Australia Gets New Gender Equality Law

January 10, 2013I wouldn’t be the only head of a government agency who receives abusive emails, but I doubt male colleagues who run agencies and departments receive the sort of angry advice which describes in intimate detail what I ‘’need.”

These emails are a reminder that, for all the government and private sector initiatives to drive gender equality, for all the work and forward thinking of individuals—including Australia’s great feminist Governor-General Quentin Bryce, who recently launched our Agency’s 2012 Australian Census of Women in Leadership—we still have a long way to go before women and men are accepted on equal terms.

There will always be those who dispute the need for gender equality intervention in the workplace, but the figures speak for themselves. The gender pay gap in Australia is currently 17.5%, and little progress has been made in the last 20 years.

Our recent Census found that women hold less than 10% of all executive positions and board directorships at companies listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) 500. And the foreseeable future looks no better, given the appallingly poor representation of women in our nation’s corporate pipeline. Line positions, which offer a common path to the top of the corporate ladder, are occupied by 2,148 men—and just 141 women. Our film explains the severity of this pipeline blockage.

Being rebadged—and getting the full picture

The Australian Parliament has just passed landmark legislation. We have changed our name from the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. This is more than a semantic change; the new Act recognises that, in the modern workplace, the struggle to balance family and work commitments is not just an issue for women—it’s a family and a societal issue.

Beginning in 2014, organisations with 100 or more employees will have to report on several new “gender equality indicators,” including the following:

  • the gender composition of workplaces and their governing bodies
  • equal remuneration between women and men
  • the availability and use of flexible working arrangements for both women and men with family or caring responsibilities.

This reporting will generate standardised data which we believe will allow for a ground-breaking analysis of gender equality in the Australian workplace, both at the organisational level and at an industry level.

While the Agency is a “light touch regulator,” it does have the power to “name and shame” those organisations which fail to comply. Non-compliant organisations may also be ineligible to compete for certain government contracts, grants, and other forms of financial assistance.

The new Act has been welcomed by many corporate leaders, and the ‘’daddy-friendly’’ provisions have made front page news in the Australian press. Crucially, the Act brings our Agency into the 21st century with a new mandate: to improve the productivity and competitiveness of Australian business through advancing gender equality in the workplace.

Women and the bottom line

2012 was a momentous year in the debate over gender equality. The issue went viral when U.S. academic and State department appointee Anne Marie Slaughter published her provocative piece about “having it all’’ in The Atlantic.  Within months, Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, made an impassioned speech in Parliament which went worldwide and prompted a dictionary redefinition of the word ‘’misogyny.”

But I believe the window of opportunity for change is limited; the public is quick to tire of any issue, no matter how pressing.

Australia’s future economic well-being demands action. The World Economic Forum recently released some depressing figures—Australia ranks 68th out of 129 countries when it comes to wage equality for similar work, and 44th for female labour force participation. Yet we are ranked equal first for female educational attainment. If we achieved the female labour force participation rate of Canada, which would require an increase of only 6%, the Grattan Institute has estimated that Australia's annual GDP would increase by around $25 billion.

And here is the challenge for the unreconstructed who continue to send me and other women abusive emails: how can you continue to defend making the workplace hostile, uncomfortable, inflexible, unfair, and financially unrewarding for women when doing so is not only wrong—it’s costing our country and our businesses millions of dollars?


Helen Conway



Helen Conway is the Director of the Australian government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Prior to her appointment she worked in the corporate sector, where she held various executive positions and directorships. Ms. Conway also worked in private legal practice for 10 years. She has a track record in the equal opportunity sphere, including her service as a judicial member of the New South Wales Equal Opportunity Tribunal.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.