The 1999 EOW Act, which applies to all non-government and not for profit businesses employing more than 100 staff, requires an annual return to be made to EOWA regarding actions taken to improve outcomes for women in the workplace. Additionally, this report collects statistical data showing the penetration of women at different levels and in different work groups in your organisation.

Despite the good intentions of this Act and the associated reporting programme, limited progress has been made in the last 15 years. The gender pay gap for full time workers shows women lagging men by 17-18% and less than 14% of Directorships are held by women (although this is up from about 8% prior to the recent ASX reforms). Women remain very poorly represented at the senior executive level. Australia is behind NZ, UK, Canada, the US and South Africa on these measures. In the 2011 Global Gender Index of the World Economic Forum, Australia ranked 18th in Economic Participation and Opportunity and 76th in wage equality for similar work. Just imagine the outcry if either were an Olympic sport! Given those Fortune 500 US companies who ranked in the top quartile for female representation on boards attained a 66 per cent better return on capital investment than companies that ranked in the bottom quartile, it is reasonable to assume this lacklustre performance also represents a missed economic opportunity for Australia.

So perhaps it is indeed time for a change of tack.

Change of Focus

The new Act announced earlier this year and expected to pass into law later this year, will be rebranded as the Workplace Gender Equality act and will be enforced by the renamed Workplace Gender Equality Agency. It may seem counter intuitive to dilute the focus on the group deemed to be losing out. This development is most likely an acknowledgment that any sustainable change to the role and status of women at work is inextricably linked to all who are engaged in the world of work, both men and women, and particularly everyone’s availability to share in family responsibilities.

The new Agency will focus initially on two issues: equal remuneration outcomes for men and women, and on eliminating discrimination related to family and carer responsibilities. Other areas of focus may be added in due course.

The content of reporting required from organisations under the new regime will also change. They will no longer be required to provide detail of the multiple programmes put in place to promote equality (inputs, but instead measure the actual outcomes achieved, on a smaller number of key criteria (outputs). The Agency will not direct or investigate how outcomes are to be achieved by the employer but will focus on what is achieved.

Comprehensive Data Base

The current option for reporting waivers, often used by larger organisations, will be removed. In addition, the Agency will now have the ability to identify all employers of more than 100 employees, two thirds of whom are reportedly not currently filing returns. With this more comprehensive data set, likely to be in a standardised format, the WGEA should, for the first time, have a clear and complete picture of the EO situation in Australia with larger employers, and be able to track trends and benchmarks. One imagines it will then be possible for WGEA to target resources and attention to those areas of activities, and to those businesses or sectors, where the greatest leverage is to be found.

Minimum Standards

The WGEA organisation, as part of the new operating model, will set minimum standards for designated gender equity measure before the 2014 reporting year (2014-15), and employers will need to meet these standards in the report for year ending March 2015.

Increased Engagement

A second major plank in the change aims to ensure greater engagement of Boards, CEOs, staff, unions and shareholder in the matter of workplace equity. There will be a new requirement that reports submitted to WGEA are signed by the CEO. This will improve on current reality where often a conscientious HR department completes the return, but the senior Executive remain blissfully ignorant of its content.

In future, it will also be a requirement to notify key stakeholders- employees , unions and shareholders about the report, and also offer them the opportunity to comment on the report, either to the employer or to WGEA. It is reasonable to anticipate that wider access to the reported data will create increased pressure on management teams to explain their performance, or more particularly under performance. It is equally probable that wider report availability will provide an increased number of parties monitoring the integrity of the data submitted.

Compliance

Annual Reports will be required from employers with more than 100 employees in Australia, and also Higher Education institutions. WGEA will know who these employers are, and be empowered to spot check employers for returns and for the accuracy of the returns.

Employers will be provided with support if they fail to meet minimum standards in one year, but will be deemed to have failed to comply if they fail in two consecutive years. Non-compliant employers may be ineligible for Commonwealth grants, contracts and financial assistance, and may be ‘named and shamed’ in a report to the Minister, in Parliament or to the media. It will become illegal for the Federal Government to award a contract, grant or industry assistance program to a company that is ignoring the gender equality act.

Resources

WGEA will have resources available to assist employers looking for best practice (or to reach minimum standards). Support will be available to all organisations, whether employing more or less than 100 staff.

Nuts and Bolts

The new Reports will be able to be submitted on line. The reporting year under review will remain 1 April to 31 March of the following year, with reports to be submitted by end May. The current report format will continue for the reporting year April 2012-March 2013. The first year of the new reporting format will be year ending March 2014 at which time workforce data will be required. Minimum standards will be advised by 1st April 2014, with a requirement for employers to report against the
new standards in the report submitted in March 2015.

In Summary

Be aware disclosure is coming. If you don’t have a diversity strategy in place, now is the time to develop one. Even if you have less than 100 employees it is worth taking the time to develop a strategy – it’s an investment in your company’s future and it shows your employees that you are committed to creating a workplace that is supportive of ALL employees.

Senior executives need to be across the equity indicators for their business, in the same way they undoubtedly focus on safety stats. Start the dialogue about key indicators and how they should be reported to the leadership now.

Be aware that broad consultation and engagement is expected. If you have no mechanisms for dialogue with or feedback from your employees on diversity issues, now is the time to implement a process. New starter reviews, equity networks, employee surveys, exit interviews and use of OHS processes such as toolbox talks are all worth considering. Consider also how you will communicate with shareholders and relevant Unions.

Encourage participation of staff from a broad range of roles and at different levels of seniority. From our experience, we often find that organisations appoint managers to lead committees or new initiatives leading to a lack of information about what is happening at the coalface, and a tendency to paint things as being better than they are for fear of it reflecting badly on management. Get some of your Gen Y employees on board!

Make sure your HR system actually enables you to analyse key gender statistics in your organisation. Start with relative pay levels. What gets measured, gets managed

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