This government wants to blame 'choices' over discrimination. That won't close the gender pay gap.

This government wants to blame ‘choices’ over discrimination. That won’t close the gender pay gap.

Equal pay day
Tomorrow (28th August) is Equal Pay Day and a great opportunity to review our Government’s road map to gender equality. But as Kristine Ziwica finds, there’s a lot of ‘choices’ being blamed for gender inequality, and less on discrimination — despite discrimination being a key contributor to the gender pay gap. 

Because this is the kind of thing I would do (I know, get a hobby I can hear you say), I recently re-read the Coalition government’s major set-piece policy papers in relation to gender equality from the last two years.

There is 2017’s “Towards 2025: An Australian Government Strategy to Boost Women’s Workforce Participation” and the “Greater Choice for Australian Women: Women’s Economic Security Statement 2018”.

I was prompted to do this following the publication last week of “She’s Priceless: The Economics of the Gender Pay Gap” by the Diversity Council Australia, KPMG and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA). The report was released ahead of (Un)Equal Pay Day this Wednesday, August 28th.

Ten years on from the landmark first “She’s Priceless” report, the updated report found that gender discrimination continues to be the single largest factor contributing to the gender pay gap, which according to new figures out two weeks ago sits at 14% and has barely shifted in a year. And disturbingly, the report found that discrimination is on the increase.

So, I wondered, how prominently does discrimination feature in the government’s recent road maps for gender equality, including action to address the gender pay gap?

In “Towards 2025”, the word discrimination appears just four times, one time in reference to age discrimination and three times in the footnotes in reference to other documents where discrimination appears in the title.

In “Greater Choice for Australian Women”, the word discrimination appears three times, two times in reference to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkin’s job title and one time in reference to age discrimination.

Since I was on a bit of gender equality buzz word search, I also looked for other terms one would find in policy documents and research papers in relation to gender equality — at least the good ones. Words like unconscious bias (or just bias), structural inequality or good old-fashioned sexism.

In “Towards 2025”, you’ll find the term unconscious bias appears one time, while structural, (inequality or otherwise) appears just one time in a footnote. And sexism? Not at all.

In “Greater Choice for Australian Women”, unconscious bias or bias do not appear at all, structural (in relation to inequality or barriers) does not appear except in one reference to the super system, and sexism…. again, not at all.

Tellingly, both documents are very big on the word choice. It appears in “Towards 2025” twelve times and “Greater Choice for Australian Women” thirteen times.

What this tells me is that we are dealing with a government that does not recognise discrimination as a factor in women’s inequality or the gender pay gap. It’s all about women’s “choices”. In effect, women are to blame, and if they can just be helped to make better “choices”, all will be right with the world.

And in that regard, this government’s particular brand of “choice feminism” is even more damaging than the kind of “choice feminism” that infected mainstream feminism in the 90’s. You remember that: the unchallenging, individualistic version of feminism that pitched every act emanating from individual women’s “choices” as feminist.

On a bit of a roll (and having not yet found a distracting hobby, though I’m quite certain some wish I would learn to knit, play chess…anything), I decided to take a closer look at what else this government has effectively erased from the gender equality landscape through conspicuous omission.

How about pregnancy discrimination?

Since a landmark 2014 report from the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), “Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review”, found that one in two (49%) of mothers reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace at some point during pregnancy, parental leave or return to work, that seemed like a pretty good place to start.

Sadly, pregnancy discrimination does not appear anywhere in “Towards 2025” or “Greater Choice for Australian Women”. That, to me, is a significant oversight, if that’s even the right word. It seems it could only have been by design, not accident.

And whatever happened to the AHRC pregnancy discrimination report’s recommendations, which included a call for better guidance for employers to stay on the right side of the law, action to address harmful stereotypes about pregnant workers and those with caring responsibilities, changes to address gaps in the current legislative and policy framework (including proposed changes to the SDA and Fair Work Act), and funding for a regular national prevalence survey every four years to chart progress or lack thereof?

(If the last recommendation had been taken up, we would have seen a follow up pregnancy discrimination prevalence survey last year. Just putting that out there….)

Nothing. The government, according to the AHRC, never formally responded. A princely sum of $150,000 was made available so the Commission could produce the suggested guidelines for employers, but nothing more. Not even further funding to evaluate the effectiveness of the guidelines in reaching the intended audience, employers, or gauge how effectively they reduced pregnancy discrimination. Yes, I checked that with the Commission too.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins told me, quite diplomatically I might add, that during her 2016 “listening tour” at the start of her tenure, “The conversations and the data told me that people were still experiencing pregnancy discrimination.”

“I believe discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, and family and caring responsibilities, is a key barrier to women’s economic security. It also impacts opportunities for women in leadership,” she added.

I agree. I just wish the government saw things the same way. Perhaps this year on (Un)Equal Pay day, we should urge them to look again.

Kristine Ziwica is a regular Women’s Agenda contributor. She tweets @KZiwica

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