A conversation with Tanya Plibersek: Quotas, pay gap, gender in Cabinet and returning to work after a baby | Women's Agenda

A conversation with Tanya Plibersek: Quotas, pay gap, gender in Cabinet and returning to work after a baby

Tanya Plibersek knows her way around the issues facing Australian women. Given the Deputy Leader of the Opposition’s CV, it isn’t surprising. She spent a year as the Women’s Officer at UTS following the completion of her Arts degree. After graduating with a master’s degree in politics and public affairs from Macquarie University, she then worked for the Domestic Violence Unit at the Office for the Status and Advancement of Women in New South Wales.

At the age of 29, in 1998, she became a member of parliament, elected in the safe Labor seat of Sydney which she has retained since then. In 2004 she was elected to the Shadow cabinet where she was responsible for portfolios for Work, Family and Community and Youth and Early Childhood Education. She was also the Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader on the Status of Women.

When Kevin Rudd took over the leadership of the Labor Party in 2006 Plibersek was promoted to Shadow Minister for Human Services, Housing, Youth and Women. After winning the 2007 Federal election she became Minister for the Status of Women, among other portfolios. During the re-shuffles that ensued throughout the next two terms she was variously responsible for portfolios including Human Services, Social Inclusion and Health. After Labor’s defeat at the election last year, Plibersek was appointed deputy leader of the opposition.

While her working life might not reflect the reality of many other working mothers, in the midst of her parliamentary career Plibersek has had three children, the youngest of whom was born in 2010. She has successfully progressed her political career at the same time as raising her small children. While in a gender-equal world that wouldn’t be worth noting, it is in this day and age. Simply because it is something very few women have achieved in Australian politics.

But Plibersek cautions against extrapolating too far, or too much, from the fact women like her have achieved senior ranks.

“The fact that some women have achieved high office and financial success shouldn’t divert us from asking the question about what is happening for the average Australian woman,” she says.

Recently I sat down with Tanya Plibersek to discuss her working life and her views on what is happening for the average Australian woman and the issues that impact them most.

From a gender equality perspective how do you think Australian women fare at work?

If you look at Australian women’s achievements – certainly educationally – we do terrifically well. We have got women in very senior positions; we have had a female prime minister, we’ve had female premiers and lord mayors. But if you talk about the majority of women I’d say they are still at a disadvantage. They face discrimination regarding pay and in terms of career advancement.

Why do you think that is?

There are a range of structural reasons. Things like women being underrepresented on boards and the pay gap, are symptoms of the issue, however, rather than the issue itself. At the heart of the issue is the fact it’s still really difficult to balance work and caring responsibilities.

How can that difficulty be alleviated?

A few things can make it easier. Good quality, affordable and accessible childcare is the starting point. Parents won’t leave kids in care if they’re not satisfied with quality as well as affordability.

We have a long way to go before it really makes sense to work. Lots of people make a financial calculation about having two kids in childcare; often they’re working just to pay childcare and for most families that’s a very real calculation.

In the long run I’d say it’s always worth it because even if you struggle financially for a few years, if women are out of the workforce for 5-7 years, they never go back to where they were on their career trajectory.

In terms of workplaces employers have to be more accommodating of men and women’s caring responsibilities. For their children and for other family members too – like ageing parents. Ultimately it’s about understanding that all employees have responsibilities. And, in fact, having people who are responsive parents and children and partners and carers is probably what they’re looking for in an employee. It’s a good thing that a person can juggle more than one responsibility at one time.

Another issue is that women cannot reach their full capacity at work if men don’t share the load at home. That’s a social and cultural thing. It’s not about government lecturing people about how to run their private lives but it’s fair enough to call it. Knowing that women still do the bulk of unpaid domestic labour and pointing that out is really not a bad thing. Women can’t achieve at work unless men the share load at home.

On working with young babies

I couldn’t take long maternity leave but I could bring my babies to work. I felt tired and sleep deprived but I didn’t feel I was depriving my baby or that I was neglecting my work – I realise they’re very unusual circumstances. In a sense I was my own boss which meant I could set my hours and have some flexibility.

Why are working parents good value?

What I’ve found as an employer of women with young babies is you get extremely good value. Working mothers still feel the need to prove they can do both things and not just competently but incredibly.

Working parents – and particularly working mums – are often incredibly effective. They want to get in and get their job done which means they’re focused and productive. And they’re used to doing a million things at once.

So why don’t more employers make the most of this valuable resource?

It takes some more creativity to accommodate. It is true that employers are always looking for the best person for the job. And the best employers, the most successful and most profitable employers, are those that recognise the best person for the job is not always the cookie cutter worker; someone who has no family responsibilities, is available at all hours and prepared to be there at all times.

Sometimes the people who get in, put their heads down and have to leave at 5pm to get the kids at 6pm are the most productive and efficient workers. It just requires employers to think in more depth and detail about what they want from their workforce.

Sometimes the people who get in, put their heads down and have to leave at 5pm to get the kids at 6pm are the most productive and efficient workers. It just requires employers to think in more depth and detail about what they want from their workforce.


What can individual women do?

In 2009 we introduced industrial relations legislation that gave employees the right to request different working arrangements. Employers don’t have to grant the request but it has a legal obligation to consider it. The idea is to force employers to think through alternative arrangements. “This employee has a great brain and makes a valuable contribution at work– does her job need to be 5 days a week, 12 hrs a day? Is there another way we can make it work?”

How did the global financial crisis impact women?

Before the global financial crisis, the conversation about workplace flexibility was really taking off because back then the focus was on the war for talent. That’s what was discussed. That then went off the boil because after the GFC the focus moved to job security rather than job flexibility.

We need to return to that conversation which is really about how to get the best from people.

How can the government lead by example?

When I was the minister for women we started a conversation about the representation of women on boards. I couldn’t credibly speak to business about them increasing the number of women on their boards, unless we took action ourselves. We set a 40:40 target for all government boards and we met it two years early.

If you go backwards in the representation of women in senior positions in the government, how can you possibly say to business that it’s important that they reflect the community better? Frankly how can you say it to our own government bodies?

On the current gender composition of Cabinet

We’ve gone from 13 women out of 42 to 6. And in the senior ministry we have gone from six women to one.

This idea that there aren’t women appropriate in the Liberal party and the National party to be in the Cabinet or in the ministry, I find perplexing. If every single man in Cabinet was a complete knock out you might say “Well this is a fluke of history. For the first time ever there, you’re right, there is not a single appropriate woman as qualified as the men.” But it’s not like that.

It’s like when John Howard was asked about using the opportunity to appoint the first female Governor-General, he said there was no woman appropriate for the role. So in a population of 20-plus million people there wasn’t a single woman suitable?

If every single man in Cabinet was a complete knock out you might say “Well this is a fluke of history. For the first time ever there, you’re right, there is not a single appropriate woman as qualified as the men.” But it’s not like that

Why is there a gender pay gap?

One reason is we have traditionally undervalued work done by women. Society has always undervalued caring work and woman have traditionally – I don’t know about being attracted to but have found themselves – for a variety of reasons, working in childcare, aged care and nursing for example. And we continue to undervalue those jobs.

What can a government do?

The first and most important thing is as a government agreeing it’s an issue worth working on and leading by example. You have to say it’s important and make it a priority of your own action and activity.

Then you look at barriers. Childcare is really important and so is paid parental leave but I think $5.5 billion could be better spent on childcare.

You can use the industrial relations system to make changes but you also have to make use of them. Changing a law is the only the first step, you need to use them too.

Men, women and domestic work

Culturally this isn’t a matter for government but it’s a matter for society. We need a continuing conversation about making it easier for men and women to share the load at home. There’s a lot of men that want to have a better relationship – or a more involved relationship – with their kids than their own fathers had. There is an expectation among younger women today that their partner will do their fair share and there is willingness among couples that it will be shared.

But if you have workplaces that continue to expect men to work in a way that makes it impossible for them to do their fair share at home, then it’s a very substantial problem. We need less discriminatory workplaces for men and women.

Is it time for quotas?

If we were in government we wouldn’t automatically go to quotas but having a strong interest and leadership from government is absolutely critical. You cannot leave this to itself. It will not fix itself.

What I saw when I was working in the area of private sector boards was because at the government level we were taking it seriously and setting targets and so on, we saw those in industry and business to do the same.

With government leadership, changed reporting requirements and terrific people like Elizabeth Broderick putting it on the agenda and keeping it there, we saw improvements in the number of women directors and senior executives in the private sector.

I think you can actually do it with leadership, moral persuasion, and walking the walk. What disturbs me, though, is when a government moves backwards on these issues, what if it leads those in business to think, well if they don’t take it seriously why should we? Where do we end up?

What do you make of Tony Abbott being the Minister for Women?

It’s politics. He’s been told he has a problem with women and this might make him look like a terrific feminist new-age bloke. I think that’s missed the mark because it’s drawn attention to the fact many people think he’s inappropriate as an advocate for equality.

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