• Opinion
  • September 19, 2018
  • 8 minutes
  • 2

In Australia, we’re taking a different path to close our gender pay gap

Opinion: Rather than enforcing transparency laws, we're working with businesses — and men

This opinion piece was written by Libby Lyons, the director of Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency. It also appears in our gender equality newsfeed


Over the last 18 months, gender equality has become an ever-more important global issue. The impact of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have transformed the nature and tone of public debate across the world. Tackling the gender pay gap is a growing policy priority.

Different countries have taken different approaches to measuring and reporting on gender equality. Some nations, such as Iceland and the UK, have chosen the pay transparency path, mandating employers to publish their gender pay gaps.

Here in Australia, we have taken a slightly different tack. Consequently, we have an important role to play in the international gender equality debate. I discovered this over the last year or so, when I travelled to conferences and events in Singapore, Chile, the USA, Vietnam, Japan and Korea. Everywhere I went, there was a thirst for learning more about Australia’s legislation and journey.

Australia was an early adopter of gender reporting, establishing The Workplace Gender Equality Act (The Act) in 2012 to address the historic disadvantage facing women in the workplace.

“Our dataset is now comprised of information covering more than four million employees”

Under the Act, non-public sector employers (large private sector companies and NGOs) with 100 or more employees must submit a report annually to the Agency, measuring their own performance against six gender equality indicators. The data we collect includes information on workforce composition, equal pay, composition of boards, support for flexible work and caring, and sex-based harassment and discrimination.

Our dataset is now comprised of information covering more than four million employees in over 11,000 organisations — which equates to about 40% of Australia’s workforce. By collecting such comprehensive data on gender equality, Australia can examine the state of workplace gender equality in great detail. It has helped us to advise employers about developing strategies and actions that we know drive change.

Working with — not against — the private sector

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency, where I am director, was established to not only implement the Act but also to educate, inform and influence organisations to achieve positive gender equality outcomes in their workplaces.

What I like about Australia’s and, in particular, the Agency’s approach is that our work is based on partnerships. Rather than simply enforcing legislation, we work in partnership with Australian employers to advance gender equality in their workplaces.

“Rather than simply enforcing legislation, we work in partnership with Australian employers”

We provide ongoing advice, education and support for employers to fulfil their reporting requirements. We have two leading-practice advocacy programs — the Employer of Choice for Gender Equality (EOCGE) citation and Pay Equity Ambassador initiative — which acknowledge those employers who are high-performing gender equality advocates. We collaborate with like-minded organisations on research partnerships that influence our national policy agenda and increase our understanding of workplace gender inequality in Australia.

By taking this collaborative approach, we have gained the support of the business community. Acceptance by Australian employers to report their information and data is very positive, and we now have a compliance rate of about 99%.

The data also shows that our partnership approach is paying off. Gender equality is moving in the right direction in Australia’s workplaces.

The gender pay gap continues to steadily close — although at 14.6%* it remains too high — and the representation of women in management has been increasing. In our latest dataset, women comprised 38.4% of all managers in Australian workplaces and they achieved 43% of appointments to manager positions. If this trend continues, we will soon see women hit the target of achieving 50% representation in management.

“We will soon see women hit the target of achieving 50% representation in management”

There has also been a big jump in Australian employers taking action on gender equality, and over 70% now have strategies or policies to support gender equality and promote flexible work. These are important positive changes over a short period of time.

Involving men 

The focus on the gender pay gap in international policymaking is understandable. It offers a simple, tangible instrument for measuring gender equality.

However, on its own, it provides an incomplete picture of the true state of gender equality in a country or an organisation. We need to examine the underlying causes of gender inequality which are embedded in the ways we live and work.

Policies and strategies, while crucial, only go so far. Changing mindsets and workplace cultures is just as important. Cultural change is only possible if both women and men are working together on the ongoing project of gender equality.

“Cultural change is only possible if both women and men are working together”

The international gender equality debate has largely been focused on the situation of women — and rightly so. Women face appalling discrimination and bias and enormous barriers to achieving full and equal participation in social, political and economic life. But we must not exclude men from the debate.

The Agency’s mission is to improve and promote equality for both women and men in Australia’s workplaces. We have always argued that gender equality is about women and men working in partnership to create more equal opportunities and genuine choice for everyone. We need to overcome women’s historic economic disadvantage and break down the barriers to their full economic participation. But we also have to give men real choice about how they engage with work and home. We need to encourage and support men to be more involved in their family life and in raising their children.

Working together in partnerships — be it employers and regulators or women and men — is the best way for us to achieve gender equality. Here in Australia, our Agency will continue to focus on partnership-based work to deliver meaningful change for women and men in our workplaces. — Libby Lyons

* Australia’s gender pay gaps are calculated by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), details here.

(Picture credit: Pexels)

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