Only one ACT registered employer received a WGEA Employer of Choice citation this year, and it’s time that changed

Leadership burnout

Source: Unsplash/CoWomen.

Celebrations for one are miserable.

For the seventh consecutive year, YWCA Canberra has received a citation from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) as an Employer of Choice.

And this is the second consecutive year that we have celebrated alone, as the only ACT registered employer to receive the citation.

While we may be celebrating alone in the ACT, 17 new citation holders have been added to the list for the 2020-2022 application period, including Australia’s largest private employer Woolworths.

Furthermore, the new list sees companies registered in both Tasmania and South Australia achieve citation for the first time. It would seem that private sector employers are realising the benefits of facilitating gender equality in the workplace.

The Employer of Choice citation is bestowed on those employers that comply with the Workplace Gender Equality Act (2012) and meet all the assessment criteria, which include preventing gender-based harassment, discrimination and bullying, driving change beyond the workplace, and mainstreaming flexible work, among others.

The citation is a voluntary initiative for employers that recognises those workplaces that have demonstrated a genuine and structural-level commitment to gender equality. It is additional to the compliance reporting program requiring non-public sector employers with 100 or more employees to submit a report to WGEA.

While the 2020 report scorecard showed more employers were participating in the reporting scheme, I am conscious that the previous 12 months have been tumultuous for women in the workplace and the time for corporate and public sector leadership is not so much now, but yesterday.

COVID-19 had a disproportionate impact on the lives of working women who shouldered an even greater share of unpaid care as schools closed and heavily feminised industries such as retail, hospitality and tourism took a crushing hit.

In many instances, women working part-time were the first to be shown the door, others were transitioned from full-time to part-time arrangements and, perhaps most appallingly, the 97% feminised workforce in early education were the first to be prematurely and exclusively removed from the JobKeeper wage subsidy.

For a long time now, the benefits of gender equality in the workplace have been well known.

Research from the global consultancy group McKinsey & Company has consistently found a statistically significant correlation between board and workplace diversity and productivity. On the flip side, those companies that delay efforts to diversify their staff and executive profiles suffer in terms of profitability.

Similarly, the evidence base also exists to show that workplace policies supporting gender equality are important in staff retention and facilitating competitive recruitment.

It is not altogether surprising that staff simply want to work in an environment where parental leave is equitable and encouraged for all who parent, where diversity is celebrated and where transparent workplace policies exist to address harassment, discrimination, and abuse.

Our 2019 survey of more than 1000 Canberra women, Our Lives: Women in the ACThighlighted the persistently high rates of workplace sexism experienced by young women living in Canberra and our advocacy work has responded to this finding by advocating for structural and cultural change to stamp out workplace sexual harassment.

Our survey findings were also reflected in the national survey on workplace sexual harassment conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2018, which found that more than 85% of Australian women had been sexually harassed at some point in their lives, with 23% experiencing workplace sexual harassment in the last 12 months.

And it has not gone unnoticed that we are celebrating our citation at the time of intense scrutiny on the culture of the Australian Parliament House as a workplace.

The alleged criminal behaviour endured by women working in what should be a benchmark workplace simply highlights that there has never been a greater impetus for change and that that change must involve both government and political workplaces.

While government workplaces are currently exempt from participating in the WGEA reporting schedule, the 2018-2019 State of the Service report shows the gender divide between the feminised APS level staff and the SES remains. Further, the same report found that gender-discrimination is the most perceived form of discrimination with carer-based discrimination also a significant concern.

Political staff on the other hand are distinct from public servants and employed under specific legislation which, along with their workplace agreement, has comprehensively failed to provide a protective framework in what is a combatively partisan and ruthless environment.

The power to fix these legislative and administrative gaps to progress gender equality and set a benchmark for government and political workspaces lies with the Parliament itself.

Among the 55 recommendations from the Human Rights Commission’s landmark Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry report were suggested amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to expressly prohibit sex-based discrimination and introduce a positive duty on all employers to take reasonable measures to eliminate sexual discrimination.

The government, however, wherein the power to progress legislative reform exclusively sits, are yet to respond to the report’s recommendations.

Cultural change takes both vision and leadership and I implore employers and government to take the steps needed to put words into action.

Pursuing gender equality in both private and public sector workplaces delivers both fiscal and personnel benefits to employers, but without demonstrable leadership in the form of action, and legislative reform, the cycle of discrimination and inequality will continue, ouroboros-like.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.


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