16 November 2010 Equal opportunity for women in the workplace - reporting obligations of employers

By Warwick Ryan, Partner

In brief - Importance of compliance with EOWA Act

The federal government is serious about promoting equal opportunity for women in the workplace. Employers need to comply with the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 (EOWA Act).

Renewed focus on equal opportunity

The highly publicised sexual harassment dispute involving retail giant David Jones and Kristy Fraser-Kirk has refocused public attention throughout Australia on the importance of promoting equal opportunity for women in the workplace. Employers need to be aware of their obligations under the EOWA Act. 

Main features of the Act

The EOWA Act covers all private sector organisations, including companies, sole traders and unincorporated associations which employ 100 or more employees in Australia, or which have employed 100 or more employees at any time since 1 April 2001. Even if the organisation has subsequently reduced its workforce to less than 100 employees, it is still covered by the EOWA Act.

The Act requires such organisations to develop and implement workplace programs dealing with the promotion of equal opportunity for women in the workplace. They must also submit annual reports on or before 31 May to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA).

Workplace program development and implementation obligations

The primary obligation imposed under the Act is to develop and implement a workplace program which promotes equal opportunity for women in the workforce. The guidelines for developing a workplace program promoting equal opportunity for women can be downloaded from the EOWA website.

The guidelines outline the following key steps:

  • Link your workplace program integrally within your organisation's business strategy and implement initiatives closely aligned with business priorities
  • Assign responsibility for the workplace program to a senior and influential employee
  • At the beginning of the reporting period (1 April), prepare a workplace profile which focuses on the ratio of women to men in the workplace overall, for each occupation and for each employment type (e.g. women represent 44% of the workforce but only represent 21% in full-time senior positions, 80% casual clerical positions, etc)
  • Analyse your organisation's workplace by gathering information through consultation with employees to identify the problems for women in the workplace (e.g. poor rate of return from parental leave, lack of female recruits, significant occupational segregation, sex-based harassment etc)
  • Prioritise the identified issues
  • During the reporting period (1 April to 31 March), take relevant action to address the most urgent problems
  • At the end of the reporting period, evaluate the effectiveness of these actions and plan your organisation's actions for the following year
EOWA reporting obligations

In order to ensure compliance with the primary obligation of developing and implementing workplace programs, the Act obliges employers to report annually to EOWA. A standard form for completing these reports can be downloaded from the EOWA website.

The reporting guidelines prepared by EOWA outline the following integral steps:

  1. Set out the details of your organisation in the cover sheet (name, major business activities, Australian & NZ Standard Industrial Classification etc).
  2. Outline your organisation's workplace profile by answering the key questions - how many men and women work in the organisation, the type of occupations that men and women are engaged in and their employment category.
  3. Identify the problems for women in your organisation's workplace, considering what needs to be improved so that women can fulfil their potential in the workplace and taking the following aspects into account

Recruitment and selection
Promotion, transfer and termination
Training and development
Work organisation
Conditions of service
Arrangements for dealing with sex-based harassment
Arrangements for dealing with pregnancy, potential pregnancy and breastfeeding

  1. Set out the priority issues for women in the workplace that your organisation intends to focus on over the next reporting period and the rationale for prioritising these issues.
  2. Outline the specific actions that your organisation proposes to take in the next reporting period to address these priority issues (for example, providing flexible work options for women returning from parental leave).
  3. Evaluate the effectiveness of the actions your organisation has already taken by considering the events to date, the current stage of the implementation process, the degree of success of the action and what your organisation has learned that will assist in implementing future actions.
  4. Set out your organisation’s planned actions for the next reporting period, building on what has been achieved in the  previous year.
Non-compliance with EOWA reporting obligations

The failure to comply with the mandatory reporting obligations carries significant ramifications for employers, as they risk being “named and shamed” by the Federal Government in a report which is tabled in parliament and maintained on the EOWA website. Employers whose revenue is dependent on government contracts have a further incentive for compliance with the Act, because those which are named as being non-compliant are not eligible to tender for such contracts and will also be denied particular forms of industry assistance.

Advice to employers

All employers should be aware that if they currently employ 100 or more staff, or if they have employed this number at any point since 1 April 2001, they are bound by the obligations under the EOWA Act.

If your organisation fits this profile, it must develop and implement a workplace program in accordance with the steps outlined above and lodge a report with EOWA by 31 May each year.

Employers should also bear in mind that complying with the formal requirements of the EOWA Act is only the first step. As the case of David Jones demonstrates, the existence of written policies and lodgement of annual reports will not save an organisation from lawsuits and negative publicity if the behaviour of individuals within it is at variance with the stated policy.

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This article is not legal advice and the views and comments are of a general nature only. This article is not to be relied upon in substitution for detailed legal advice.

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