January 2009

Author

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner

 

MAKE AUSTRALIA WORK: Working women deserve better

By Elizabeth Broderick

Opinion piece

Publication: Business Spectator, (Friday 30 January 2009)


In times of crisis, our true character comes to the fore. Some panic. Others freeze. Those who survive best remain calm and seize the opportunities to innovate. In the long term, they are usually better for the experience.

The current economic situation presents the Australian Government and Australian businesses with such a test. It may also highlight the vulnerable position women hold in the workforce in such times.

It is now more than 12 months since I completed my nationwide listening tour, in which I heard from business and others about our progress towards gender equality. I travelled to every state and territory, visiting capital cities, regional centres and remote towns, and personally met women and men from all walks of life.

It became clear to me that Australia’s progress in workplace reform had become seriously stalled. While there were some pockets of innovation, many businesses were only just starting to experiment with policies such as paid parental leave schemes and workplace flexibility.

It was clear that we lagged significantly behind our leading international competitors in getting the maximum return on our biggest investment – our working population – and the statistics bear this out. The World Economic Forum has confirmed that while Australia is the number one country for women’s educational attainment, there is a serious lag on women’s workforce participation, with Australia ranked only 41st in the world, behind the UK, New Zealand and Canada.

It is to the credit of the Australian Government that it has stayed true in its commitment to improving the quality of Australia’s educational system for both males and females, with a view to ensuring a high quality and skilled workforce into the future. Already, women make up over 60 per cent of people who commence a bachelor’s degree and almost 50 per cent of students in the public vocational and educational training sector. However, this commitment to education for all will not pay dividends unless we also stay true to pursuing gender equality in the workplace.

It is likely that women will fare far worse in this global economic slowdown than in previous recessions. For a start, there are more women in the workforce now than ever before. Many families depend upon a woman’s income, particularly in single parent families, the majority of which are headed by women. And many of the industries that will be hardest hit are female-dominated industries, such as retail and hospitality.

So, as the Australian Government and business assess the tough decisions on how best to handle the economic crisis, it is yet to be seen whether we will panic, freeze, or innovate and emerge stronger.
If we panic, women workers – such as those in flexible work arrangements or those with caring responsibility – may be amongst the first to go in any restructuring or downsizing processes.
If we freeze, we may put on the backburner some of our most important reforms.

My hope is that we will stay calm and seize this opportunity to innovate and find our international competitive advantage, driving through changes which will modernise the Australian workforce. Such changes require us to pull together, with both government and business playing their part.

The Australian Government must commit to funding a minimum scheme of paid parental leave, as well as ensuring that workers are not treated unfavourably on the grounds of their family and caring responsibilities. These are inexpensive reforms that will maximise the ability for both men and women to retain workforce attachment into the future. Not only is the proposed paid parental leave scheme from the Productivity Commission reasonable, it’s also affordable. The cost to the taxpayer of $452 million is a modest increase of two per cent over Australia's current overall spending on family payments.

And for business, innovation is the key. In this economic climate it is necessary to drive down the cost base of many businesses. Smart companies will embrace workplace flexibility supported by true job redesign to create a sustainable, efficient and resilient workforce – one that delivers significant cost reductions.

It is this kind of innovation that will bring a business through tough times now, and into the future.

Ironically, the current economic crisis, as tough as it is going to be, could provide us with our best chance yet to shift Australian workplace cultures and practices and, in so doing, improve gender equality. The coming months will be one of the truest tests of our national character.

(Elizabeth Broderick is the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner).