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Achieving equality: not quite there, but we're making good progress

By Pru Goward - posted Friday, 13 August 2004

George Orwell's novel about the tyranny of thought crime and the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act were both set in 1984. Some said this was no accident. Every now and then there are glimpses of Orwell's nightmare, especially in the language of marketing and politics.

But by and large we do not live in a world of totalitarian control and lies masked as PR gobbledygook. Neither has the Sex Discrimination Act destroyed the family nor installed children in Soviet-style camps, thus fulfilling the dire prophesies of the act's parliamentary opponents 20 years ago.

The act followed, rather than preceded, decades of economic and technological change. Women working during World War II, the pill, the lifting of the marriage bar on women working in the public service and the first pay equity cases all happened before the end of the 1960s, under conservative governments.


A Liberal government ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and a Labor government gave expression to it with the Sex Discrimination Act. By 1984 Australians had made their view of changing gender roles very clear. The act was the will of the people.

The act is intended to foster a culture of equality. Only in a police state could it do this single-handedly; by construction it is intended to work with the national interest, with common sense, with economic and technical change, with progress and with the will of the people.

But the act is still young. Many of the act's provisions have not been considered and remain unclear. However, the use of litigation to encourage workplace arrangements that enable women to work and have a family is a profound achievement.

Individual complaints cannot effect broad-scale change. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission received slightly more than 350 complaints of sex discrimination last year, broadly in keeping with previous years. While these complaints have changed the lives and sometimes attitudes of the thousands of employers and women involved, complaint conciliation is the slow boat to equality in a workforce of five million people.

Yet the power of the complaints process is that the ripples spread much further than those directly affected by a complaint. The effect has been to encourage employers to adopt proactive and preventive policies.

This is obvious in the case of sexual harassment but also means employers want to make sure their personnel practices in areas such as recruitment, dismissal and the provision of family-friendly conditions protect the interests of men and women working for them. The act is also common sense. For instance, more may be expected of large employers than of small in discharging vicarious liability.


The debate which has accompanied changing industrial practice has helped ginger up state and federal governments. The public sector has emerged as an employer of choice for women seeking to balance work and family responsibilities. The provision of child-care subsidies, fringe benefits tax rulings for on-site child care, after-school care centres and - belatedly - a lump sum equivalent of paid maternity leave, all reflect that our parliaments are beginning to recognise the central role governments must play in advancing substantive equality for those workers with primary responsibility for their families.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for the act today is to ensure it is relevant to the lives and choices of men. That they are able to be engaged fathers as well as breadwinners. That the family responsibilities provisions of the act, for example, are extended to provide better coverage for men.

But it would be naive to claim that alone the act or any of its functions can achieve gender equality in Australia. Murder laws have not stopped murder. Just as the act's beginning was preceded by economic and technological change, so the demographic, technological and economic shifts occurring today will ineluctably move us towards greater equality of choice between men and women.

Ageing, declining fertility, privatisation of retirement, global competition, technical change and the shift to a services economy all make it more, not less important, that we become a meritorious society. The contentment of all depends on it. That is the challenge for the next 20 years.

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This article was previously published by the Sydney Morning Herald on 28 July 2004.

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About the Author

Pru Goward is Australias Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

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