In case you missed it, the government is conducting a review into the Workplace Gender Equality Act to consider how "we, as a nation, can improve workplace gender equality while also addressing the regulatory requirements of employers".
In case you are not familiar with Morrisonese, I'll translate. How can we gut the agency which doesn't have too many guts anyhow and make it utterly useless in its entirety?
Too harsh? This is the government which has done bugger-all about the Respect@Work report and has declined to embed the positive duty for employers in legislation. This is the government that went cray trying to stop freedom-of-information requests about matters involving former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, the victim of an alleged sexual assault. This is the government that has done even less than bugger-all about elevating the voices of women at the cabinet table - or at any level of participation in its party. It still struggles to understand that quotas work, so opposed it is to any form of rule-making around gender equity.
Right now there are "consultations" going on - you know the kind when some bright young expensive consultant sets up a whiteboard and draws circles with spokes, all the while not taking any notice of real concerns in the audience. OK, I do not know how old or clever the consultant is, but the rest will definitely be true.
There is a lot wrong with the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), but nothing which can be cured by less compliance or less "pink tape". We need more reporting, we need some carrots - but by god, we also need whips and sticks.
More reporting. This is what needs to happen now. Basically, the WGEA has seven focus areas: leadership, strategy and accountability developing a gender-balanced workforce, gender pay equity, support for caring, mainstreaming flexible work, preventing gender-based harassment and discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying, and driving change beyond your workplace. Imagine running those criteria over the current federal government. Massive fail across all areas (yes, it is true, there are finally some women in cabinet - but not many. And cabinet ministers earn a truckload more than your everyday member).
You might be surprised to know there are a whole bunch of workplaces which never have to report - and that includes government workplaces. Obvo. Imagine if the Coalition had to reflect on its own practice.
Here is what should happen in every workplace in Australia. In the same way you should not operate a business if you can't pay fair wages, I'd argue employers should take equality seriously.
Measure pay from the bottom to the top, and take action. Offer paid parental leave for women and for men. Think about the composition of your staff. Is it all women in lower positions? Do you think you can fix your problem by having a woman in an HR position, but nowhere else in positions of authority in your entire organisation?
And here's something which is crucial, and which the WGEA must tackle head on: the endemic disease of sexual harassment in our workplaces. As Marian Baird, professor of Gender and Employment Relations at the University of Sydney, says, it is a key area where the WGEA should intervene.
In 2020, former WGEA director Libby Lyons gave a speech for the University of Canberra celebrating the Commission on the Status of Women reporting an "action gap" around sexual harassment in workplaces. Nearly all those reporting to WGEA had a formal policy or strategy around sex-based harassment, but who knows what the results were of those. We know from the Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report, which finally made its way into the public eye this year, that Australia, once at the forefront of the move towards gender equality, now lags behind other countries in preventing and responding to sexual harassment. We also know from the 2018 national survey that almost two in five women - and one in four men - experience sexual harassment at work.
Baird is calling on the WGEA to ensure harassment is reported to the board, "not just sitting inside of human resources where it never sees the light of day".
It's clear the WGEA needs to act fast and hard on this. As sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins said in her report: "Workplace sexual harassment is not inevitable. It is not acceptable. It is preventable."
And the WGEA could do its part to prevent it.
The National Foundation for Australian Women's president Jane Madden says her organisation has concerns.
"We consider the government has set the minimum standards so low it is difficult for any employer to fail if they actually report. No wonder progress has stalled," she says.
The NFAW is calling for minimum performance standards to be set so poor performers in an industry are pushed to improve to their sector's average.
"We want their numbers to show the gender pay gaps narrowing, and the segregation into men's jobs and women's jobs falling," Madden says.
"We want to see WGEA able to focus now on the non-starters and the inert. If the poor performers have to meet a minimum standard then, over time, the floor will rise and new minimum performance numbers can be set."
My guess is that this review will end up with the WGEA being further neutered. This is not a government which believes in transparent reporting processes. Nor does it believe in gender equality. It is all photo opportunity and no actual adherence to process.
We all know how this government dealt with Brittany Higgins. Badly. With no respect or care. We have a government that does not want to know the real truth of what is happening to women.
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.