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New Conversation About Equality Needed, Says Plibersek

Tanya Plibersek, Minister for Housing and Minister for the Status of WomenTanya Plibersek, the Minister for Housing and Minister for the Status of Women, has delivered an interesting speech about the need for “a new conversation about equality”.

Speaking at the Sydney Institute, Plibersek said “the fact remains we cannot yet say that equality has been won”. She cited income differentials, the lack of women in the higher echelons of business, and violence against women as evidence.

The minister argued that “there is a solid body of evidence that gender equality is good for the economy as a whole” and outlined a range of measures in support of this.

More controversially, she said, “I believe we need to allow men a much greater role in caring”, and called for more “shared parenting before divorce.”

This is the transcript of Tanya Plibersek’s Speech:

Women and Men – A new conversation about equality


A couple of nights ago, while I was out working, my little boy got to watch a World War II movie with his Dad for the first time.

My husband said Joe was pretty interested in the tanks, but what really struck him was something quite different. "Where are all the women, Dad?"

Joe’s view of the world is that men and women are essentially equal. He is used to seeing women as both carers and earners. He expects women to be everywhere – equal partners in all of life’s joys and sorrows, including war.

Today, Julia Gillard is our Deputy Prime Minister, Julie Bishop is Deputy Opposition Leader and Quentin Bryce is our Governor General. Nearly 30 per cent of Commonwealth parliamentarians are women, and nearly half of Labor MPs.i

Most young women and men have a good range of life choices, and do not feel particularly constrained by stereotypes.

Australia consistently hovers around the top of the multi-national league charts on measures of women’s empowermentii.

Many women have achieved high office, good pay, significant influence.

Why, then, the need for a women’s portfolio at all?

The days when all women were – as a group – automatically disadvantaged are behind us, thanks to the enormous effort over generations of many inspirational women, feminists, here in Australia and around the world.

But just as Barack Obama’s wonderful win yesterday does not spell the end of African American disadvantage overnight, the fact remains we cannot yet say that equality has been won.

Not when, so many women are stretched between paid work and caring obligations, unable to perform any of their many roles as well as they want.iii

Not when, women earn 84 cents for every dollar men earn.iv

Not when, the number of female board directors in ASX Top 200 companies has decreased from 8.7 per cent to 8.3 per cent over the last two years.v

And not when, nearly half a million Australian women suffer violence each

I have made improving economic security and independence; reducing violence; ensuring women’s voices are heard at all levels of decision making the three priorities for my first year as Minister for Women.

These challenges remain, and they’ll continue to be a focus for my portfolio until we see some significant improvements, but I think there is a next step that we need to take, a new conversation we need to have.

We need to give more men the opportunity to be more active fathers and carers.

And in each of these areas we need a much stronger partnership between men and women to achieve our goals.

Why we should care about equality

Greater equality economically and socially between men and women is good for us all. It’s obviously good for women, and despite the fact that men might have to share some of the better jobs, I’d argue it’s good for men too. But most importantly, it strengthens our nation. Because inequality harms us all.

Women benefit from equality with better life opportunities, greater independence, higher incomes.

Arguments are sometimes made that modern women are under pressure to be "superwomen" – balancing high achieving careers with the same levels of care for children, partners and parents that their mothers were able to provide full-time.

This juggle is difficult, and as Barbara Pocockvii describes it, there are hidden costs for mothers, fathers and families of how we live and work now, but the bottom line is that women have opportunities now that their mothers and grandmothers didn’t dream of.

Better work life balance isn’t achieved by limiting women’s career opportunities.

In fact, life is just made more difficult for women concentrated in low paid industries, or without economic resources of their own.

Greater equality also benefits men.

Limiting women’s employment opportunities through discrimination, inflexible workplaces or social expectations also limits men’s opportunities to become equal parents and hands on nurturers.

Improving women’s choices and earning capacity reduces pressures on men to be sole breadwinners.

There is a solid body of evidence that gender equality is good for the economy as a whole.

As The Economist magazine pointed out in 2006, women’s economic participation has been fundamental to recent economic growth.

The Economist said "Forget China, India and the Internet: economic growth is driven by women".

In Australia the increased participation of women in the workforce – from 43 per cent in 1976 to 57 per cent this year – has been one of our most significant social trends.viii Access Economics has predicted that boosting women’s participation even further could realise an increased national output of $98.4 billion by around 2040.ix

Microcredit has reached more than 130 million people worldwide – about 90 million of these people were among the world’s poorest when they took out their first loan. Of these poorest, 80 million were women.x Most microcredit goes to women because they’re more likely to repay loans and more likely to use a greater proportion of household income for the benefit of the whole family. Providing these women with a way to make an income for the first time is a way out of poverty for their family and their community, and when done on a large enough scale, has an effect on their nation.

The challenges ahead

Improving economic outcomes for women

The Government has a strong commitment to improve economic outcomes for women.

By the time women and men graduate from university, women are already faring less well than men.

Research shows that male graduates are commencing employment on a median salary of $45,000 while female graduates are starting work on $3,000 less.xi

In fact a couple of weeks ago we heard that little girls start life receiving less pocket money than little boys.xii

The pay gap hovers at around 16 per cent and indeed the mining boom saw a widening gap, especially in WA.

This disadvantage widens over the life course.

While many women can rely on their husband’s or partner’s retirement savings, it is a reality that many women cannot.xiii

In 2005-06 average retirement pay-outs were around $136,000 for men and about half of that – $63,000 for women.xiv

We see too many women with too little superannuation and facing a tough outlook for their old age.xv

For women who spend their lives caring for family members – children, the elderly or those with disability – there can be significant economic consequences.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t do it.

Caring is one of the most valuable things we can do – that’s why it should not be a ticket to life long poverty. Equally, it shouldn’t be the only option available to women – forced on them because combining work and caring is too difficult and there’s no one to share the task with.

And the rewards of caring for children and family members shouldn’t be denied to men either because they are expected to fulfil breadwinner roles on their own.

There will always be families that choose a more traditional split – just as my parents did. That’s their right and their business. My contention is that it shouldn’t be the only model available to families, and it shouldn’t be forced on them through a lack of childcare, or decent jobs for women.

Better sharing of unpaid caring work and paid work would benefit us all. It is time for Australia to rethink the way we support women and men to both work and care.

The Government recognises its role in meeting this challenge and is responding.

  • We are reforming workplace relations laws to deliver a system that is fairer and more flexible for working parents – and a House of Representatives Inquiry is undertaking a thorough investigation into how we can improve pay equity.
  • We have asked the Productivity Commission to examine paid maternity, paternity and parental leave and better ways to support families. The Commission has produced a draft report which will be finalised early in 2009.
  • The Sex Discrimination Act is being reviewed to ensure that it is effectively addressing discrimination and harassment.
  • We are improving the accessibility, affordability and quality of child care and have established an Office of Work and Family.
  • We are reviewing the tax and pension system to optimise their capacity to deliver assistance to those people who need it the most, including for the significant number of single aged pensioners who are women;
  • We are also reviewing participation requirements for those on pensions and parenting payments and considering whether there are better ways of balancing the increased participation of parents with their family and community responsibilities.

Each of those initiatives is a building block in a strategic Government response to help women secure their futures.

In Australia today, more than two out of five working women have part-time jobs, enabling many women to stay in the workforce and manage their caring obligations.xvi

But part-time work should not have to spell career suicide.

Importantly, men must also feel able to work part-time and still be taken seriously at work.

We want flexible workplaces, with good and secure jobs, for both men and women.

Caring at home doesn’t mean achieving less at work – many employers will tell you that their most productive employees are the ones that have to be out the door at five thirty to make it to childcare – but it does mean allowing both women and men to contribute to their full potential in workplaces with high degrees of flexibility and trust.

Reducing violence against women

The second challenge is to reduce violence against women.

Domestic violence and sexual assault have been with us for millennia, but it should be our aim to eliminate these crimes.

The Prime Minister said that, "Violence against women in the great silent crime of our time." He also said that, "It is my gender – it is our gender – Australian men – that are responsible." The Prime Minister is a great supporter of the White Ribbon Day campaign, and its philosophy that men should be "not violent; not silent."xvii

The White Ribbon campaign operates on the assumption that if we are to reduce domestic violence and sexual assault, Australian men have to be actively involved in doing it.

Nearly 70 per cent of women who are murdered are killed by an intimate partner or a member of their own family.xviii

Each year thousands of women are horribly and brutally injured, physically and emotionally, in their own homes.

Before coming to office, the Government committed to taking a national approach against violence and sexual assault.

To develop this strategy, we brought together a group of experts and community leaders – the National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women.

The National Plan will enable all levels of government and the community to:

  • better support victims of violence;
  • to ensure that the legal system is effective; and
  • to reduce violence in future generations.

Ensuring women’s equal place in society

Very few people ever tell me equality between women and men is not something Australia should aspire to.

One hundred and twenty years ago there were no women in Parliament and very few women in public life.

At that time the Australian suffragette Louisa Lawson created a unique voice for women by launching The Dawn journal.

She wrote: "The life and work of every woman is just as essential to the good of the community as that of every man…Why are her rights less than her brothers’?".xix

It’s hard to find anyone these days that would argue with that proposition in theory, and yet we still haven’t hit our targets on equality.

Increasing women’s representation in government, business and other areas of the community is a necessary step to true equality and to reaching our full potential as a nation.

While our parliamentary representation has increased since the days of Louisa Lawson and early suffrage campaigners such as Vida Goldstein I hope and expect one day that men and women will each make up roughly half of our parliaments.

I mentioned earlier the low rates of women on boards. More worrying, though, is the fact that the proportion of women in line executive management positions has decreased from 7.4 per cent in 2006 to less than six per cent in 2008 in ASX200 companies.xx

These are the positions that produce the future CEOs and top executives.

Obviously this is a worry for individual women, but it’s also not good for business.

Mike Smith, Chief Executive Officer of ANZ summed this issue up last Tuesday at a Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) lunch by saying:

We have to build and leverage our employee diversity to maximise our business opportunities within the markets we are operating in. Put simply, it’s about ensuring that your people represent the community that you are serving.xxi

Representation of women on government boards is at 34 percent.xxii This is a lot better than the private sector but not yet equal and more needs to be done.

I have directed my Office for Women to increase its work in supporting Australian Government boards and decision-making bodies appoint more highly qualified and highly competent women.

The Australian government continues to work with and seek the views of women through formal consultative structures like our national secretariat system and new approaches such as the Rural Women’s Summit held this year in Canberra, but the very existence of such structures is an admission that women’s voices and role in decision-making aren’t yet equal with men’s.

This is also true in Indigenous communities where interventions against violence, the sexual abuse of children and other issues have often shown differences of opinion between Indigenous men and women. Indigenous women are often the ballast in their communities, but not always the first point of contact for outsiders seeking to consult. The vital role that Indigenous women will play in closing the gap underscores how important it is to hear Indigenous women’s as well as Indigenous men’s voices.

Engaging men to achieve true equality

Our fourth challenge is probably the one that will require the most difficult conversation between Australian men and women.

I believe we need to allow men a much greater role in caring.

A recent research report indicated that most of the time Australian fathers are with their children, the mother is also present. Of all the household care performed, fathers only do about ten percent alone, in sole charge of children.xxiii

A UK survey of fathers found that most of them enjoyed going to work because it gave them a break from their children.xxiv

Lion taming is easier than looking after a handful of kids. But women are prepared for the responsibility from birth: they’re given dolls to play with; younger kids to mind; and the role model of their mothers. And yet it still feels strange the day someone hands you a baby and sends you home from hospital.

Good parenting is learnt by observation and practise. It’s no wonder many men and women feel intimidated at first. The only way past that is to jump right in, learning as you go and asking for advice as you need it.

Long work hours make that impossible for many men. Do we want to live in a society where men rarely spend time with their kids?

The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children found that nearly two thirds of fathers thought they had missed out on taking part in home or family activities because of work responsibilities.xxv

Remarkably, one out of every three full-time working Sydney fathers spend more time commuting than they do with their children each week, according to Australia Institute research.xxvi

If families separate, the downsides become more apparent.

Sole parents, who are mostly women, have to juggle an increased child care load at the same time as a decreased income.

Women with little workforce attachment often find themselves in particularly difficult financial circumstances. This can create long term joblessness and poverty for women into old age.

Too many men find that they lose touch with their children, and unless there has been violence or abuse in a relationship, that’s not good for kids and it’s not good for dads.

We’ve had a national debate about shared parenting after divorce, but shared parenting before divorce is a matter of chance.

A new generation of fathers is seeking the opportunity to play a more active role in family and community life,xxvii but the numbers of men able to work part time to better share the care of young children is still small,xxviii with many workplace cultures and expectations not supportive of family-friendly arrangements for fathers.xxix


I hope we’re at the beginning of a new era of community discussion around gender equality.

  • We need to discuss openly how both women and men can have a full family life and a career.
  • We need all business leaders to talk about the changes and benefits in their organisations as more women take on more leadership positions.
  • And, we need men to speak up and condemn violence against women.

Community debate – supported by government action – has seen enormous changes in attitude and behaviour in past decades. Smoking rates are down; seat belt wearing is up; drink driving is down; sun sense is up.

The Government has a role to support the Australian community to have another look at some of the unconscious and unexamined attitudes and behaviours that prevent us from achieving true equality between women and men.

Anne Manne summarised this modern challenge by saying, "We will truly have equality when women no longer have to make impossible choices. When they are everywhere in public life and when both men and women are respected for their contribution to love’s never-ending labour."xxx

It is time for men and women to work together and deliver a gender equality that benefits us all.


i J Wilson, Composition of Australian Parliaments by Party and Gender, Australian Parliamentary Library, as at 30 October 2008.

ii United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2007/2008: Gender-related development index (GDI), Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2007.

iii The 2006 ABS Time Use Survey shows that 3 in every 5 women aged 25-44 years report always or often feeling rushed or pressed for time.

iv Australian Bureau of Statistics, Average Weekly Earnings, August 2008, cat. no. 6302.0, ABS, Canberra, 2008.

v Equal Opportunity in the Workplace Agency, Australian census of women in leadership, EOWA, Sydney, 2008, p.5.

vi Australian Bureau of Statistics, Personal Safety Survey, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), cat. no. 4906.0, ABS, Canberra, 2005.

vii B Pocock, The Work/Life Collision, Federation Press, Annandale, NSW, 2003.

viii Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force Australia, August 2008, cat. no. 3101.0, Canberra, 2008.

ix Access Economics, Meeting Australia’s ageing challenge: the importance of women’s workforce participation, A report by Access Economics for the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services Inquiry into Balancing Work and Family, November 2006.

ix Graduate Careers Australia, GradStats, no. 12, December 2007.

x S Daley-Harris, State of the Microcredit Summit Campaign Report 2007, Microcredit Summit Campaign, Wasington, 2007.

xi Graduate Careers Australia, GradStats, no. 12, December 2007.

xii A survey of 1472 children and their parents found that boys aged seven to 14 receive an average $7.60 a week in pocket money, while girls get $6.80. Cartoon Network, New Generations 2008 survey, as reported in E Halliwell, "Boys are paid more pocket money than girls," Sunday Telegraph, Sydney, 26 October 2008, p.7.

xiii Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Annual Report 2007- 08, FaHCSIA, Canberra, 2008.

xiv R Clare, Retirement Savings Update, The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, Sydney, February 2008.

xv Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Annual Report 2007- 08, FaHCSIA, Canberra, 2008.

xvi In September 2008, 17.5% of employed men and 44.5% of employed women were part-time. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force, Australia, September 2008, cat. no. 6202.0, ABS, 2008.

xvii The Hon Kevin Rudd MP, Prime Minister of Australia, Speech to the White Ribbon Foundation Annual White Tie Dinner, Sydney 17 September 2008.

xviii Australian Institute of Criminology, Australian Crime: Facts and Figures 2007, Canberra, 2008.

xix L Lawson, The Dawn, Sydney, June 1890.

xx Equal Opportunity in the Workplace Agency, Australian census of women in leadership, EOWA, Sydney, 2008, p. 6.

xxi M Smith, Chief Executive Officer of ANZ, Speech to the AICD 2008 EOWA Census Launch, Sydney, 28 October 2008.

xxii Office for Women, Representation of women on Australian Government boards and bodies: Key findings of the Government Boards Report 2007, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2007.

xxiii L Craig and K Mullan, "Father Care, Father Share in International Perspective: does context matter to the gender division of childcare time?", presentation at SPRC Seminar, 21 October 2008, Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, 2008.

xxiv Daily Mail Reporter, "Stay at home? No thanks, work is easier, say dads", Mail Online, November 6, 2008.

xxv M Alexander and J Baxter, "Impacts of work on family life among partnered parents of young children, (based on the first wave 2000-2001 of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children)", Family Matters 72, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne, 2005.

xxvi M Flood and C Barbato, Off to work: Commuting in Australia, The Australia Institute, April 2005.

xxvii G Russell, Fitting Father’s Into Families: Men and the Fatherhood Role in Contemporary Australia, a report for the Department of Family and Community Services, Canberra, 1999; Department of Families and Community Services, A Report on the Qualitative Research into Parents, Children and Early Childhood Services, FaCS, Canberra, September 2003; S Wilson (ed), Australian social attitudes: The first report, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2005; B Pocock and J Clarke, Can’t Buy Me Love? Young Australians’ views on parental work, time, guilt and their own consumption, Discussion Paper No. 61, Australia Institute, Canberra, 2004.

xxviii Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force Australia, September 2008, cat. no. 6202.0 (latest available data), ABS, Canberra, 2008 (14.7% of employed men work part-time compared with 44% of employed women); J Baxter, M Gray, M Alexander, L Strazdins and M Bittman, "Mothers and fathers with young children: paid employment, caring and wellbeing," Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Social Policy Research Paper no. 30, 2007 (This report studied parents in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children and found that: The average usual working hours for fathers with a youngest child aged 4-5 years was 47.0 hours per week. The proportion of fathers who worked part-time hours (less than 35 hours) was small, at just 7.6 per cent for those with an infant and 6.8 per cent of those whose youngest child was 4-5 years).

xxix M Bittman, S Hoffmann and D Thompson, Men’s uptake of family-friendly employment provisions, Social Policy Research Centre research paper no 22, SPRC, UNSW, Sydney, 2004; M Alexander and J Baxter, "Impacts of work on family life among partnered parents of young children", Family Matters no 72, Summer 2006, AIFS, Melbourne.

xxx A Manne, "Love and Money: the family and the free market", Quarterly Essay no.29 p.79, Black Inc Books, Melbourne, 2008.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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