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Plibersek promises to surpass Coalition on public sector gender equality

  • A Labor government would aim for gender equality in senior levels of the Australian Public Service by 2025.
  • It would make sure women fill at least half of the seats on Commonwealth public sector boards in its first term.
  • It would also put in place a target for 40% of all chair and deputy chair positions on Commonwealth boards by 2025.

The federal opposition’s latest policy manifesto calls on all Australian governments to make gender equality a “central goal” and lead by example to create “sustained and enduring change” across society.

While these kinds of sentiments are common on both sides of the political mainstream, Labor’s deputy leader Tanya Plibersek arged the Abbott and Turnbull governments had dropped the ball when it came to practical outcomes.

“Last time Labor was in government we set a target for 40% representation of women on government boards and we met it two years ahead of schedule,” Plibersek said, announcing the new platform in a speech at the National Press Club yesterday.

“Representation slipped backwards again under the Abbott government and has only recently crept back up over 40%.”

There is already an overall target of 50% but the goal for individual public sector boards is a 40% minimum of each gender with 20% wiggle room. Women now hold 42.7% of all seats.

“This is the highest outcome since public reporting on the gender balance of government boards began in 2010-11,” according to the latest report on the matter.

New appointments in the last financial year did not do a lot to shift the balance; 46.2% were women overall, and the majority were men in 11 out of 18 portfolios. Communications, prime minister and cabinet, veterans’ affairs and treasury were the only portfolios where more than 50% of new appointees were women.

The board figures also reflect the gendered nature of different kinds of work that is reflected in statistical outcomes —  like the gender pay gap.

At the end of 2016-17, women held 50% or more Commonwealth public sector board seats in only two portfolios, human services and social services, which are clear outliers on over 55%. The lowest female representation was 32.6% in the Attorney-General’s domain, followed by agriculture, infrastructure and veterans’ affairs, all below 40%.

The promise to get women into at least 40% of chair and deputy chair roles recognises an even lower base of 31.8% at June 30 last year, a very slight decrease over the year but still 1% above the 2014 outcome.

Pushing for 50-50 balance in the senior executive roles in the APS by 2025 is probably a more difficult proposition, due to the very different recruitment process — and in some departments at least, leaders might well argue they are already making a concerted effort. Labor’s new policy also states:

“In government, Labor will refine and set a series of additional targets. To help set ambitious and achievable targets, we will conduct a stocktake of available gender indicators and create a baseline to track improvements.

“We will require all federal government departments to set, and publicly report on, gender indicators for all relevant policy areas.”

Plibersek said achieving these kinds of targets was “just a question of political will” whether in the public sector, the judiciary or even the private sector. The overarching theme was that both sides say similar things, but the Abbott and Turnbull governments had not achieved much in the way of concrete results.

“In the three years after Tony Abbott formed government – and made himself Minister for Women – Australia slipped 22 places down the global gender equality rankings, to 46th spot,” she said.

Later in the day, moving to calm down a mild squall of controversy, Plibersek clarified that she didn’t mind being asked questions on an unrelated topic after the speech, either. It is the press club and she is the deputy leader, after all.

According to Plibersek, things are not changing quickly enough in terms of any of the key issues for women, such as pay equity between female-dominated and male-dominated areas of the workforce, inequality in paid workforce participation versus unpaid domestic work, and violence against women and girls.

“The Workplace Gender Equality Agency says it will be 50 years before we close the gender pay gap,” she said, “and that’s being optimistic. The trend over the past 20 years has been for the gap to get wider, not smaller.”

Similarly, she argued the rate of change would not see equal numbers in federal parliament until 2046, but claimed Labor was likely to get there after the next election.

“And it’s been 10 years since I established the National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, yet one woman is still killed every week by her current or former partner,” Plibersek said.

She said the stark difference between the number of women in parliament on her side of the aisle compared to the Coalition benches showed that hard targets work.

Labor has also committed $15.2 million to updating the Australian Bureau of Statistics Time Use Survey, which was last conducted in 1997, showing roughly how much unpaid caring work was worth to the economy.

“The typical Australian woman spends up to 14 hours a week cooking, cleaning and organising her family. The typical Australian man does fewer than five hours,” said Plibersek.

“Women do three-quarters of the child care, two-thirds of the housework and 70% of caring for elderly or disabled family members and friends.

“But Australia has no way of calculating the value to the economy of that unpaid caring work,” she said. “The last time we did the sums – back in 1997 – our unpaid work was worth $261 billion – equivalent to almost half of Australia’s GDP that year.”

The value is about what it would cost to replace that caring with paid services, but Plibersek is not suggesting that would be the most desirable outcome either. “There is joy in caring for those you love,” she said.

“But that unpaid work is part of the reason older women retire with around half the superannuation of men and are the fastest-growing group of people falling into homelessness.

“Taking time off your job or working part time to care for others is one of the driving causes of the gender pay gap.”

She also acknowledged that men are doing an increasing share of this work, and facing difficulties as a result.

“Studies show men are twice as likely to have their flexible work request denied. The root of the problem is that as a society we don’t place enough value on caring work.”

Redoing the ABS Time Use Survey would help to put a more up-to-date figure on the economic value of this work. If it’s still somewhere around half of GDP, it could be as much $800 billion.

“Understanding the economic contribution of caring work will help us: better design policies that increase workforce participation; deliver high-quality early-childhood education and care; improve family payments and parental leave; and it will help us better understand how government policies impact women,” Plibersek said.

She said Labor would also reconvene a Ministerial Council on Gender Equality to place more focus on how new policies might affect men and women differently, and draft new federal legislation that would force more consistency in “efforts to promote equality” by the states and territories.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.