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.
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.