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More can be done to support women’s workplace rights

There’s a practical and immediate way we can reduce the gender wage gap now, writes Zana Bytheway.

user iconZana Bytheway 31 August 2021 Big Law
Zana Bytheway
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The national gender pay gap has recently increased to 14.2 per cent, up from 13.4 per cent in February 2021. This may not come as a surprise to people given that we know that women have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

More likely to work part-time or casually, more likely to work in lockdown-impacted industries like hospitality, retail and tourism, more likely to risk their own health as a frontline worker, and more likely to take on a higher unpaid labour burden at home during a time when we’ve all been at home more – women have disproportionately shouldered the burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week’s announcement of the closure of childcare services to all but authorised workers in Victoria and encouragement for parents and carers to keep their children home from childcare in NSW, sounded a death knell for the careers of many women suddenly faced with juggling working and parenting concurrently.


At JobWatch, a specialist employment law community legal centre, we support over 15,000 workers in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania every year with their rights at work.

Since 1 July 2020, we have taken over 10,000 calls from women who were facing issues at work ranging from stand-down directions and redundancies, changing of hours or wages due to business stoppages, parent and carer discrimination and gender-based discrimination.

These calls illustrate the precarity of employment for so many women across Australia. Many of them are memorable – and I think often about women like Hannah, Myla and Chantelle*.

Hannah is a single mother with two young children who was working as an administrator in the male-dominated construction sector. She called JobWatch when she was made redundant during the pandemic with the excuse of cutbacks, which happened directly after she made a complaint about gender-based discrimination. As the sole income earner, she was worried about how she would make ends meet in her household.

Myla was working in the travel industry and was on parental leave when the pandemic hit. When she returned from leave, she was moved into a different role that paid significantly less than her original role, with her boss expressly telling her that it was because she had a baby and was likely to take more time off to have another baby. She was made to feel grateful that she still had a job after having a baby.

Then there’s Chantelle, who was juggling the homeschooling of her three primary-school-aged children with her job as a customer support officer. Though she could perform her work from home, her employer decided to recall them back to the office as essential workers, refusing all requests for flexible work arrangements on the basis of parental care responsibilities. She didn’t know how she would manage the homeschooling of her three kids.

Whether discrimination is direct like it was for Myla and Hannah where they were disadvantaged because of their gender and parental status, or indirect like for Chantelle where business decisions adversely affect women rather than men, it has the same effect – it disadvantages women in the workforce and it contributes to the gender pay gap.

We know what the solutions to the gender pay gap are – conducting gender pay gap analyses within organisations, reducing and eliminating bias from recruitment and performance management systems, training and development, gender-responsive organisational policies, and more.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency has a wealth of resources available on how employers can act on gender pay equity in their workplace. But organisational change takes time, as does the evolution of societal and cultural norms that will address the gender pay gap.

For this year’s, Equal Pay Day (31 August), I’m adding one more practical, immediate, solution to the list – for federal and state governments to increase funding to specialist employment law community legal centres to support women with their rights at work.

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner recognised the importance of community legal centres in their Respect@Work report, calling for more comprehensive funding to support our work through recommendations 49 and 53.

By funding community legal centres now, we achieve two goals – firstly to support thousands of women across Australia with individualised legal assistance in their issue, and secondly, by representing women through strategic legal casework, we can establish legal precedent for others in similar situations and create widespread change on workplace rights that is enforced by court decisions.

The next few months will be telling – the ongoing challenges of working and parenting in a pandemic will test many women. Many others may feel obliged to accept less optimum working conditions in order to keep their jobs in an unstable economy. Others still might choose to bite their tongue as they field yet another sexist comment from a colleague or manager.

Now, more than ever, specialist employment law community legal centres must be funded to support those who really need it.

Zana Bytheway is the executive director of JobWatch, an employment law community legal centre supporting workers with their rights in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania.