Australia’s gender equality agency will develop industry-specific benchmarks in attempts to improve pay equity and boost the number of women in the workforce.
Under legislation to be introduced in parliament in the next fortnight, organisations with more than 100 staff will be required to provide numerical data to the government on ‘gender equality indicators’.
The first reports, due in 2013, will be used by a newly renamed Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) to inform its development of industry-specific benchmarks.
WGEA director Helen Conway said the benchmarks will allow the light-touch regulator to “compare apples with apples” and encourage organisations to improve.
“The financial services industry is very different from IT; IT is very different from mining,” she said.
“We’ll look at the population of the IT industry and it may be that in terms of the benchmark for them, they’re nowhere near as good, say, as other industries.
“But you can’t ask industries to do something that’s not being done within their own industry.
“The key thing for us is to say, 'This is your industry, this is where you sit in your industry. If you want to get better, this is how we can help you do it’.”
Conway said the benchmarks would include targets for pay equity, flexible work practices, and the gender composition of boards and the wider organisation.
WGEA’s latest ‘Women in Leadership’ census, conducted in 2010, found women hold 8.4 percent of board directorships in Australia’s top 200 companies.
Addressing VMware’s Women in IT forum in Sydney last week, Conway said WGEA had not detected any improvements in the statistic between 2008 and 2010.
“Gender diversity is an important business issue; the business case is there. It should be a priority,” she said.
“The difficulty is translating good thoughts and intentions into actions."
Although WGEA’s first set of benchmarks will be predominantly informed by the data it collects under the new Workplace Gender Equality Act, industry members will also be consulted.
Panellist Diana Ryall, who was the managing director of Apple Computer Australia from 1997 to 2001, called for mandatory gender diversity targets to be set for every company.
“Australia’s results are disgusting; we are the worst of the English-speaking countries,” she said. “We have to do something that brings in discomfort.
“Let’s go with targets but let’s make them really transparent [to staff and the marketplace]. And then if that doesn’t work in five years, let’s go with quotas.”
Equal opportunity for women and men
Until the reforms are passed, WGEA will continue to operate as the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, established alongside an Act of the same name in 1999.
Conway noted that gender diversity in the workplace was a not a “women issue”, but a “family issue” that needed to be shared across genders.
“The objects of the Act will be changed to focus on two things: pay equity … and also the [child] caring responsibilities of both men and women.
“As we know, the caring responsibilities are significant impediments for women moving up the leadership ranks.
“There are many men who would like to do the caring, so why should anybody, male or female, be disadvantaged because they take the time off to do the caring?”
Andrew Dutton, VMware’s general manager of Asia Pacific and Japan, questioned the “clock-in, clock-out” business model in IT organisations, arguing that certain staff seemed to be afforded more flexibility than others.
“Our developers bring their dogs, cats … they work all night, we provide them pizzas and Mountain Dew just endlessly. They get the job done, they get on bicycles, mopeds, go home, everyone applauds,” he told the forum.
“They may have been under the table for seven days working on a line of code, but they get it done. Take the tag off their head and put marketing or sales. What fundamentally changed?
“If we’re truly a group of people that are measuring output, not hours, measuring quality of service and execution, why am I still clock-in, clock-out?”