Australian Economy

The road to an equitable Australian workplace

More must be done to address Australia’s gender wage gap, and one major party’s new transparency policies will help, Giles Hirst writes.

Halfway through the election campaign, the Australian Labor Party announced its policy to promote gender equity on pay. This seeks to tackle the issue that on average, women earn 14 per cent less than men. Currently the average Australian woman has to work an extra 61 days a year to earn the same pay as the average man.

The policy will require companies to publicly report and release gender pay gap data if they are found to be systematically under-paying women. Currently, they are required to collect this information and report it to the government, but this data remains unavailable to the public.

It also promised to add bite to the current provisions by strengthening the Fair Work Commission’s powers to order pay increases for workers, especially in low-paid, female-dominated industries. A key aim is to improve equity in the caring economy in which women predominate, such as aged care, early childhood education and care, and disability care.

From the perspective of democracy and fairness, this announcement is a good one, both in its nature and its timing. This is for five reasons.

Firstly, democracy depends on differences between parties, and on the opposition providing coherent policy alternatives. When these are lacking, elections become a poor choice for voters and frequently a race between parties to spend the most. However popular their choice on the issue of gender equity, Labor’s proposed policy is good for democracy in that it offers a clear point of distinction.

Secondly, announcing this policy in the middle of the campaign is tactically astute. To date, the Coalition has offered few tangible solutions to improve gender equity in Australia. More than halfway through the election campaign, and with little achieved over the last decade, it would be unlikely for the Coalition to reverse course now.

As Sun Tzu, author of the Art of War, once said, you are most likely to succeed if you attack places that are undefended. In political terms, this is analogous to providing a clear policy framework in the absence of an opposing suggestion.

Thirdly, the announcement further establishes Labor’s overall vision and pitch to voters. One of Anthony Albanese’s earliest announcements as leader of the opposition was a multi-billion dollar pitch for more social housing. At the time it was seen as something of an outlier, but when viewed in light of subsequent policies that seek to reduce the costs of aged care, medicine, and payments to lower income families, the theme of equity is clear.

Fourth, it is good policy. By taking clear steps to publicise pay gap data, requiring firms to act on inequity and giving independent bodies power to act, it creates a genuine pathway towards equal pay for men and women. As has been shown internationally, including and promoting women has economic benefit for all. It’s not just fair, it underpins a more competitive marketplace and sustains a healthier economy.

Lastly, it sets the foundation for future policy development. From this starting point, there are many practical policy options to create a more equitable society.

One examples is supporting work-life integration, a frequent barrier to women’s participation. In Ontario, Canada, employers with 25 or more staff must have a written policy on disconnecting from work. This seeks to tackle the ‘work till you drop’ mentality, giving people permission not to answer emails at home, in bed or on leave. It benefits both men and women.

Policy measures don’t need to be complex. They can offer simple actionable steps such as requiring gender diversity on selection and promotion committees or that more than one woman be considered by selection committees in the pool of potential candidates. These measures support fairer decision-making and aren’t excessive or expensive. They are easily instituted and have economic benefits, improving the pool of resources organisations are able to draw from.

With this policy announcement, there is now a clear point of distinction between the major parties on workplace gender equity at this election. By requiring transparency and strengthening the Fair Work Commission’s powers, Australia could begin to close the gender wage gap – an outcome that’s not just good for women, but the national economy and society overall.

This piece is published as part of Policy Forum’s new feature section – In Focus: Australia’s policy future – which brings you policy analysis and ideas that go beyond the sound bites.

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