It’s About Time: Women, men, work and family

Speech given by

The Hon John von Doussa QC


Acting Sex Discrimination Commissioner and
Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

Speech for the It’s About Time Community Forum

Training Room
Equal Opportunity Commission of South Australia
Level 2, 45 Pirie Street
1.30 – 3.30pm
13th March 2007

Thank you to Commissioner Linda Matthews and your staff for your assistance with organising today’s forum.

And thank you also to everyone who has come here today with an interest in progressing the debate on work/family balance.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that we are gathered on the traditional country of the Kaurna people of the Kaurna nation, and I pay my respects to their elders.

It’s About Time: Women, men, work and family is the result of two years’ research, investigation and national discussions with employers, community organisations and Australian families about paid work and family life

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, or HREOC as we refer to it, is a national independent statutory agency established under Commonwealth legislation.

It has a variety of functions and powers to promote and protect the human rights of all people in Australia.

As many of you would be aware, this project was begun by Pru Goward during her time as Sex Discrimination Commissioner. 

HREOC had carried out a number of projects examining the barriers still facing women in the workplace – in particular around pregnancy and paid maternity leave.  It became clear that the issue of women’s family responsibilities is a significant obstacle to women’s equal participation in both paid work and society generally. 

HREOC’s Striking the Balance Discussion Paper which was released in June 2005 canvassed information about men’s and women’s patterns of paid and unpaid work and what that meant for Australian families.

The most significant consequences for women have been restricted participation in the labour market. In turn this affects their financial security, particularly in retirement. 

It is clear that many women find it difficult to juggle their dual loads of paid work and family work.  This is illustrated in the large numbers of women working part time and in positions below their skill levels.

But it also came through loud and clear in the stories that women told HREOC in our public consultations.  Personal stories of always feeling rushed, stories of the stress involved in meeting competing demands on their time and of feeling guilty about their families and their jobs.

It also became clear as we spoke to and heard from Australian families that the consequences of the juggle were not only consequences for women, but for men and for children.

The men that we spoke to keenly felt these difficulties. They complained about missing out on family time, and commonly raised unsupportive workplaces and old fashioned stereotypes as barriers to taking a more hands-on role with their children and in their homes.  In spite of these very real constraints, more men are now expressing the desire to directly share family care.

HREOC undertook 44 consultations and focus groups around the country and spoke to women, men, employers, community groups, unions, parents, carers and children.  And more than 180 individuals and organisations sent us submissions.

It was clear from hearing  these people that without changes in men’s lives – especially without a greater involvement of men in the essential unpaid work of care – women’s quest for equality will be forever stalled. And men will suffer from a lack of access to family life.

Australian families have told us how they are pigeon-holed in the traditional male breadwinner/female carer stereotypes.

Many families currently have little choice, except for one partner to work part time.  And with women’s full time wages still accounting for less than 85% of men’s, the sensible choice for the vast majority of families is for that person to be the woman.

HREOC took the view that we needed a holistic response to

achieve better balances - one which provides real choices to families about who does what at home and in paid work. 

Australia’s ageing population is adding real impetus to a need for a life-cycle approach to the work and family question.  With the greater participation of women in paid work and with people retiring later in life, employees will increasingly be working and at the same time providing care to a family member with an illness or disability. 

The proposed framework in our final paper argues for a greater value to be placed on the work of caring for people – a “shared work – valued care” approach.1 This needs to encompass both adequate wages and conditions for formal paid carers, and recognition and acknowledgement of the role of unpaid care in the family.

We have 45 recommendations in our paper which we consider to be priority measures to enable Australians to make choices around work and family responsibilities that are secure, stable and fair.

One of HREOC’s key proposals is for new legislation which provides protection from discrimination due to family responsibilities for both men and women.  This proposed law –dubbed the Family Responsibilities and Carers’ Rights Act – also aims to provide a framework which enables men and women with family or caring responsibilities to request the flexibility they need within their workplace to meet those caring needs.

While there are currently some legal protections in place under existing laws, the federal protection is still not comprehensive.  The Sex Discrimination Act only provides protection from dismissal on the ground of family responsibilities, and while many women use the indirect sex or pregnancy discrimination provisions in the Act, this is not an option open to men. 

Our paper does not put forward a draft Act in final form.  We believe that the process of developing this legislation must be done in consultation with key stakeholders – particularly employers – and the community. But our proposed Act contains a number of key features.

The Act should make discrimination on the basis of family and carer responsibilities unlawful in all areas of employment.

The new Act should also include a right for workers to request flexible work arrangements to meet family responsibilities, and to have the request reasonably considered by their employer. The right should encompass all forms of carer responsibilities and be available to all men and women workers.

While HREOC acknowledges that the right to request will impose some additional obligations on employers, it is important to emphasise the limited nature of the new employee entitlement. This law aims to ensure there are no obligations on an employer who is unable to meet the request due to genuine operational reasons beyond the duty to reasonably consider the request.

This ‘right to request’ system is one which currently operates in the UK.  It was introduced in 2003 for parents of children aged under 6 and children with a disability under 18, and extensions to the law will take effect next month for carers with a broader range of carer responsibilities. 

It is a system which has met with success in Britain with surveys of its operations showing that more than 80 per cent of requests have been agreed, either completely or partially and both employers and employees expressed high satisfaction with the scheme.  Employers report improved workplace relations, higher retention rates with consequential savings in recruitment and training costs, and lower absenteeism.

We believe that part of the merit in this kind of a system, is that it promotes cultural change that enables employers and employees to work out ways for employees to meet their caring responsibilities whilst at the same time still meeting their work responsibilities. At present employers are increasingly being confronted with requests for flexible or part time work, but there is no framework within which to assess if requests are reasonable ones that the employer is legally obliged to meet.

We would envisage our system working in a very similar way to the UK where employers and employees are provided with a great deal of assistance through plain English guidelines, downloadable resources like forms for employers and employees and online tools which can be used to help employers work out their responsibilities, and what can work best for their business. 

HREOC believes this law is a key part of helping working Australians to strike a better balance between paid work and family life.

But law reform alone is not enough. HREOC has proposed a whole suite of measures to make our communities, our tax and welfare systems, child care, aged care and disability services, as well as our workplaces, more family-friendly. 

As we spoke to Australian families the messages we received were loud and clear. Australian families crave time.

Lack of time is a daily struggle, but it also reoccurs at critical points throughout the lifecycle.  The ‘long hours’ work culture that dominates many Australian workplaces is a significant barrier to families finding an effective work/life balance. We had employees and employers acknowledge that working long hours doesn’t necessarily equate with extra productivity. Some admitted that working long hours actually reduces a person’s productivity.

HREOC has recommended that the Australian Government develop a national working hours framework which promotes flexibility and encourages workplaces to limit long hours working.

We like to think of Australia as the land of the long weekend, but the statistics just do not back up that ideal any more.  The average working hours of full time workers in Australia is over 44 hours per week, some of the highest in the OECD.  And it is mostly men, and often fathers, who work these long hours with employed partnered fathers of infants working an average of 46 hours per week.

Australia remains one of only 2 OECD countries without a national scheme of paid maternity leave. The International Labour Organization’s Maternity Protection Convention states that countries should provide at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave. A recent study of 166 ILO member countries found that Australia is one of only five countries which does not provide paid maternity leave. Existing Australian legislation only provides for 12 months unpaid parental leave.

Currently some mothers in Australia have access to paid maternity leave, but it is very unevenly available across the workforce. Recent ABS data shows that paid maternity leave is used by around one-third (34 per cent) of employed mothers-to-be mostly women working in the public sector, in large workplaces with more than 500 employees or those earning high salaries.  

Paid parental/paternity leave is even less widely available. In a recent study only 25 per cent of partners took paid paternity or parental leave although other forms of paid leave are used by around 70 per cent of partners. The average duration of leave among fathers is around 14 days. 

HREOC has recommended a three stage implementation process of 14 weeks paid maternity leave, followed by 2 weeks of paid paternity leave to be taken at the time of birth, followed by the phasing in of 38 weeks paid parental leave which can be shared between parents. The average length of maternity leave taken in Australia is currently 40 weeks – most of it unpaid.

The provision of government funded paid maternity leave, as well as longer paid parental leave which can be shared between men and women, is a key to giving families greater choices when many really desire to be able to care for and bond with their new babies.  It also reduces the burden on those businesses currently footing the cost of paid maternity leave, and decreases the cost to government of subsidising high cost care for very young infants.

The availability and affordability of child care was repeatedly discussed in almost every consultation HREOC undertook around the country. This is of critical importance to working parents.

High quality early childhood education and care services don’t just help parents, they are good for children.  Research shows that the long term mental, physical and emotional health of children is linked to quality early childhood education and care services.

The provision of child care is a joint responsibility of all three levels of government. A priority is the completion of a nationally agreed policy framework for early childhood education and care.  Governments must also identify a program of reform to improve availability and affordability for Australian parents of all types of child care, including long day care for babies and preschoolers and out-of-school hours care for school aged children. 

The introduction of a universally available year of pre-school education for all Australian four year olds is also an urgent priority.  Pre-school is clearly beneficial for both improving the development and wellbeing of children where-ever they live and how-ever much their parents earn, and for supporting working parents. 

The childcare industry is one heavily dominated by women, and is characterised by low pay and poor working conditions.  HREOC has proposed that addressing these workforce issues and staff shortages is an essential part of improving the availability of child care.

Unpaid care work makes an enormous social and economic contribution to the nation, in addition to its value to the individuals receiving care.  Access Economics estimates that this unpaid care would cost $30.5 billion a year to replace if it were no longer provided informally.  The challenge for governments is to ensure that people can do this unpaid work, without bearing unreasonable penalties.

HREOC has put forward a range of proposals to assist carers of people with disability and frail older people.  First, we have recommended an increase to the carer’s leave available under existing workplace relations law, from ten to twenty days paid leave each year.  The additional 10 days would not accumulate and so would only assist those employees who really need it, without adding unduly to liabilities of businesses.

Hopefully this would also ensure some buffer of leave in the event of the carer’s own illness. 

As well as this, many carers have told us that there are times in the caring cycle when it becomes impossible to balance work and care and their only option is to leave their job.  Rather than forcing carers out of the workforce and losing their valuable skills, HREOC has recommended the introduction of 12 months unpaid carers leave, similar to the existing job-protected maternity leave entitlement. This, for example, could meet the case of a sudden accident or terminal illness suffered by another family member.

A recent study found that patchy workforce participation for many retiring women baby boomers is seeing half of all these women with less than $8 000 in superannuation savings. This low figure reflects the time out of the workforce meeting responsibilities at home. This is pretty disturbing when it is estimated that a single person requires an annual retirement income of around $35,000 per year for a comfortable retirement! One proposal to improve this situation is to extend the Superannuation Co-contribution Scheme to people who are taking time out of paid work because of their caring responsibilities.

Given the huge economic savings of this caring work for the government HREOC is also recommending that an inquiry be undertaken into the feasibility of establishing a superannuation-like framework for carers with no attachment to paid employment. This would financially acknowledge the work of carers, give them added security, and also allow the government to give greater recognition for the job carers are doing.

The gap between men’s and women’s wages is a key barrier preventing both men and women from making choices that best suit them.  With the news over the last few weeks that the difference between men’s and women’s wages is slipping wider still, it’s about time that the Australian government made a substantial commitment to improving pay equity. 

HREOC has put forward a range of proposals to improve pay equity and has also stressed the need for monitoring and research on wages and conditions in our increasingly deregulated labour market.  While skills shortages mean that professionals and those in high demand employment will probably be fine, the danger is that we could easily see the development of a low skilled, poorly paid, casual workforce made up of people in precarious employment and with little bargaining power. 

Such low standard work is already the reality for many part time workers, the majority of whom are women.  While part time work does leave more time for families, much part time work is casual, has poor career paths, and little access to training, development or promotion. 

Improving the quality or part time work by developing industry assistance and resources for business to increase the number of quality part time jobs is key among HREOC’s recommendations.

A one-size fits all approach will not help every family strike a good balance between work and family responsibilities. Ultimately, they need to be supported to make choices that recognise their diversity and their specific needs.

The operation of Family Tax Benefit Part B, for instance, is a policy initiative which discourages families from sharing care by financially benefiting couple families with one full time worker and one full time carer. HREOC recommends that Family Tax Benefit Part B be modified to provide families better choices to share paid work and care.

You will see in the paper that HREOC has also put forward a range of other recommendations.

While no one paper can comprehensively examine every issue, this paper stresses the need for a holistic response. Our recommendations represent priority areas for further work but they are not the end of the story. They are the beginning.

I would like to record my thanks to all the people – especially those of you in this room today – who wrote submissions to us and spoke to us with openness and honesty.

I would also like to acknowledge the support of the South Australian Equal Opportunity Commission who, along with many other organisations, assisted us with organising focus groups and community forums.

Now this debate must be turned over to you and we are really keen to get your ideas and feedback about our proposals and ways in which we can move forward from here.  We have the opportunity for some more discussion today but I would also urge you to talk to your friends, family and work colleagues about this project and encourage them to also have a look at our information on the web and send us their feedback. 

Thank you for attending today and I’m looking forward to hearing your views.

[1] See Eileen Appelbaum, Thomas Bailey, Peter Berg and Arne L Kallenberg Shared Work-Valued Care: New norms for organizing market work and unpaid care work Economic Policy Institute Washington DC 2002, p vii. “Shared work” has many meanings according to the authors, but includes the following: sharing paid work among people through shorter working weeks, reduced hours and flexible schedules; sharing access to good jobs; recognising that equal access in paid work requires recognition that unpaid care work is work; and that men and women must share the important work of providing care. “Valued care” also has many meanings, including: employees’ access to flexible scheduling so they can take greater control of their time at and away from paid work; child care and elder care shared as private and public responsibilities; high quality care services; and decent working conditions for paid carers (pp 14-15). The model replaces what the authors characterise as the “unencumbered worker – devalued caregiver” model (pp 4-13).