Wednesday 20 November 2013

The Commission is currently conducting the Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and return to Work National Review. In this instalment of PodRights, Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, who is heading the Review, joins Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes to discuss its genesis, the issues at play in this area of gender inequality, its aims and the ways people can engage with and contribute to the Review. For more information about the Review itself, visit


Graeme Innes: Hello and welcome to Pod Rights, a series of podcasts from the Australian Human Rights Commission. I'm Graeme Innes the Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

Women are in the workforce and they become pregnant. There can be, but shouldn't be, a tension between those issues. To talk about that and a review for which she is responsible, I welcome Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick back to Pod Rights. Welcome Liz.

Elizabeth Broderick: Thanks very much Graeme, it's great to be back on Pod Rights.       

Graeme Innes: Now the review is called Pregnancy and Return to Work. Why have you called it that? What's it all about?

Elizabeth Broderick: The review is about looking at pregnancy discrimination so that is really including potential discrimination. I've heard from women who say they look at a job ad, they pick up the phone and they ring the advertisement number and their first question they're asked is, are you of child-bearing age? So from right back at that stage through to return to work. It was important that return to work was also part of the description because that actually includes both women and men. Because we're looking at also at return to work by men who've taken parental leave as well as women.

Graeme Innes: Because women get pregnant but often, or sometimes and you would know the percentages better than I do, but sometimes it's dad who takes the parent leave. Isn't it?

Elizabeth Broderick: You're right. The percentages, Graeme, are still very low but sometimes it is dad. What happens to dad often when he comes back into paid work is that he's denied training opportunities. So he's not really seen as a serious player in the same way that women with caring responsibilities are not.

Graeme Innes: Not, yeah. This isn't a new issue for you, is it? How does it fit into the broader context of your work Liz?

Elizabeth Broderick: Well I think pregnancy and return to work discrimination, firstly it has a cost on individual women and men but importantly it also has a cost on business. Many businesses are recognising that actually to alienate 50 per cent of a potential talent that exists in Australia is not smart business. So it fits into a whole range of other things including women's poverty in later life. Because often if women are discriminated against when they are pregnant, a number of them will leave the workforce permanently.

That will have also implications for their retirement, their levels of retirement savings, particularly if they have a relationship breakdown later in their life. So it does fit in generally to women's ability to earn an income, to be in paid work and to plan for a retirement later on in their lives.

Graeme Innes: What have you done with it so far? Flexibility in work for which you've long advocated is a huge part of it, isn't it? So how have you progressed it?

Elizabeth Broderick: You're right. Flexibility and making flexibility mainstream is such an important issue. I have to say it was very personal for me because when I had my first child, I remember I was running a team of lawyers at that time. I had a situation where half the legal team were out on maternity leave at exactly the same time. So it became not just a personal issue for me, but also a business issue. I, like many of - like the other women, wanted to come back in a flexible work arrangement.

Graeme Innes: But it's interesting that you're on both sides of the issue, isn't it? As one of the women who had been on leave but also as the person managing the impact on that team.

Elizabeth Broderick: That's exactly right. What I realised then is that flexibility is a mindset. If you've got people who want to work collaboratively from both an employee and employer side, you can make these things work. That's what's been so interesting, Graeme, is that as I've travelled the country, some of the best flexibility that I've seen has been actually in small business not necessarily in large businesses with large human resources departments.

Graeme Innes: You've also said that you can't help to solve gender equality without resolving this issue. Why is that Liz?

Elizabeth Broderick: Because this issue I think is fundamental to women's continued retention in paid work. If we can't mainstream flexibility, then women in caring roles and particularly where they're caring for a child who might have a disability, often need to make a choice. Is it work or family? In 2013, that's not a choice that anyone should be having to make. So I think as a society but also as a smart employer, if we want to retain top talent and that includes both men and women. Let's not forget that there's a growing group of men who want to be actively involved in caring. Then smart employers, smart organisations are understanding that they need to build flexibility into the career continuum but also into work practices. They need to make it normalised.

Graeme Innes: Now I know you've had discussions with a range of people about this issue, big business, employers' groups and also people affected by the sorts of discrimination that you've talked about; women and men. One very heavy-hitting group, if I can describe them as that, is the Male Champions of Change group which you've worked with very closely. What sort of engagement have you had with them on this issue?

Elizabeth Broderick: The Male Champions of Change have really got engaged with this issue. Because what they realise from speaking to hundreds of women in their organisation was that parental leave is a career killer. What they're trying to do is turn that whole picture around and say, no, parental leave needs to be a career accelerant so some of them are adopting good parental leave policies. They've all had good parental leave policies I have to say in practices. But just having parental leave policies is not enough. It is about flexible work. It's also about childcare and assisting with that.

But if I can come back to flexible work, one of a really, I think, simple things but transformative things is a policy that Telstra has adopted. That is that as from next year, they will declare all roles flexible. So as from next year, every role in that organisation and it employs tens of thousands of individuals, will be available in a flexible work arrangement. When you speak to David Thodey the CEO, his reason for declaring all roles flexible is that it changes the starting point. It changes the discussion.

Now there may be some roles that it's just not going to work and I'd suggest the CEO role would be one of those. But there will be other roles where - which can't be done, for example, in a part time role or whatever. But I think just by that simple act of saying at least we're changing the starting point, saying that all roles now are available in a flexible work arrangement. Now you as a manager tell me why this role can't be done this way? It will have a significant impact.

Graeme Innes: Because it moves the mindset. Doesn't it?

Elizabeth Broderick: It moves the mindset. As we said and the Male Champions really understand, flexibility is a mindset and that's what we're trying to change.

Graeme Innes: Liz, you talked about this leave being a career killer, that must be - there must be a significant issue there for decision makers in business in terms of the loss of skills and the loss of expertise. Is that part of what drives this?

Elizabeth Broderick: Absolutely. I mean, Australia is a small country. Yes we have a highly skilled workforce and when you look at it - and just the report that's come out from the COAG Reform Council today, shows that women are outperforming men in terms of educational achievement and educational outcomes. But the fact is, that's not being translated into their achievement in paid work. Part of that is the picture of pregnancy and return to work discrimination. But smart employers are realising that if they want the best talent, they have to build inclusive organisations. Ones where the culture is inclusive and supports people to work and care, whether they be male or female.

Graeme Innes: So back to the review itself Liz, what are your aims with it?

Elizabeth Broderick: Well how the review came about was we were hearing a lot of stories about pregnancy discrimination from the unions, Fair Work Ombudsman. Now pregnancy discrimination has overtaken disability discrimination in their complaints system.

Graeme Innes: I saw that.

Elizabeth Broderick: Yeah. We also saw the ABS come out with some initial data. What we wanted to do and what the government asked us to do was to really get some hard prevalence data. So that's one element of it. As of the beginning of 2014, we will release hard prevalence data into the prevalence of pregnancy and return to work discrimination. The other side of it is understanding well what does that look like in the workplace?

So understanding the nature and complexity and we're doing that through many, many focus groups all across the country including regional areas. The third part of it is to identify leading practices because we're meeting employers along the way, from the smallest employer to some of the large ones, who are doing some really innovative and good things. We want to spread that message far and wide. So the report will be a combination of all those three things, including a number of recommendations that we will make.

Graeme Innes: That's how the report will be developed. How will you get to that point?

Elizabeth Broderick: We'll get to that point by hearing from as many men and women across Australia as we possibly can. So there'll be a stakeholder group, we're working actively with employers, unions, peak bodies like ACCI, like AIG and community organisations and, of course, men and women themselves. But if people are interested in getting engaged, we have a submission process on the web, on our internet page, for both employers and men and women affected by discrimination.

So it's not detailed at all. You can just send us an email, tell your story or you can undertake a more structured process on the web. But we're keen to hear from as many people as we possibly can.

Graeme Innes: I guess that's linked from the front page of the Human Rights Commission site. So that's

Elizabeth Broderick: Yes that's exactly right. In fact, the National Telephone Survey prevalence data will be out in the beginning of 2013 [sic: 2014]. We'll be consulting widely as we travel around until the end of December and our final report will be out in June 2014.  

Graeme Innes: Well thanks Liz. An important topic for men as well as for women, as you've said. So great to have the chance to talk with you about it today.

Elizabeth Broderick: Thanks very much Graeme.

Graeme Innes: Thanks to all of you listening to Pod Rights. Remember, this podcast is for you so if you have a suggestion of someone with whom I should talk or a comment on the podcast, please email me at Or find me and message me on Facebook or Twitter. Just search for Graeme Innes and keep your pod catchers ready for the next Pod Rights in the series because human rights are for everyone, everywhere, every day. I'm Graeme Innes, goodbye for now.

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