The Abbott government has opted to avoid, for the time being, a bunfight with the sisterhood and their supporters over changes to workplace gender reporting requirements.
The government had been planning to use the first of what it’s dubbed its Red Tape Repeal Days last week to significantly water down what some employers regard as an unnecessary impost.
Under laws introduced by Labor in government, they are required to provide the Workplace Gender Equality Agency with data on pay, recruitment, retention and promotions.
The coalition had intended to raise the reporting bar to companies that employ 1000 or more people, not the 100 minimum now.
But in a surprise backdown, Employment Minister Eric Abetz has announced existing reporting arrangements will stay in place until April 2015.
After that, the starting point may be higher than 100.
In the meantime, the government will consult business and peak employer bodies about streamlining future data collection.
Women’s groups, unsurprisingly, argue the data is central to improving female workforce participation and economic analysts believe doing so will provide a 13 per cent boost to gross domestic product.
Right now the numbers make for sober reading.
Within the top 200 companies, listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, only seven have female chief executives.
Labor force participation for women in Australia is 58.4 per cent compared with 71.1 per cent for men.
And there’s a 17 per cent average pay gap between full-time male and female workers.
So what’s a self-proclaimed “male feminist” prime minister to do when the scorecard of women’s participation in the workforce points to market failure?
Labor’s Alannah MacTiernan remains unconvinced Tony Abbott is a reconstructed feminist.
“I do think that it shows some of (Abbott’s) born-again feminism might be a bit shallow,” she says of the plan to change gender-reporting requirements.
Abbott frequently talks up his proposed “fair dinkum” paid parental leave scheme that will give mothers six months’ leave at full pay, capped at $75,000.
But there are doubts whether it can be the silver bullet for female work participation or even if it’s what women really want.
Women on Boards executive director Claire Braund argues many are happy with a scheme that pays them the minimum wage for 18 weeks, because it targets lower and middle income women who may not be covered by employer schemes, especially in small business.
Her organisation’s survey of 1100 working women in 2013 found pay equity was their top concern and that parental leave was ranked last out of seven issues.
Which brings us back to the data provided to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.
While some in the coalition say there is employer disquiet over the impact of compliance, agency director Helen Conway says the data is a powerful intelligence tool to help employers translate good intentions into action.
Conway says it’s important employers have the ability to compare their gender equality with competitors.
She rejects arguments that reporting diverts resources from the task of implementing initiatives to improve female workforce participation, arguing it actually allows employers to track the effectiveness of strategies to ensure resources aren’t wasted.
Only five per cent, or 13,000, of Australian companies are required to meet gender reporting requirements, costing them about $9 million in total annually.
That’s $692 for each company, compliance supporters argue.
Labor’s reasoning for introducing the measure was to drive change through four minimum standards – composition of workforce, equal pay, flexible work arrangements and sexual harassment and discrimination – from the 2014-15 financial year.
Abetz plans to give them the option of addressing only one of the four standards.
Braund points out that by law, businesses already are required to have policies on sexual harassment.
“Gender is not a red-tape issue,” she says.
Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson agrees. Unless organisations are made to measure their progress on gender diversity by meeting specific targets, women would not be promoted into senior roles due to an “unconscious bias”.
Treasury has set a target for 35 per cent of women to be in senior leadership positions by 2016, and a longer-term target of 40 per cent.
“We may not get there, but the point is we’ve set ourselves a transparent objective,” Parkinson says.
But not all women are so supportive of gender reporting.
Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, says it is a a good example of the wrong solution to the right problem.
Detailed and mandatory reporting requirements do not improve gender equality.
“Quite the contrary. They divert significant resources, financial and human, from actions that are gradually yielding results,” Westacott said in February.
As examples she cited changed recruitment practices, internal employment targets, performance management and promotion guidelines and flexible working conditions.
Financial Services Institute of Australasia board member Victoria Weekes argues improving participation rates is about culture change.
“Men in the workplace like the idea of flexible work, but wouldn’t dare take it because it’s seen as a career killer,” she says, adding women juggling work and family have no choice.
Businessman and federal MP Clive Palmer recognises the value in having more women in senior roles, saying they bring a different perspective to an argument or a business proposal.
“I found in my life by listening to women you often pick up something the other guys miss out on,” he says.
Sounds like good advice for the prime minister.