Gender reporting under threat. Will the minister for women please stand up?

On Friday, the findings from the government's public consultation into gender reporting were posted on the Department of Employment's website. There was no press release to alert anyone to its publication nor any mention made on the department's social media channels. I only located the findings on the website once notified of the report's existence and then even then I had to dig around to actually find it.   

When asked, a representative from the department's media centre confirmed no announcement had been made. They referred me to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency which seemed curious. WGEA didn't prepare this report into the efficacy of the current reporting regime: the department of employment did, so it seems unusual that WGEA would be responsible for publishing the findings.

Why the quiet release?  Obviously these findings aren't as instructive as any proposed legislative changes that it might prompt will be which the Employment Minister, Senator Eric Abetz, yesterday confirmed the government was considering.

"The Government is committed to effective workplace gender equality reporting and is seeking to ensure that the information collected drives real results for gender equality and women in the workforce as well as benefits for individual businesses and the community," Senator Abetz said.

Any changes to the gender reporting requirements will have to be tabled in Parliament to take effect before April. If this report will provide the basis for any changes that will need to be passed before April, why not come out and talk about it?

Given the adverse reaction the Abbott government received last year when it flagged a desire to substantially reduce the gender reporting requirements, is it any wonder the discreet release has attracted some scepticism?  

"I think they were hopeful not to arouse the rage of various women's groups," chair of the National Foundation for Australian Women Marie Coleman told Women's Agenda. "I don't think they want another fight on gender but they have opened one up. The report is unbalanced in a number of ways.  The overall effect of these misrepresentations is to make the support for the current reporting framework seem much weaker than it is. My take is that the report gives undue prominence to the complaints of big business."

The department's survey found that 79% of respondents were unhappy with the reporting requirements despite the average cost for compliance coming in at $1500.

Coleman, who was instrumental in the coalition that successfully lobbied the government in regard to gender reporting last year, says it seems clear this report will be used to favour a legislated instrument to change the current reporting requirements.

She says it is curious that the report includes a lengthy section on the department's own survey of employers with 523 responses but fails to reference WGEA's survey of reporting employers which received 2522 responses.

"In the Agency's survey, "88% of respondents said they were supportive or very supportive [of the new reporting framework], 12% were neutral, and just 1% were 'somewhat supportive' or 'not supportive'," she says.

By contrast in the department's survey of the 209 employers that expressed a view at all, 79 per cent were unsatisfied with 'some part' of the gender reporting requirements, 19 per cent providing general feedback and 5 per cent providing positive feedback.

Yesterday Coleman said the government's action in this regard will be a pivotal test for the minister for women.

The Australian Greens spokesperson for women Senator Larissa Waters agreed. "If the workplace gender reporting requirements are weakened on Tony Abbott's watch he should step down as the Minister for Women," Senator Waters said. "Tony Abbott has designed this so-called consultation so that big business will complain about the requirements, giving him cover to slash the data that underpins efforts to close the gender pay gap."

WGEA's director Helen Conway is optimistic any changes that the government will make will be benefical. "My sense is that the report is a reasonable factual representation of the consultation. We were materially involved in the process and the Department worked very hard on this," she told Women's Agenda. "The government is committed to gender reporting. The critical issue is what data will most effectively drive change and impose only a reasonable burden on businesses. It's an issue of proportionality."

Yolanda Beattie, WGEA's Public Affairs executive manager, says streamlining the reporting process is in the best interests of the agency, employers and employees.

"The status quo is not an option. If the reporting requirements don't deliver value then it's not worth it," she says. "We have to be sensible and intelligent about reporting and we feel pretty confident that the government understands this."

Conway is confident the government understands and supports gender reporting. "It's now a matter of working through detail before government announces its particular position," Conway says. "People will start to draw all sorts of conclusions in the absence of the government articulating its response. Some will draw the conclusion that the reporting requirements will be substantially changed but I don't believe that's the case. The sooner the government comes out with a plan the better."

Considering that last year Australia's pay gap widened to a new high and keeping in mind that the government committed to boosting women's workplace participation at the G20 in November, wouldn't it be odd to take steps  to increase – rather than decrease – the gap between men and women at work? 

The fact is we cannot fix or address the gender gap by hiding it which is why having the appropriate data is vital. 

I hope the Minister for Women agrees? If so, can he please stand up?

If you are against gender reporting being wound back, join Fair Agenda's petition here.  

Georgina Dent

Georgina Dent is a Contributing Editor at Women's Agenda. She began her working life as a lawyer before building a career in journalism as an editor, reporter and recognised advocate for women. Follow her on Twitter here and Facebook here.    

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