Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall speaks in support of closing the gender pay gap

29 March 2023

 I rise to support the Workplace Gender Equality Amendment (Closing the Gender Pay Gap) Bill 2023. The bill seeks to improve workplace gender equality by committing to closing the gender pay gap and implementing recommendations 2, 3, 5 and 9 of the 2021 review of the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012. The effect is to improve data collection and reporting of the current state of the gender pay gap in Australia. We know that sunlight is the best disinfectant, so it's hoped that greater exposure and transparency of the gender pay gap issue will drive improved action to address it. But there are certainly further steps that can be taken.

I have to say: it is deeply frustrating that here we are in 2023 still having a debate about gender pay equality, still in a situation where the gap is staying stubbornly wide. There is a lack of accountability, transparency and change. It is so frustrating that we are still so far from pay equality. This pay inequality is compounded over the years and the working life of a woman. We know the superannuation gap is not narrowing. We know women aged over 55 are the fastest-growing group facing homelessness due to their financial circumstances. We must start somewhere, and I commend this bill for approaching some aspects of it but there is a lot more to be done.

Where are we at? Recent research from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows that the gender pay gap in Australia in 2023 is impacting women across every industry, in every occupation and at every age or life stage. The current overall national gender pay gap sits at 14.1 per cent; that is 0.3 per cent higher than six months ago. We're not heading in the right direction. Women, on average, earn $263.90 less per week than men. This difference, combined with cost-of-living pressures, is placing really significant stress on Australian households, particularly for single parents.

KPMG estimates that the unequal distribution of household and child-rearing labour is responsible for some 39 per cent of the gap—something that a strong paid parental leave scheme can improve. It also means that everyone needs to lean in a little more. We need to make sure this is a whole-of-society issue to ensure we do better. Adding part-time workers' data widens the gender pay gap for all employees to 29.7 per cent. Some of the largest gaps are in professional, scientific and technical services, and healthcare and financial and insurance services—some of the biggest employment sectors in Warringah for my community. Perhaps most disappointing is that, despite all the talk and rhetoric and policy intervention, the gap has closed by only five per cent since 1983—so 40 years to reach five per cent. It is just unacceptable.

This bill purports to implement, in part or in full, recommendations 2, 3, 5 and 9 of the review. In reality, however, it only addresses those recommendations in part. It is mystifying to me and to many why it does not address them in full; that really is a question for the government.

Added to this, there are other recommendations of the review which could also have been included but aren't, in particular recommendation 7, which tightens up the reporting requirements and, importantly, recommends amending the act in line with ABS standards to collect data on non-binary people. Again, it's mystifying why the bill only does half the job, thereby wasting a valuable opportunity.

Per recommendation 2, the bill requires the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to publish gender pay gap information of relevant employers for each reporting period whilst at the same time including provisions protecting confidential data relating to individuals. We have recommendation 3, titled, 'Bridge the "action gap" with new gender equality standards'. This contains two recommendations.

Recommendation 3.2 has been implemented through this bill, requiring relevant employers to provide executive summary reports and industry benchmark reports to their board or governing body and report the date on which this is done. Recommendation 3.1, on the other hand, is only partly addressed. That is that the instrument be amended to do three things:

a. add a new minimum standard to require relevant employers with 500 or more employees to commit to, achieve and report to WGEA on measurable genuine targets to improve gender equality in their workplace against three of the six gender equality indicators

The bill doesn't address this, so I ask the minister and the government: why not?

b. strengthen the existing minimum standards to require relevant employers with 500 or more employees to have policies or strategies that cover all six gender equality indicators 

Again, this bill does not address these recommendations; why not?

c. rename the minimum standards to be 'gender equality standards.'

This, the least onerous recommendation, has been implemented, thereby allowing the government to proclaim it is implementing this recommendation. But, again, it's only in part. I don't understand why it's never quite the whole way when it comes to implementing the recommendations.

The bill implements recommendation 5—to support the Respect@Work implementation to prevent and address workplace sex-based harassment and discrimination—but deals with this recommendation in a way which is different from the review, though the intent, I acknowledge, remains the same. There are some gaps, though, in this legislation.

The bill does not address recommendation 7, which encourages intersectional data collection to reflect the true state of gender equality in the economy. It would paint a more holistic picture to understand how gender interacts with other factors to contribute to compounding the gender pay gap across certain groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women living with disabilities, culturally and linguistically diverse women, young women and non-binary people.

Another gap in the bill is that it does not include partnership data. However, this dataset is more complex to justify gender gaps in, as partners do not receive a salary and take on more financial risk. Their remuneration can often be drawn from the success of their practice and economic trends. The bill also does not address or seek to clarify the superannuation gap between men and women. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, women retire with one-third of the superannuation that men do, and the superannuation gap between men and women in some age groups is as high as 47.8 per cent.

In summary, the government can be congratulated for implementing some of these recommendations, but it is in part. It goes a significant way towards implementing the recommendations of the review, but on a close analysis it is still half-hearted, and there are still so many more aspects of the recommendations that have been left on the table.

Transparency is only part of the solution, of course, when we're talking about the gender pay gap. I welcome the commitments from the government to improve gender pay equity, including increased paid parental leave, improved affordability of child care and increased pay transparency in the Fair Work Act amendments. There is a strong economic case for these changes. For example, increasing the paid parental leave entitlements to 26 weeks will cost the government some $600 million per year, but it will add $900 million per year to GDP, as well as boosting a mother's lifetime earnings by $30,000. Australia has one of the least generous paid parental leave schemes in the world—highly gendered and discriminatory and considering only a woman's income in the calculation of eligibility. However, these improvements to parental leave policy really need to be implemented as soon as possible. We need to start seeing significant changes to workforce structures.

The other key driver is improving childcare affordability and accessibility. The government has pledged some $4.5 billion to make child care more affordable. It will provide much-needed support for parents and help women increase their participation in the workforce. However, the sector has called on the government to address the critical worker shortage. There were already some 7,000 vacancies across the sector in September last year, and with the government's proposed changes that could increase to over 25,000 according to some in the sector. Wages increases are necessary to attract and retain an adequate workforce in this female dominated industry, but of course there needs to be better long-term planning.

Finally—and I think this is a matter of priority for the government—a key issue that must be addressed in this budget in May, as a matter of urgency, is dealing with the single parent support payment. If the government is serious about addressing pay inequality between men and women, it must address the poorest women who are impacted, who are single mothers. The single parent support payment tells single mothers: 'We appreciate and value your role as mothers, raising the future generation, the future of our country, until they turn eight. After that, we will consider you unemployed and we will put you on a JobSeeker payment.' That is unacceptable. It leaves children and women in circumstances of having to choose, often in cases of domestic violence, to stay in dangerous situations. It is policy induced poverty. So many women have come to me and many of my colleagues to talk about how they have had to abandon hopes of education, of studying to improve their job prospects, just because of that pressure of making ends meet once their child has turned eight. So, if the government is fair dinkum and genuine in wanting to talk about pay on gender equality, we must address those who are the most vulnerable in the system, and they are single mothers. So we must, as a matter of urgency, change the legislation to ensure the single parent payment goes from changing when the youngest child reaches the age of eight to changing when the child reaches the age of 16.

Let's get real. There is so much discrepancy here when it comes to how we, the government and our system deal with children. We don't consider them to be responsible enough to vote until they're 18. They can't drink alcohol till they're 18. They can't gamble till they're 18. They start to learn to drive when they are 16. But they can be criminally responsible when they're 10, and we say to parents, 'It's no longer a priority to parent them, and we won't support you in a parenting role for that child, from the age of eight.' So let's get real. Where are our priorities? We need to start genuinely addressing pay inequality, and that starts with very simple measures that the government can prioritise in this budget in May.