One of the key commitments that the Prime Minister and Minister for Women, Tony Abbott, brought away from the G20 was that Australia would build women’s workforce participation rates. Specifically, Australia, like all the other G20 countries, committed to reduce the current gap between women’s and men’s workforce participation rates by 25 per cent by 2025.
The issue now is, how he proposes to make this happen. The machinery for driving workforce participation has many moving parts, and the Government will need to have recourse to many of them to meet its G20 target.
The reason why increasing women’s participation was made a G20 priority is economic: if, successful, it should help mitigate the impact of ageing populations and would certainly support stronger economic growth and productivity. The OECD estimates a boost to women’s participation of this scale would add more than $1 trillion to the global economy by 2025.
As far back as 2006, Access Economics estimated that, for Australia, halving the gap between men and women’s participation in the full-time workforce would result in a gain of $98.4 billion in real output by 2041-42.
The Coalition of Working Women has made this same point each time the Government has tried to scupper one of the key mechanisms it has in place to increase women’s workplace participation: the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).
In 2012 and again in February and July 2014, the Abbott Government has questioned reforms that underpin WGEA’s ability to gather and benchmark meaningful data about women’s workforce participation.
Repeatedly, women have had to remind the Government that gender equality is not a form of red tape, or some sort of institutionalised annoyance to employers, but a key contributor to Australia’s longer term economic performance.
And yet, though the Government should be drawing on WGEA’s work to help drive progress towards the G20 target, there has not been a word about its potentially critical role.
When asked in a Dorothy Dixer to spell out how Australia would act to meet its target, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women referred to “a number of policies either in place or proposed which will achieve this target, including improving access to affordable, flexible, accessible child care; instigating the largest review of the childcare system since the 1990s; and enhancements to existing paid parental leave, which will recognise PPL as a workplace entitlement and will include superannuation.”
Set aside for the moment the peculiar view that having public servants, and not employers, administer paid parental leave is the way to have it recognised as a workplace entitlement and not welfare.
More generally, it is worth noting that none of the improved policies identified by the Minister (apart from the review) is actually operational, and a number of them have spent some considerable time on the drawing board.
If, as has been reported recently, the drawing board throws up amendments to child care policy that will simplify and target payments, making use of funds from an adjusted and better targeted paid parental leave scheme, the wait may prove worth while.
We also welcome the re-think of the Governments paid parental leave policy. We look forward to the release of the Productivity Commission’s report into childcare and early leaning and to learning the detail of the new arrangements for both paid parental leave and child care. We hope that the changes will make it possible for nurses and tram drivers and women who work in Woollies on shifts to get access to flexible quality subsidised in-home care.
This does not, however, change the fact that none of the Government’s proposed improvements is actually in place and there is no clear timetable for any to be put in place. What is in place, and working very effectively, is WGEA.
Unlike the policies listed by the Minister, WGEA deals with what actually happens at Australian workplaces. Each year, it calls upon employers to gather hard information about gender differentials in their workplaces. Each year, it provides employers in return with a benchmark report that they can link to strategies to improve workplace gender equality.
These include seriously addressing such matters as gender pay differences, work and family measures that are career stoppers for both women and men, gender stereotyping in all its forms and sex-based harassment.
Of course child care and parental leave are important issues for women weighing up whether they should try to re-enter the workforce. But so also are workplaces, and what is likely to happen to them there.
If the Government wants to see an estimated 200,000 additional women participating in the Australian labour force in 2025, it should support WGEA’s capacity to gather data and to report to employers and to government about the progress we are making towards our G20 target.