Forging a new pathway to progress gender equality in Australia

By Sue Williamson & Linda Colley

Tuesday February 25, 2020

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The Australian community is once again talking about how violence against women and their children can be prevented, in the wake of last week’s horrific murder of Hannah Clarke and her children. As some have noted, this behaviour does not just happen, but develops from toxic perceptions about gender in our society and workplaces.

Amidst the horror of last week, the possibility of a new way to progress gender equality emerged from Victoria. On 20 February, the Gender Equality Act was passed by the Victorian parliament. This was an historic moment. It represents a new approach to reducing violence against women, by progressing gender equality, including in the workplace.

The Gender Equality Act will cover a range of public sector agencies that have more than 50 employees, including departments and agencies, universities and local councils. The legislation imposes a positive duty on organisations to progress gender equality — an approach successfully implemented in a range of countries, including the UK.

These organisations will be required to conduct a workplace gender audit, develop a Gender Equality Action Plan every four years, and report to a newly-established Public Sector Gender Equality Commissioner every two years.

Agency reports — which will include progress made against gender indicators — will be made publicly available. Transparency is a vital part of progressing gender equality. Our research has also demonstrated the importance of monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, as without them the implementation of gender equality action plans can become mere gender window dressing.

Developing and implementing gender equality action plans is not new to the public sector. Australian Public Service (APS) departments have been implementing gender equality action plans for the last couple of years. These plans are offshoots of the overarching APS Gender Equality Strategy 2016-19, which contains many good initiatives.

Our analysis has found that some of the plans are comprehensive documents which, if fully implemented, will progress gender equality. Other plans are shallow and do not contain meaningful targets. Very few of the plans contain robust performance indicators, and even fewer had the mechanisms to monitor the outcomes.

My colleagues and I have analysed all 18 APS department’s gender equality plans and found that several of them aimed to be employers of choice, and to be recognised as such by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. This is a laudable aim, but one which may not be met by agencies due to a lack of accountability.

These limitations will be potentially overcome by the Gender Equality Act. This legislation will require Victorian agencies to report on their progress towards implementing initiatives to progress gender equality. This is similar to the requirements for larger private sector organisations to report to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

The Gender Equality Act will also embed new gender equality architecture, through a new Public Sector Gender Equality Commissioner. While the Commissioner will largely have an educative role, the position also carries enforcement powers. Agencies that do not make “reasonable and material progress” on workplace gender equality can be served a compliance notice. They can be “named and shamed” if they are non-compliant — not a good look for a public sector organisation.

The reach of the new legislation is extensive, covering over 300 public sector agencies. These agencies have the opportunity to become employers of choice — not just for women, but for everyone in workplaces, with ripple effects across society. The Gender Equality Act provides a blueprint for other public sector jurisdictions to follow.

In a sad week that revealed ongoing pockets of misogyny and violence against women, it is heartening to see a positive pathway. We can’t wait to see how this pans out.

Dr Sue Williamson is a Senior Lecturer at UNSW Canberra; Associate Professor Linda Colley is an Associate Professor of Human Resource Management/Industrial Relations at CQUniversity. Both have extensively researched public sector gender equality.

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