What is the impact of rolling back gender-reporting rules?

This article by Dr Diann Rodgers-Healey was first published at Women’s Agenda on 3 March 2014

The  Financial Review reported recently that the Abbott Government is considering changing gender reporting requirements in order to cut $1 billion in red tape particularly for small and medium sized businesses. Only companies with 1000 or more staff will be required to provide annual reports about gender balance to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

Currently, the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 requires private sector employers with 100 or more employees to report to the Agency. Justification for this is implied in the Agency’s statistical finding that 96% of Australia’s more than 2 million trading businesses are small enterprises (0-19 employees), with around 4% being medium sized (20-199 employees), and less than 1% are large (over 200 employees). 

A range of structural and cultural roadblocks for women’s valuing and advancement in small business which the Agency cites are seen as impacting small businesses more than large ones. These include limited awareness of gender equality and pay equity, challenges in implementing flexible work options and parental leave, limited or no HR resources and limited resources to develop gender strategies and management systems.

To improve gender equality in small businesses requires identification of specific barriers to gender equality unique to each industry and business and action plans to address these issues, with the option of accessing WGEA representatives to raise awareness and collaboratively develop incremental strategies to address the issues.

Reporting against the six Gender equality indicators (GEIs) provides a good framework for identifying barriers in areas critical to workplace gender equality such as the gender composition of the workforce in small businesses and of their governing bodies; remuneration between women and men employees; flexible working arrangements and consultation between employers and employees on issues concerning gender equality.

Such reporting also ensures that the status of gender equality in these workplaces remains on the radar of its executives, affords a launching platform to move forward, highlights progress in the business and enables the assessment of the benefits of implemented strategies since its last reporting. Such reporting also contributes to the aggregation of gender equality data across and within industries providing vital information for the nation’s status on gender equality and contextualising progress in historical terms, as well as leading to the identification of emerging trends in workplaces that can be used intersectionally to work on related areas such as child care, health, education and ageing.

Helen Conway, Director of WGEA reflected on the value of GEIs: “…over time we will have an incredible picture, indeed an unprecedented picture, of what gender equality in Australian workplaces looks like, We’ll use the data we get to drive change. And we think this will be the most effective driver of change that the Agency has ever had. We’ll disaggregate the data by industry and by organisational size and we’ll create benchmarks for people to work with. So organisations will be able to look at their performance, they’ll be able to see where their issues are, and importantly they’ll be able to see where they stand against their competitors. This is a very important tool for organisations to be able to drive gender equality outcomes in their workplaces.”

These outcomes became possible in February 2013 when WGEA was able to report from workplace profiles submitted to the Agency for the 2012-13 reporting period an overview of reporting organisations workforce data; women’s and men’s employment status and roles by industry enabling comparisons between industries; the availability of paid parental leave within reporting organisations by industry; the size of the gender pay gap by industry and an analysis of reporting organisations that have conducted or plan to conduct a gender pay gap analysis. Some key gender gap results were also derived in the Report – that of all managers in reporting organisations, 35.4% are women and 64.6% are men; and that of all CEOs in reporting organisations, 13.5% are women and 86.5% are men.

Such a clear picture was possible because of the reporting organisations for the 2012-13 period, 82% had employees between 0-999. Only 18% had 1000 or more employees. Changing gender reporting requirements so that only companies with 1000 or more staff will be required to provide annual reports will, therefore, have a serious impact on the scope, depth and analysis of the overall and specific data pertaining to gender equality in Australian workplaces. It would limit future planning for all stakeholders.

It has been reported that the Business Council of Australia supports the proposed changes to gender reporting. Their argument that there is sufficient data already available on gender equality indicators to enable the agency to prepare reports for the public and the Minister on trends in gender equality in the workplace does not take in to count the significance of tracking progress in gender equality measures, however small they might be, in reaching voluntary targets within an organisation.

Furthermore, the argument that reporting will divert resources from efforts to change recruitment and retention processes, performance management and other practices that are holding back individual women and the Australian economy as a whole does not acknowledge that processes around reporting were simplified and streamlined through online reporting following the 2009 review of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act, the predecessor of the WGEA (Act). Any adversarial fears were unrealised as the WGEA Agency remained a ‘light touch’ regulator, working in partnership with employers to encourage and advise them, and acknowledge employers who make progress. 

As progress for women lags, despite there being a strong economic justification for gender equality in workplaces and as organisations are being given the opportunity to regulate themselves in this area, it is important that WGEA, an Australian Government statutory agency charged with promoting and improving gender equality in Australian workplaces is provided with the information it requires to regulate and influence female workforce participation and gender equality.

Given the extensive national consultations with key stakeholders, reporting organisations and employees that was undertaken as part of the review of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act in June 2009 which led to the establishment of the 2012 WGEA (Act), changes to this Act that are being considered should be evaluated carefully with all stakeholders involved and on comprehensive terms that put into perspective the benefits of driving gender equality in Australian workplaces where the gender gap remains a reality.

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