Sex Discrimination Act blows out 20 candles


Sex Discrimination Act blows out 20 candles

The Sex Discrimination Act turns 20 on Sunday.


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The Sex Discrimination Act turns 20 on Sunday.

Considered a landmark achievement for the rights of women, the Federal Sex Discrimination Act has provided a legal recourse against discrimination, a particularly powerful tool for women's rights in how they live, work and play. More than 13,000 complaints have been made under the Act since its introduction in 1984. 

But the Act has not yet enabled our working world to be discrimination free, particularly for women. According to statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women still earn significantly less than their male counterparts. Paid maternity leave remains a political debate, despite plenty of examples of the positive contribution it makes to women’s working life from the majority of OECD countries that have introduced it. Studies by Australia HREOC suggest that around 28% of women still experience sexual harassment in the workplace. Women also tend to accumulate about half the superannuation that men do.

Incumbent Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward told WorkplaceInfo that the most important thing on the agenda going forward was creating family-friendly workplaces.

‘We have got over the rubbish about employers asking women whether they have children in the recruitment process, it is not accepted practice that that’s not acceptable, but there is still someway to go to make workplaces family friendly,’ she said. ‘We now have to focus on the idea of better enabling women with families to work. And it’s is not just women. The same rights need to be available to men as well who want to work part-time or need time off for families.’ 

Goward called for more government intervention at both a state and federal level to improve the situation. ‘The Government needs to do more for low-income workers where family-friendly policies are no longer available industrially,’ she said. ‘And as a lot of regulation happens through the State Governments, they also need to do more.’

Those working in the HR/IR profession can do their own bit to help stamp out sex discrimination, said Goward. 

‘HR/IR people need to establish the business case for equitable practices with their bosses,’ she said. ‘They need to encourage and inspire the boss to take action. You won’t get change unless it comes from the top.’

Goward also told a conference in Sydney last week that future economic realities will help further equality in the workplace.

‘Strong forces will propel us to protect women’s right in the future. Economic and social conditions will depend on it,’ she said. ‘We cannot fix the skills shortage by immigration. We need to enable women to work and get women back to the workforce.’

Legal threat to improvements

Seen by some as the greatest threat to the movement for equality for women in the workplace was the recent court finding in the Kelly vs TPG Internet case.

Following a string of high-profile cases around workplace flexibility, which tended to find in favour of the employee, the Kelly case set a new precedent. It found in favour of the employer, clearly stating that part-time work was not a right, and if the employer could not find justification for allowing an employee to return to work in part-time instead of full-time work, in this case, maternity leave, then it was not obliged to accommodate the employee.

The finding has led to calls for the government to intervene and reverse the potential impact of the finding on women seeking greater workplace flexibility. 

There are signs that similar arguments will be presented [more widely],’ said Beth Gaze, Associate Professor at Monash University. ‘Clearly, people thinking of bringing workplace flexibility cases in front of the courts need to think carefully about the argument they will present. We are strongly suggesting that the government should legislate to deal with the issues that are being raised by the Kelly finding, and clarify the law.’


The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 

Kelly vs TPG Internet

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