Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment I Bill 2012
It gives me great pleasure to speak on the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012 today, on an issue that touches so many women throughout their working lives. Gender equality is simple; it is fundamental—particularly when it comes to the workplace. There are undeniable benefits to promoting gender equality at work. Not only is it an important social step forward that improves workforce participation; it is also good for our economy. In fact, closing the gap between women's and men's workforce participation could boost Australia's GDP by up to 13 per cent. Closing the gap also enables women to join, rejoin or stay in the workforce, helping to solve the skills shortage problem that many Australian businesses are facing. I know that this is very much the case here in Canberra.
Unfortunately, in 2012 women are still struggling to realise their right to workplace equality. Women continue to obtain fewer senior leadership positions, to earn less pay, to have less superannuation and to do more than their fair share of unpaid work. That is why the Gillard government is committed to advancing gender equality by supporting women's economic empowerment. That is why we are debating this very important bill today.
By amending the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999, we are making a change to reflect current community expectations, and we are making a change that will reduce the regulatory burden on business. Overall, this amendment will ensure a much greater focus on outcomes to affect genuine and sustainable change over time. The introduction of this bill delivers on a 2010 election commitment by the Gillard government to retain and improve the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act. This commitment was to support gender equality and to improve workforce participation and workplace flexibility through retaining and improving the act. The bill amends the name of the act to the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012. This emphasises the focus of the act on gender equality, thereby improving outcomes for both women and men in the workplace. The name of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency will also change to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. The title of the director of the agency will change to the Director of Workplace Gender Equality—again to reflect the new focus of the act. The principal objects of the act are amended to reflect this new focus and to promote and improve gender equality in the workplace, with specific recognition of equal pay and family and caring responsibilities as central issues to achieving gender equality. The objects also focus on the fact that improving gender equality in the workplace will improve competitiveness and productivity and remove barriers to women's full and equal workforce participation.
It is well over a decade since this act was last reviewed. In that time, our economic, social and legislative landscape has changed significantly. We now have Australia's first Paid Parental Leave scheme, thanks to Labor. More than 150,000 new parents have applied for paid parental leave since the scheme began. This is a huge win for working Australian women and their families. It is a huge win for Canberra women, giving them support to take time off with their new babies in those critical early months. We have also increased the rebate for out-of-pocket childcare expenses from 30 to 50 per cent, which is now benefiting 800,000 families.
This reform is having a significant impact on the takehome wages of women returning to work. In 2004, the out-of-pocket costs for a family with one child in long day care and earning $55,000 a year were 13.2 per cent of their disposable income. By last year, this proportion had fallen to 7.5 per cent. We have also made a commitment to achieve pay equity. The historic decision of Fair Work Australia to award equal pay to social and community sector workers is a significant advance for women. Other achievements include amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to make it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of family responsibilities, and also the introduction of a new superannuation roundtable to improve retirement incomes and superannuation. This bill is another step towards equality for women, and we are working to achieve this by updating that act, by modernising it so that it is more effective in supporting and driving change in Australian workplaces. The Gillard government recognises that the act and the agency are important components that support and improve the workforce participation of women. But we also recognise the need to broaden the focus of the act to highlight equal pay between men and women, and caring responsibilities as central to improving gender equality.