The public sector to report on gender equality

By and

Friday April 9, 2021

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash and Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra. Thursday, April 8, 2021. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Amidst all the fanfare accompanying the release of the Australian government’s response to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work report, one important aspect has been overlooked.

The government’s response contains some good initiatives, including that the Sex Discrimination Act will be amended to cover politicians, judges and public servants. Sexual harassment will also be expressly prohibited.

Less attention, however, has been given to another important initiative, probably because it’s focused on the public sector. The Australian government has agreed to Respect@Work’s recommendation that the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 be amended to cover the public sector.

This is an historic moment. All private sector organisations with more than 100 employees are required to report annually to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) on progress against defined gender equality indicators. The public sector has always been exempt from this reporting requirement.

Although the reasons for this exemption have been lost in the mists of time, it may have been because the public sector has traditionally been seen as a model employer, and performance on gender equality better than some private sector organisations. Governments may have believed they did not need to report externally, although with the benefit of hindsight it is clear this was a false belief.

The APS does have internal drivers for gender equality, but these often fall short. The Public Service Act 1999 requires APS agencies to establish a diversity plan; however, there are no reporting requirements. The Australian Public Service Commission’s annual report on the APS contains useful statistics and reveals that gender equality is progressing. However, this report does not comprehensively detail the state of gender equality in the APS, or how individual agencies are faring.

The APS Gender Equality Strategy encourages agencies to develop and implement gender equality plans. We analysed the gender equality action plans of all APS agencies shortly after they were developed. Several agencies committed to becoming a WGEA Employer of Choice for Gender Equality, and meeting the requisite benchmarks.

However, our examination of all annual reports shows that none appear to have met this commitment. A lack of public reporting across the APS means that good intent does not necessarily translate to good practices, or outcomes.

External reporting and monitoring provides all-important accountability. WGEA collects a wealth of data on how organisations are tracking on gender equality. It has found that progress is being made, but equality is still some way off. A level of apathy – or gender fatigue – has set in. This is also the case in the public sector. Research has also shown that reporting can be seen as a compliance exercise.

One way to prevent reporting becoming a “tick and flick” exercise is through imposing a positive duty on agencies to progress gender equality. Victoria has recently adopted such an approach. The Australian Human Rights Commission recommended the introduction of a positive duty on organisations to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation, as far as possible. The government has “noted” this recommendation contained in the Respect@Work report – but not agreed to it.

Requiring the public sector to report is a necessary and valuable way of tracking progress towards gender equality, provided that APS does not relax on its current strategies. Going one step further, and imposing a positive duty would reinforce and strengthen these reporting requirements.


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