Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Looking Back to Move Forward: The (D)evolution of Australia's EEO Regulatory Framework

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Looking Back to Move Forward: The (D)evolution of Australia's EEO Regulatory Framework

Article excerpt

Introduction

On 1 June 2009, the Minister for the Status of Women, the Hon. Tanya Plibersek, announced a review of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 (EOWW Act) and of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA). A media release from the EOWA states:

The purpose of the review is to examine the effectiveness and efficiency of the EOWW Act and the Agency in promoting equal opportunity for women in the workplace. A key objective of the review is to consider how the Government can support employers to remove barriers to equal employment opportunity, with a view to improving outcomes for women and business. (Australian Government 2009)

At the time of writing this article the review is under way, with submissions from the public yet to be requested. Therefore, the time is ripe to take a look back at Australia's legislative history in Affirmative Action (AA) and Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO).

In line with this perspective, the article addresses the evolution of Australia's EEO regulatory framework, discussing key criticisms and debates. In chronological order, it covers the original Pilot Study and Working Party for the establishment of The Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women) Act 1986 (Cth); the effects of this legislation on the status of women in the workplace up to the Howard Government's 1998 Regulatory Review of the Affirmative Action Act, and the consequent replacement of this legislation by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 (Cth). Finally, in analysing the effect of this legislation on the advancement of women over the past decade, the article supplements previous studies, which have tended to focus on information gathered through reporting mechanisms. Instead, the focus here is on the relationship between espoused organisational policy as reflected in reports complying with the legislation, and research evidence of actual experiences of women within reporting organisations. Evidence from three case studies in different economic sectors, illustrating gaps between espoused policy and interviewees' experience, suggests inadequacies in the current regulatory framework. It will be argued that the shift towards reliance on a business case for gender equity, evident in both the legislation and in organisations, has contributed to a stalling of the campaign for the advancement of women. A 'light touch' regulatory framework has allowed organisations to perpetuate a facade of legislative compliance and commitment without being required to undergo any meaningful change. Although this argument is by no means new, the voices of women in the workplace have been effectively silenced by the weak reporting mechanism and right to seeking a reporting waiver; it is therefore important to articulate the experiences of women, if the future legislation is to take account of the reality for women in Australian workplaces.

Origins: The Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women) Act 1986 (Commonwealth)

On 4 June 1984, the then Prime Minister, the Hon. R. J. L. Hawke announced the establishment of a Working Party on Affirmative Action Legislation, when he tabled in Parliament the Policy Discussion (Green) Paper Affirmative Action for Women'. This Working Party, comprised of Federal Ministers, employers, trade unions, higher education institutions and women's organisations, was to advise the Government on how Affirmative Action programs should be created and implemented as a means to improve women's position and opportunities in the labour market and enable women to compete on equal terms with men for promotion.

In the Green Paper, the Government defined Affirmative Action (AA) as:

A systematic means, determined by the employer in consultation with senior management, employees and unions, of achieving equal employment opportunity (EEO) for women. Affirmative Action is compatible with appointment and promotion on the basis of the principle of merit, skills and qualifications. …

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