The introduction of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012 (Cth) proposes to create a new reporting framework for employers.
The introduction of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012 (Cth) follows a review conducted by the Office for Women in the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, which highlighted the importance of gender equality to maximising Australia’s productive potential and ensuring continued economic growth.
The changes proposed in the Bill include:
- amending the existing Equal Opportunities for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 (Cth) (the Act) and renaming it the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 (Cth);
- amending the objects of the Act to emphasise improvements to the productivity and competitiveness of Australian business through the advancement of gender equality for both women and men in the workplace; and
- giving the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (the Agency) expanded functions and powers and renaming it as the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.
Gender equality indicators
The proposed amendments to the principal objects of the Act are reflected in the “gender equality indicators”. The Bill defines gender equality indicators to mean:
- gender composition of the workforce;
- gender composition of governing bodies of relevant employers;
- equal remuneration between women and men;
- availability and utility of employment terms, conditions and practices relating to flexible working arrangements for employees and to working arrangements supporting employees with family or caring responsibilities;
- consultation with employees on issues concerning gender equality in the workplace; and
- any other matters specified in an instrument made by the Minister.
The functions of the Agency will be expanded to include the development of benchmarks relating to the gender equality indicators. The Bill will also enable the Minister to set industry-specific minimum standards in consultation with industry and experts.
It is intended that the gender equality indicators will result in the provision of standardised data and information in relevant employers’ reports. This standardised data will enable employers to measure their progress both year-to-year and against other employers.
Under the current reporting framework, relevant employers (which include employers with 100 or more employees in Australia and higher education institution employers) are required to prepare a report about the outcomes of their “equal opportunity for women in the workplace programs”. These programs are aimed at eliminating discrimination against women and ensuring equal opportunity for women in the workplace.
The new framework shifts the reporting focus from workplace programs to the gender equality indicators, with relevant employers required to report on their compliance with the gender equality indicator minimum standards.
Under the new reporting framework relevant employers will be required to:
- lodge a public report signed by their chief executive officer (however described);
- inform employees and any shareholders or members that a public report has been lodged and provide them with access to the report;
- inform unions that a public report has been lodged; and
- inform employees and unions of the opportunity to provide comments on the public report to the Agency and/or to the relevant employer.
Failure to comply with the reporting requirements will expose relevant employers to the consequences of non-compliance.
Consequences for non-compliance
A relevant employer will fail to comply with the Act if the employer:
- fails to lodge a public report on time;
- fails to meet a gender equality indicator minimum standard for two consecutive reporting periods;
- fails to provide information regarding its compliance with the Act when requested to do so by the Agency; or
- provides false, misleading or inaccurate information to the Agency.
Currently, if a relevant employer fails to comply without reasonable excuse, the Agency may identify non-compliant employers in its annual report to the Minister.
A new consequence for non-compliance is ‘naming and shaming’ relevant employers. Employers may be named as having failed to comply with the Act along with the details of their non-compliance in a report to the Minister or by other means, such as on the Agency’s website or in a newspaper. However, prior to ‘naming and shaming’ an employer, the Agency must notify the employer and provide the employer with 28 days to make written submissions regarding the reasons why this should not occur.
Non-compliant employers may also be ineligible to compete for Commonwealth procurement contracts, Commonwealth grants or other financial assistance. The Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill provides that Commonwealth policy in relation to funding and procurement may include requirements that agencies refuse to engage, or provide funding and financial assistance to, organisations that are found to be non-compliant with the Act.
Implications for employers
The proposed amendments (if passed) will be introduced in phases. A modified reporting regime will apply to the reporting period commencing 1 April 2012.
Employers with over 100 employees will be required to:
- report annually to shareholders, employees and unions on gender equality indicators from 31 March 2013; and
- meet minimum standards for each gender equality indicator from 31 March 2015.
- consider how their organisation is currently performing against the gender equality indicators and identify any areas where improvement is required;
- establish procedures for consulting with employees, shareholders and employee organisations in relation to workplace gender equality issues; and
- keep up-to-date with the progress of the Bill and seek advice regarding transitioning to the new arrangements.