Director Helen Conway discusses the The Workplace Gender Equality Act with Sandra Cormack, AHRI’s national manager, strategic development.
Sandra Cormack: How will the new agency be different to EOWA, and how will it support organisations to make the changes required to enable gender equity?
Helen Conway: The focus of the agency will move from equal opportunity for women to gender equality in Australian workplaces. The underlying principle is that nobody should suffer disadvantage in the workplace on the basis of their gender. It’s fair to say that most of the barriers relate to women, and the new Act retains an objective that recognises that women still do have a disadvantaged position, but we really need to broaden out because there are circumstances where men are disadvantaged.
SC: How will you be supporting organisations to make the changes necessary to improve gender equity?
HC: There is a transitional timetable in the new legislation, with reduced reporting responsibilities in place this year so organisations can adapt to the new reporting regime. Once we get into the full reporting under the gender equality indicators, over time we will have a very powerful set of data – probably the most powerful that any country would have, which will allow us to establish benchmarks for educational purposes. This data will be aggregated by industry to show what ‘good’ looks like in different industries, and what strategies employers have used.
SC: Do organisations need to provide the data to their stakeholders?
HC: This is a new provision in the legislation; previously organisations provided the data and we made the reports public on our website, although not a lot of people accessed them. Under the new legislation there are some provisions that will make these reports transparent. When reporting organisations lodge these reports they have to notify their employees and their shareholders and provide access to the report. They must also notify employee organisations (unions) within seven days of lodging the report.
SC: Can you give us three key findings of the 2012 Census of Women in Leadership?
HC: Well starting with the good news, there’s been improvement in the representation of women on ASX 200 boards, but the bad news is there has been negligible improvement in executive ranks. The third key finding has to do with the female talent pipeline – we are seeing far too few women in line positions, as opposed to support positions. In the top 500 companies there were 141 women in line positions compared with 2148 men. At graduate level you see a slow decline, and then a significant decline when women move into the period where they are likely to be having children. After having children, they are likely to come back part-time, if at all, and if they come back they are often given poor-quality work to do.
SC: You espouse that gender equity needs to be centre stage and that it needs to “come out of HR”. What should HR’s role be?
HC: I see HR as absolutely fundamental to getting change but until gender diversity is treated similarly to any other business initiatives people won’t want to take it seriously enough; they won’t put the disciplines around it. Frankly, given that improving gender diversity is a business imperative it will not happen without huge support from HR and diversity specialists who take it to the stage where the leader drives it and not only talks up the case but walks it, too.
SC: A key part of the new agency’s work will be to establish benchmark gender equity targets on an industry basis, and use this as a framework for helping organisations to set their voluntary targets. How do you see this working, and if organisations don’t meet their gender targets over time, what could be the next steps?
HC: There are two separate issues here. The minimum standards are about compliance whereas the benchmarks are educational. We have the gender equality indicators against which organisations will report. These indicators are set by the minister who will also set minimum standards – in consultation with stakeholders. These standards will relate to the gender equality indicators but it’s not necessarily the case that they will apply to all indicators. Frankly, there’s a fairly generous regime around the minimum standards, which will enable people to get their act together. The minimum standards won’t be applicable until 2014/15 and non-compliance on the basis of these standards can occur from the end of the 2016/17 reporting year.
About Helen Conway
As director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Helen Conway is responsible for ensuring the agency promotes and improves gender equality and outcomes for both women and men in the workplace. She was appointed as director for five years from 27 April 2011.