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Gender equality - a delicate balancing act for Fair Work Australia

By Malcolm Colless - posted Monday, 20 June 2011

The sensitive issue of gender equality is back in the spotlight with a preliminary ruling late last month by Fair Work Australia on pay rates in the community services industry.

Historically the equal pay argument has centered on claims that women should not be discriminated against when they are performing the same duties as men. But the twist in the case currently before the Fair Work tribunal is the claim that community services sector workers who are largely women are paid less than their counterparts in similar state and local government areas where there is equal pay for equal work between male and female employees.

Important as it is, equal pay is just one part of the broad issue of gender equity. Equal opportunity for women in the workforce is probably the most emotive aspect of this. In recent weeks we have seen the Federal Government commit the Defence Department to guaranteeing a role for women alongside men on the military front line.


It may be sheer coincidence but this move comes at a time when The Department of Defence is struggling to cope with allegations of sexual harassment and abuse of women serving in the armed forces. Time will tell whether this practice, which has been adopted by some other armed forces around the world, works satisfactorily. The test has to be that the standard of performance of our armed services is not compromised.

Of course we have had women officers serving alongside their male colleagues in the Police Force for many years and there have been no moves to scrap this practice.

Equality is one thing but affirmative action or the introduction of mandatory quotas for women is a different issue altogether. Although, those promoting this practice would strenuously disagree.

Speaking earlier this year Kate Ellis, the Minister for the Status of Women, said the Federal Government was working to meet its promise for women to make up 40 per cent of public boards by 2015. "Our preference would not be to impose a formal quota on Australia's corporate boardrooms. But it's not something I am prepared to take off the table," she warned.

In a similar vein Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, said he supported a quota to ensure that there was 30 per cent representation by women on boards as a "last resort" if companies had not achieved this target themselves by 2015.

But Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, and the deputy Leader, Julie Bishop, both distanced themselves from the mandatory imposition of quotas on company boards. No doubt the fact that the Liberals, unlike Labor, have not imposed female quotas for the pre-selection of party candidates influenced their thinking. But regardless of this women make up 10 per cent of Abbott's front bench and 19 per cent of the broader shadow ministry in a parliament where 28 per cent of the total members are female.


The danger with quotas whether for political positions, board directorships or whatever, is that they can be interpreted as undermining the fundamental issue of merit. Surely this is demeaning for a woman who punches through a male dominated corporate glass ceiling on her own talent only to be seen as achieving this through a numbers game where merit comes a long second.

In December 1972 the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission (as it was then known) handed down a benchmark decision on the issue of equal pay for females. In that decision a Full Bench of the Commission ruled that the then existing principle of equal pay for equal work was too narrow in the changing world environment at the time and should be broadened to embrace equal pay for work of equal value. In a nutshell this meant that award rates for all work should be considered without regard to the sex of an employee.

The commission said it had considered the economic consequences of its decision and recognised that this would lead to a substantial boost in the country's total wages bill. "In our view the community is prepared to accept the concept of equal pay for females and should therefore be prepared to accept the economic consequences of this decision," the commission said.

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About the Author

Malcolm Colless is a freelance journalist and political commentator. He was a journalist on The Times in London from 1969-71 and Australian correspondent for the Wall Street Journal from 1972-76. He was political editor of The Australian, based in Canberra, from 1977-81 and a director of News Ltd from 1991-2007.

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