Reducing sex discrimination: HR has 'considerable role to play'

Anna Cody, Sex Discrimination Commissioner, talks with HRD about levelling the playing field

Reducing sex discrimination: HR has 'considerable role to play'

Having one in four employers now providing gender neutral parental leave is welcome news to Dr Anna Cody, Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

Recognising the importance of caring responsibilities being shared in families and making a provision for men to take up caring roles is a significant advancement in terms of equality, she says.

“We need to make sure the parenting role is shared more equally, because that's really been one of the drivers of gender and economic inequality, as well as the lack of valuing of work that's traditionally done by women,” says Dr Cody of the Australian Human Rights Commission.   

“We're not close to gender equality yet – but it’s definitely improved in the last year. A year ago, we were ranked in the 40s in the world according to the World Economic Forum, but now we're 26 in the world. Gender equality is improving but it is slow. I think it's a process, a continuum.”

Gender pay gap in Australia

Cody also believes the substantial gender pay gap of 21.7% will take significant time to address, although that has reduced by 1.2% over the last year.

HR, she says, has a considerable role to play in helping to level the playing field.

“Those in human resources can really be the leaders in this area; for instance, by ensuring that parental leave is provided in a gender-neutral way so that all people who have caring responsibilities have paid leave for either parenting or aged care responsibilities.

“Since HR are generally responsible for enterprise bargaining agreements, this is also a significant area of influence; for instance, by making sure there are facilities such as domestic and family violence leave provided, and recognising the cultural responsibilities of workers is essential too.”

HR directors taking a lead with equality

In encouraging males to also take parental leave entitlements, HR needs to ensure it’s evident that opting to do so doesn’t impact detrimentally on promotion, the way in which people are viewed, or their commitment to their work questioned, says Cody.

“Human resource directors can take a lead on this in changing attitudes in a workplace, modelling taking parental leave, demonstrating the importance of respectful relationships within the workplace, and having diversity within the leadership team, human resources, and across an organisation.

“Making sure selection panels are culturally diverse and that they’re gender diverse are other measures HR can be involved directly in. Those are all really practical steps.”

Another way HR can contribute to Australia’s progress towards equality, says Cody, is by advertising jobs in a range of places.

Family domestic violence leave

“Advertising in culturally specific areas, or in Indigenous outlets can be ways that indicate we want diverse people within our workplace, and we value the contributions that our diverse workforce can provide.”

Cody cites another shocking statistic where HR can have a real impact in helping to create change.

“We know that in Australia domestic and family violence is endemic and that we see more than one woman each week being killed at the hands of her partner, or previous partner or spouse.

“We can’t separate this out from work. We know that one in three women has been and will be affected by domestic violence over their lifetime, so it’s very important that our workplaces show that understanding.”

Having paid leave for those experiencing family domestic violence goes a long way to helping reduce this figure, says Cody.

“Organisations can also help by adopting an understanding attitude, recognising that it is endemic, talking about it, acknowledging the fact it occurs, that it will be occurring within your workplace, and that there's a lot of shame attached to it for those who are victim-survivors.”

Equipping managers with tools for equality

Equipping managers with information to understand what domestic violence is, what causes it and what prevents it, as well as ways to respond is vital too, she says.

“Providing training on the nature of family domestic violence, particularly for middle management, is so crucial because at least some of the people they’re working with will be experiencing it. It's important they have the right responses to those who may seek help.”

While Cody acknowledges change is occurring, she says it troubles her that in Australia, many still struggle to have conversations about race and culture.

Consulting with employees on equality

“There are measures we’re starting to adopt though,” she says. “For instance, we have a new national plan around domestic and family violence and particularly a First Nations plan around that, which is really significant.”

Cody also emphasises the importance of having a complex understanding of gender.

“It’s vital we recognise that women have differing life experiences. We're about to begin a project looking particularly at low income, culturally and racially marginalized women working in traditionally female areas - so the care industry, early education and childcare, as well as aged care and disability care - and looking at how their rights are respected or ways in which we can value that work better to make sure that they get a fair wage for their work, and also conditions of work.

“If we listen to communities – and employers are the same in consulting with their employees - we’ll be able to come up with really practical, grounded, effective ways of dealing with gender inequality.”

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