Course correction


22 May 2023

The union-led campaign for equity for Australian working women has pushed for fast action from the federal government. The Albanese government promised women would be central to its first federal budget and within six months, the government passed three major bills to strengthen gender equity and boost women’s workforce participation and economic power – evidence of the union movement’s collective capacity to influence national debates on women’s rights.

The Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill makes gender equality an object of the Fair Work Act, strengthens equal pay, overturns pay secrecy, permits multi-employer bargaining, and requires the Fair Work Commission to consider gender when making pay decisions.

Passage of the bill puts millions of working Australians on a more even footing with their employers, says Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) president Michele O’Neil.

“The undervaluation and underpayment of work done by women is an anchor on both women’s equality and also on economic growth, but this bill empowers women, making it simpler, easier and cheaper to fight for and win pay rises, and address systemic low pay across the economy,” O’Neil says.

Another landmark, The Respect@Work Bill reverses the onus of workplace sexual harassment, shifting from reactive to pro-active. It means employers must now take meaningful action “and continuously assess and evaluate whether they are meeting the requirements of the duty”.

Prime minister Albanese took further action when he announced at the International Trade Union Confederation Congress in 2022 that Australia would ratify International Labor Organisation convention 190, adopting a zero-tolerance approach to violence and harassment in the workplace, becoming one of only a few countries to do so.

And after a decade of campaigning by unions and activists, the Paid Family and Domestic Violence Leave Bill became a reality, enshrining 10 days of paid leave in the National Employment Standards.

Numbers don’t add up

This progress has been a long time coming. The combined forces of the pandemic and almost a decade of Coalition government has reversed gains in women’s workforce participation rates, job security and pay equity. resulting in critical workforce shortages.

The latest Workplace Gender Equality Agency scorecard confirms a gender pay gap stuck at 22.8 per cent (an average of $26,596) for the 2021-22 financial year. It’s the first time the national gap hasn’t decreased year on year for more than a decade. More steep declines are evident in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap rankings of 153 countries, in which Australian women slid from 15 to 50, and further still – from 12 to 70 – in the women’s “economic participation and opportunity” category.

Australian women are also poorer and less healthy than a decade ago, according to the first annual scorecard of women’s income and health from the Monash Centre for Health Research and Implementation, which suggests women will wait 70 years (more than two generations) to achieve equity in full-time employment, and more than 200 years for income equality.

Flight or fight

Public education’s highly feminised workforce is a clear priority for action on gender equity. Systemic underfunding of public schools has led to increased workloads and puts at risk teachers’ mental and physical wellbeing, causing an exodus
of highly qualified professionals and resulting in critical workforce shortages.

The pandemic only exacerbated a sector at risk, increasing stress for teachers concerned about their own personal safety and that of their students and family members. Change, with an equity lens,
is urgently needed.

AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe is encouraged by recent political commitments regarding the essential role of women in working Australia and hopes continued pressure from unions will create lasting positive change for women.

“Women are more likely to be caught between family responsibilities in terms of raising children and caring for older relatives. Trying to manage that at a time when surveys show members are working 56-plus hours a week, means most of that work is unpaid.”

Haythorpe wants to see a significant gender equity strategy in place that includes setting targets, collecting data and creating better reporting mechanisms to hold governments accountable. She also called for a national shift in the narrative to guarantee all women – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, culturally- gender- and age-diverse, low-paid and insecurely employed women – the right to equality, safety and respect at work.

Proper and fair funding of public education, too, would go a long way in closing the gender gap. During the pandemic years, 2019-20, Australia’s public education funding went backward – it was cut by nearly 2 per cent according to the latest OECD Education at a Glance report.

“Investing in public education means schools can have more flexibility or the capacity to ensure staffing is in place to reduce class sizes,” says Haythorpe.

“And when the system is better funded, schools can put mechanisms in place that give women access to good leadership structures and mentoring, ensuring career progression.”

Raising awareness

If recent political trends are any indication, unions like the AEU will play a critical role in raising awareness of the gender gaps in education, which affect teachers and students, and what it means for society in general.

Professor Michele Ford, director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney, researches education union movements in the Asia-Pacific.

Ford says the use of technology during the pandemic encouraged greater participation, and more women now take part in local association meetings held in hybrid (online and in-person) mode. And the AEU and its state branches have put various measures in place to ensure that women members have an opportunity to participate and have their voices heard, including women-oriented leadership programs, women’s conferences, caucuses and formal and informal networks.

There is no doubt that recent political attention, which has helped to raise the issue of gender equity, can be credited to the work done by unions to influence the national debate on women’s rights.

By Cindi Tebbel

This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Autumn 2023