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According to Merit? Off ramps and on ramps

Every Issue

Cite as: October 2014 88 (10) LIJ, p.80

It's an uphill battle for equal participation in the workplace with discrimination towards mothers widespread.

Thirty years ago, various measures were introduced to enhance the rights of women in the workplace, including the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth). Yet after all these years of affirmative action and gender equality laws, both the quantitative and qualitative data show that discrimination towards pregnant women and working mothers remains a widespread and systemic issue which inhibits women’s full and equal participation in the workforce.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s recently released report on pregnancy and return to work found that almost one in two mothers experienced discrimination during pregnancy, parental leave or return to work. However, more shocking was the finding that 91 per cent of mothers who experienced discrimination did not make a formal complaint.

According to the report, during pregnancy or return to work women commonly experienced negative attitudes; recruitment bias, unexpected changes to salary, conditions and duties on announcing pregnancy and while on parental leave; lack of communication when on leave; missing out on career advancement opportunities; being denied flexible arrangements on return to work; lack of awareness of rights and entitlements and gaps between workplace policies and practice.

There is clearly a major gap between changes to laws and policies aimed at improving women’s lot in the workplace and the lived reality for many working women. If any other corporate or business initiatives had such bad outcomes, someone would be sent back to the drawing board.

Government and corporate employers may talk about their initiatives for women and workforce participation; about diversity, targets and women in the leadership pipeline, however many of these initiatives simply cannot take flight when they operate within an outdated work culture that cannot properly accommodate the life and family responsibilities of both men and women. As long as women continue to be the main carers of family, this culture continues to disproportionately affect women’s career progression.

The National Foundation for Australian Women’s report on the 2014-15 budget (A Gender Lens) found women’s participation in the workforce continues to be well below that of men, at around 65 per cent in 2012-13 compared to 79 per cent of men. Women are much less likely to work full-time than men (54.9 per cent compared to 84.1 per cent), and comprise more than 70 per cent of the part-time workforce. Evidence suggests that workforce participation rates for women by age show a marked dip between the ages of 25 and 44, which is not evident for men. These research findings indicate that having children significantly impacts on women’s workforce participation.

Another critically significant factor affecting women’s work participation is the effective marginal tax rates (EMTR). The Productivity Commission’s modelling demonstrates that the interaction of childcare fees, Family Tax Benefits Part A and B, and higher rates of income tax have a cumulative effect of giving second-earner parents an economic disincentive to return to full time employment.1

The result of these family tax and welfare policies is that families need to make economic decisions about whether one parent should be at home full time or part-time to care for a child. This role will usually fall on the lower income earners, and therefore the women. Once a woman goes part time or works flexibly to accommodate caring responsibilities, her career progression is further impacted.

Perhaps if women were initially paid on equal footing with men, and this pay parity was maintained, then male partners would elect to take a break from their career to look after their children. The flow-on effect would be a greater number of men in the workplace having visible family responsibilities.

Alternatively, workplaces could be truly more flexible. The 2014 National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) Report also found that while a range of flexible working arrangements might be available for employees, taking them up could have a negative impact on career prospects.

Economically, equal representation in the workforce is a worthwhile investment. The business case for diversity is strong. A wealth of research demonstrates that diversity in the workplace translates to financial and strategic benefits. The active sponsorship of women in the workplace and promotion of increased numbers of women to leadership positions leads to greater overall female representation (not forgetting that 61.4 per cent of all law graduates are female, with females outperforming males in the academic stakes.) According to Goldman Sachs, if the gender productivity gap were reduced, say, by increasing the number of women in leadership positions, the level of economic activity in Australia could be boosted by 20 per cent.

So what can be done? It is time to take meaningful and measurable action to address the existing imbalance. Financial disincentives for full participation in the workforce should be reviewed and the private sector needs to be more outcome focused.

While affirmative action measures such as quotas frequently come under fire for diminishing employers’ independence and personal judgment, the NARS Report recommends the active monitoring of behaviour, and enforcement of policies and expectations, to move equitable practices beyond lip service and achieve authentic change. Without the threat of consequences, economic or otherwise, it is unlikely that employers will strive to change workplace culture.


MICHELLE WHYTE, JOANNE BOWERS and MARY LOUISE HATCH are members of the Victorian Women Lawyers, (VWL)Work Practices Committee. The views expressed are their own and may not be shared by the VWL

1. Trisha Jha Centre for Independent Studies: Complex Family Payments cis.org.au

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