The Office for Women in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is currently in overdrive, trying to roll out the Albanese government's manifold commitments to women.
At last the way is open for policy action.
In 2018 Australia was criticised at the United Nations for its lack of a comprehensive national gender equality policy to address the structural factors perpetuating inequalities.
The Morrison government was uncomfortable with the concept of structural disadvantage and did little to address this concern, apart from initiatives to boost women's participation in STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
By 2021 Australia had dropped to 50th place in the World Economic Forum's global gender gap rankings, while New Zealand, by contrast, was up with the Nordic countries in 4th place.
So, when Labor took to the 2022 federal election a commitment to a national strategy to achieve gender equality it was well received by both advocacy groups and voters.
Now comes the real challenge, with the government committed to releasing the national strategy in the first half of 2023.
A key to success is bringing the public along with it, despite inevitable attacks by News Corp on political correctness, identity politics, wokeness or virtue signalling.
There are already plans in existence that will need to be aligned with the national strategy, including the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children and the National Women's Health Strategy, as well as work in states and territories. The Albanese government has made a start on another key element, the closing of the gender pay gap. It has made pay equity an objective of the Fair Work Act and banned the secrecy clauses in employment contracts that have contributed to pay inequity. In other democracies legislation to promote pay transparency has in itself resulted in a narrowing of the gender pay gap.
The government has also committed to gender responsive budgeting. Done well, this will be an important driver of action across government, but will require capacity development of the public service.
All of these are important building blocks in a gender equality strategy. But what of women's performance of unpaid and poorly paid care work, long seen to lie at the heart of gender inequality?
Labor went to the 2022 election with an unprecedented emphasis on the care economy and it has already contributed to better pay for aged care workers.
As Labor said, the undervaluing of care work is one of the main causes of the gender pay gap.
However, we need to remember that the gender pay gap as reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics only measures the gender gap in the average ordinary time earnings of full-time workers (currently 14.1 per cent). Once we include full-time equivalent earnings of part-time and casual workers, the gender gap increases to 22.8 per cent.
Much of the difference here is due to the disproportionate share of unpaid work performed by women, resulting in career breaks and return to paid work on a part-time basis.
As long as most of the work done by women is unpaid, while most of the work done by men is paid, gender inequality will continue, as will all the pathologies arising from gender inequality such as gender-based violence. For this reason, other countries such as Sweden include as an important goal of their gender equality policy "the equal distribution of unpaid housework and provision of care work".
The Australian system of paid parental leave introduced in 2010 was designed primarily to support women's labour force participation and maternal and child health, rather than sharing the care. Elements of the policy design made it difficult for men to share the parental leave entitlement and almost all such leave was taken by women. Yet if men do not take up parental leave it does not serve the purpose of breaking down the gender stereotyping of care work.
The government's Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022 and the commitment to increase leave to 26 weeks by 2026 may help advance better sharing of care between parents, but does not finish the job.
Bringing all this together through the new National Gender Equality Strategy is hugely important. However words on paper mean nothing by themselves. They must drive changes in behaviour, across all levels of government, and across the community.
While more than half of Australians consider themselves feminist, there remain significant numbers who do not accept key ingredients of equality. The strategy needs to show that everyone benefits if life decisions can be made without limits imposed by gender.
Men should be able to claim their role in caring for, as well as caring about, their families, and women should be able to secure their economic future without foregoing a family or risking wellbeing.
We would have preferred the government take longer to finalise the strategy but if politics dictate an early release, there must at least be a comprehensive plan for community consultation. Gender equality organisations need to take a lead in this, just as public servants across government need to understand their role.
The strategy has a lot of heavy lifting to do to get Australia there, after years of culture wars.
As we can see from the Voice to Parliament, in an adversarial political environment this can be the really hard part.
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