The issue of gender quotas for Australian businesses has again hit the headlines with a suggestion from the Human Rights Commission that the federal government use its procurement processes to become a “model industry” when it comes to improving representations of women in the workforce.
The Daily Telegraph reports the Commission is calling for businesses that engage in Commonwealth contracts to be made up of at least 40% female staff, after Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins reportedly told the government earlier this year it needed to take “disruptive action” to get more women involved in projects.
The Human Rights Commission has today clarified its position, saying it was not calling for mandatory quotas but instead presenting a possible model for boosting the number of women contributing to government projects, and the workforce all up.
In a statement provided to SmartCompany, Commissioner Jenkins said the suggestion comes from a submission made to a Senate inquiry on workforce participation, in which the Commission suggested the Commonwealth Government use its position to encourage contractors to demonstrate that they are moving towards a more balanced workforce.
“We did not recommend that quotas be put in place, but rather we recommended the Commonwealth Government should become a model industry in improving the participation of women in the workforce,” Jenkins said.
“One of the strategies proposed is that the Government should require contracted organisations to demonstrate efforts to improve gender balance, with an ultimate goal of reaching a 40:40:20 gender balance.”
In its submission to the Senate committee on gender segregation in the workplace, the Commission said the government is uniquely placed to encourage businesses to improve issues like the gender pay gap by encouraging businesses to improve their mix of staff.
In its second recommendation on the issue, the Commission stated: “The Commonwealth Government should develop and commit to a strategy for becoming a model ‘industry’ in reducing gender segregation: as an employer (roles and occupations, management levels, flexibility, parental leave arrangements/inducements for men etc); in policy and program design/development; and when contracting (impose contractual terms requiring demonstrated efforts to improve gender balance to 40-40-20 in organisations engaged by Government).”
Less talk, more action needed
Finding a more diverse range of government contractors is a key part of the government’s Innovation Agenda, with a number of grant competitions and project tender programs having been released with the express goal of finding new talent in the SME space.
However, business groups on the ground say that while targets for gender balance are a good thing for the overall community, there is often a lot of talk and not so much action in terms of enforcing these ideas.
Founder of regional businesswoman network Soar Collective, Jess Jones, says she’s been following the debate on whether businesses should have to display moves towards gender balance in order to secure contracts, but believes at this stage, much of the change on gender inclusion is being driven by businesses.
“I do think targets are important, because it does level the playing field in other areas too, in politics, in media,” she says.
But as to whether guidelines and suggestions work without enforcement, Jones is sceptical.
“I don’t think so … there’s a lot of talk all the time, more and more, and no action.”
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There are plenty of resources out there to prepare a small business for selling themselves for government contracts, Jones believes, and it’s up to business founders to go out and prepare themselves prior to making the pitch.
“I think governments and larger organisations do tend to pass over smaller businesses. It’s a bit like a kid going out and trying to get their first job, not having the experience,” she says.
“But there is so much out there, we are really lucky, from trainings to incubator programs.”
While Jones believes local government has one of the biggest roles to play in connecting SMEs with opportunities for contract work, the federal government is continuing to pledge its commitment to uncovering new talent.
Earlier in the year Small Business Minister Michael McCormack wrote in SmartCompany he has “made government procurement contracts a focal point of mine as a minister”.
“I know few companies give better bang for their buck and deliver a service second-to-none more so than small business,” he said.
SmartCompany contacted Minister McCormack this morning but he was unable to comment prior to publication. Kate Jenkins was unavailable for interview this morning.