Past issues

Equal Opportunity Commissioner's e-bulletin February/March 2016

by Equal Opportunity Commission | Mar 01, 2016

Gender equality on the agenda for February and March

During February and March, the Equal Opportunity Commission is focusing on women's equality.

On 22 February 2016 the Equal Opportunity Commission and Curtin University hosted visiting academic from Toyo University, Professor Chino Yabunaga who gave a presentation to public sector representatives about gender equality in Japan at the Commission offices.

Professor Yabunaga spoke about how despite legislative measures to try to enshrine gender equality, a combination of cultural traditions and  a lack of economic incentive to progress women's workplace rights was holding the gender equality process back in Japan.  The cultural impediments include the Japanese tradition of Kawaii, to be cute and dear, which was still something that many Japanese women and young girls aspired to and men valued.
On 8 March for International Women's Day the Equal Opportunity Commission will work with the Department of Local Government and Communities and the Public Sector Commission to present an International Women's Day sundowner for distinguished groups of business, government and community leaders to discuss women in leadership in Western Australia.

Minister for Women's Interests, Hon Liza Harvey MLA will give the keynote speech outlining a range of Government initiatives being progressed to contribute to improving women's status in WA at the sundowner event.   

During the week of International Women's Day the Equal Opportunity Commission and the City of Bunbury will hold a free workshop at the Bunbury Regional Art Gallery Dance Studio to help participants set boundaries against sexual harassment.

The Know the Line workshop will be held on 9 March from 4.30pm-6pm.

For further details on the workshop please contact Diana MacTiernan on (08) 9216 3900 or

Acting Commissioner Jenni Perkins with Professor Chino Yabunaga 

Workplace gender equality 30 years after the Act

In July 1985, the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (the Act) came into force.  It was supported by all political parties in Parliament after 10 years of campaigning by women’s groups and community organisations.

Originally, its objectives were to promote equality of opportunity in Western Australia and to provide remedies for complaints of discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status, pregnancy, race, religious or political conviction, and sexual harassment.

In 1988, the ground of impairment discrimination was added to the Act, followed by the grounds of family responsibility, family status, age, and racial harassment in 1992. 

The Act was further amended in 2002 to include discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation and in 2010 to include the ground of breastfeeding.

So during International Women’s Day 2016, more than 30 years after the Act came into force, how has the law managed to promote a culture of equal opportunity for women in the workplace?

One of the most well known complaints regarding sex discrimination and harassment lodged at the Commission was by Heather Horne and Gail McIntosh against Press Clough Joint Venture and the Metals and Engineering Workers’ Union WA in 1992.

The complaint did not conciliate at the Equal Opportunity Commission and the Commissioner referred the complaints to the then Equal Opportunity Tribunal of WA.

The complainants, Ms Horne and Ms McIntosh, were employed as Trade Assistants by Press Clough Joint Venture on a construction site where it was part of their duties to clean the crib rooms.

The crib huts were often decorated with what the complainants described as ‘soft-porn’ posters, which they put up with, but when the posters started depicting women in hard-core, demeaning sexual positions and sex acts, the women complained to the Metals and Engineering Workers’ Union site supervisor and asked for the posters to be taken down.

The supervisor told Ms Horne and Ms McIntosh it was unfortunate they had chosen to take the attitude they had as it would make them unpopular with the majority male workforce and that they would get little support from the Union if the men went on strike because the posters had been removed.

When the posters were taken down, the male workers immediately went to the site supervisor to complain.

The supervisor’s lack of support for the women continued when he told the men that although he did not agree with the women, his hands were tied because of some law he had heard of which gave the women a right to remove the posters.

The backlash from their male co-workers was severe.

When Ms Horne and Ms McIntosh tried to explain their position, the men responded that the women had no right to bring their perspective into the workplace and if the women wanted to work in a male environment they would just have to ‘cop it’.

The demeaning posters increased in number.  At one stage Ms McIntosh went in to clean a crib hut where all four walls and the ceiling were covered in hard-core demeaning pornographic material.

In another crib hut Ms Horne was confronted by a full length female nude poster that had been used for dart practice and violently stabbed several times through the heart, head and genitals.

Although management and the Union were aware of the unlawful behaviour, nothing was done to rectify it and the employer and union ended up paying $16,000 to the complainants.

The complaint demonstrates the cultural attitudes towards sexual harassment and women in the workplace at the time.

Another significant sexual harassment complaint that was heard by the Equal Opportunity Tribunal, in 1998, was against Anther Pty Ltd, lodged by Nicola Holden who was repeatedly harassed by the company’s General Manager, Mr Abouthman.

Mr Abouthman, who had a track record of sexual harassment which the company was aware of, at one point grabbed Ms Holden from behind, , slipped his hands up her shirt and placed her hand on his genitals while he was in a state of arousal.

Anther Pty Ltd and Mr Abouthman were ordered by the Tribunal to pay $40,000 in compensation to Ms Holden, which was the maximum amount payable under the Act and still is today.

Complaints like this can now settle out of courts and tribunals for a lot more, as the salacious, often overt nature of sexual harassment has made it easy for the media to publicise and a smart employer will move swiftly to stop it before reputations are ruined.

Sexual harassment still occurs too frequently, but the news headlines have created a public awareness that together with equal opportunity laws has helped shift the culture around sexual harassment.

Pornographic posters and screen savers are now widely accepted as inappropriate for the workplace and workers are more aware of the types of behaviours to accept from their colleagues.

What has shown slower change for women’s equality in the workplace is pregnancy and family responsibility discrimination.

I clearly remember going for a job interview in the late 1980s and being asked if I planned to leave soon and have children.

Although I was offered the job I declined it - it was interesting to note that the male who was subsequently employed left after only a few months.

I wonder if he was questioned about his intentions to leave during his interview.

In 2014 the Australian Human Rights Commission produced a report regarding pregnancy and family responsibility discrimination titled Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review Report.

The report documents anecdotes from women all over Australia, including WA, and while there are anecdotes of overt discrimination such as the story of the woman who notifies her supervisor of her pregnancy and the supervisor responds that she has to leave and asks if she has considered an abortion, there are many anecdotes about the very subtle ways that pregnancy and family responsibility are deployed.

One woman reported:

I was targeted for a redundancy as soon as I got pregnant. This is despite there being an equivalent role available and vacant, but they clearly did not want me (who would have to leave on maternity leave soon) in it.

Another said:

A restructure was announced while I was on maternity leave and I was told that I didn't have a position to return to...I was sent a letter saying this was because my performance was ranked as 2.5/5 although I was never given less than 100 % on performance reviews, no concerns about my performance were mentioned and I also received a bonus that year for meeting all my performance results.

The Australian Human Rights Commission report states 72% of mothers who experienced discrimination said the unfair treatment impacted on their mental health, 42% reported that the discrimination impacted on them financially and 41% felt that it impacted on their career and job opportunities.

Yet, of the surveyed mothers who felt they were discriminated against, 91% did not make a formal complaint.

Equal opportunity laws can only go so far with these types of discrimination, what is needed is community awareness to address the culture of gender discrimination that still exists in many workplaces.

This International Women’s Day it is important for employers to think about what workplace cultures of discrimination are costing their organisations.

Some are already doing this, and in Western Australia the CEOs for Gender Equity have come together to address some of these issues.

Women make up half the potential workforce, so practices like family responsibility and pregnancy discrimination that continue to exclude them are simply bad for business.

Focus on domestic violence at home and at work

 As part of its focus on sex discrimination in the areas of employment and accommodation, last year the Equal Opportunity Commission hosted a Gender Studies student intern from the University of Western Australia to gain a better understanding of how domestic violence affected the victim's ability to work and access shelter.

A literature review highlighted that domestic violence victims, who are mainly women, suffer discrimination when it comes to finding accommodation and employment.

The review reinforced that domestic violence does not only occur in the privacy of one's home and that victims can experience direct violence or the ramifications of domestic violence in the workplace. 

Absenteeism due to the effects of abuse or because the abuser has obstructed the victim from physically attending the workplace often occurs in domestic violence situations.

In some instances the violence and abuse can occur in the workplace, which puts the victim and victim's colleagues at risk.

Discrimination of domestic violence victims in the workplace can be in the form of transferring the employment of a victim, ruling them out for promotion or simply terminating their employment altogether, usually on the basis that their work has been adversely affected by their abuse or because the abuse is adversely affecting the workplace.

Legally there have been some improvements to victim entitlements and workplace support through the Fair Work Act 2009, which put in place specific measures for domestic violence victims and their unpaid carers to access flexible work arrangements in 2013; however those requests can be refused on reasonable business grounds with no right of appeal.

In the absence of significant legal change, charity group the CEO Challenge advocates strongly for policy change in organisations and has been successful in implementing its programs.

It aims to make workplaces aware and responsive to domestic violence and put in place a strategy to raise awareness and support their staff who may be living with violence, abuse and control at home.
 The review showed that domestic and family violence was the leading cause of homelessness among women and children.

Studies undertaken by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission found that single mothers are often turned away from the public and private housing markets and even more likely to be turned away when they have pets - even though leaving the pets behind would mean leaving them with the perpetrator.

Women participating in that study reported that it was better to lie about their relationship status and say that they were widowed, rather than married but not living with their partner.

In its review of the private rental sector the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute highlights research that has noted an 'increased risk in tenancy failure' for vulnerable groups in Australia, which includes domestic violence victims.

One of the options for victims is for them and their children to stay with family and friends, but this is often inconvenient and only a temporary solution.  

One study found that women have not been found eligible for public housing and crisis accommodation because staying with family or friends is considered 'suitable' under their guidelines.

Eligibility for public housing is further impacted by the fact that applicants must not have cash assets in excess of $38,400 (singles) or $63,800 (couples).  As victims are often still listed as an owner on the house they shared with their abuser, this often provides a barrier to accessing public housing.

Many sources identified that there need to be stronger policies and programs around removing the perpetrator from the home allowing the victims to remain in their own house and neighbourhood and not have to upheave their lives to move.

The review concentrated on the areas of accommodation and employment because both are vital to victims of domestic violence recovery from their abuse and separation from their abusers.

Currently victims of domestic violence can only claim discrimination on the grounds of family status, family responsibility or impairment, all of which are not adequate to protect domestic violence victims from the discrimination they experience.

The review found there still remains an extensive and pervasive stigma around the topic of domestic violence and that social change needs to be addressed as victims often suffer in the public and private sectors when trying to access services and go about their daily lives.

Some policy changes have taken place, but this can only go so far and legal change is also vital to addressing the issues of discrimination against domestic violence victims.

 A number of sources in the literature identified the amendment of federal and state anti-discrimination laws to include domestic violence as a protected attribute as fundamental to eliminating the discrimination of domestic violence victims and survivors.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has strongly argued that the Federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Fair Work Act 2009 should be amended to include domestic violence as grounds for discrimination.


Working with youth against discrimination

On 5 February 2015 Acting Commissioner Jenni Perkins attended the Catalyst Youth Summit hosted by Youth Affairs Council of Western Australia and the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network WA at Edith Cowan University Joondalup Campus.

The Summit brought together 60 young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds to talk about the issues that are important to them and to have the chance to speak directly to politicians and decision makers about these issues and solutions.

Ms Perkins joined one of the delegate teams to workshop ways to raise awareness around race discrimination.

She said it was inspiring to hear the delegates put forward their ideas.

"The delegates had some incredibly innovative ideas involving the use of social media to raise awareness about racism, which was exciting to hear,” Ms Perkins said.

Ms Perkins said she looked forward to doing more work with young people to address equal opportunity issues in Western Australia.

“The State’s young people provide so much potential to help address systemic discrimination, as they are key to shaping future cultural attitudes,” she said.

Acting Commissioner Jenni Perkins, youth delegate Yunita Dewiyana and Executive Director Office of Multicultural Interests Rebecca Ball at the Catalyst Youth Summit

What's coming up at the Commission

  • The annual Isabelle Lake Memorial Lecture will be held on 5 April 2016 in the foyer of UWA's Ken and Julie Michaels Building.  A pre-event reception will be at 5.30pm followed by formal proceedings from 6.10pm to 7.30pm.  The theme for this year's lecture is - Creating transgender inclusive workspaces. 

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