Helen Conway

on Sunday, 22 April 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews, Empowerment

Helen Conway
Director of Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA)

EOWA Director, Helen Conway, has had extensive business experience. Following ten years in private practice as a lawyer, including seven years as a partner, Helen joined the corporate sector where she held various executive positions in companies covering the insurance, transport, downstream oil, retailing and construction industries. In addition she has held various directorships in the health, transport and superannuation sectors.  

Helen has an established track record in the equal opportunity sphere focussing in particular on initiatives in support of women. She spent ten years on the NSW Equal Opportunity Tribunal including three years as its Senior Judicial Member.  

Helen’s appointment as Director of EOWA is for a period of five years commencing on 27 April 2011.

Interview with Helen Conway

Do you believe that employers understand the problem of pay equity and know how to investigate it using a pay equity audit to identify where gender pay inequities may exist within their workplace, so that they can remove the barriers to women’s workforce participation and career progression? 

There is clear evidence that many employers do not understand what pay equity means and are effectively in denial about any gender pay gap which exists in their organisations. This is unacceptable in 2011.

Employers need to take action to eliminate this discrimination in the workplace. However, not enough is happening to redress this inequity. A significant number of organisations reporting to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) reveal a gender pay gap in their workplaces. However, survey results released in 2010 revealed that less than 40 per cent of these organisations conduct an annual pay equity analysis.  Of the organisations that do conduct some analysis, only about half indicated that their analysis had actually resulted in an action plan to address the gender pay gap in their organisation.

How does EOWA encourage employers to investigate possible sources of gender pay gaps? 

EOWA guides employers to understand the issues and examine them within their organisations, to develop practical and effective strategies to address them, to analyse, evaluate and revise their HR policies and practices, and to review and report on progress and achievements. We provide the Mind the Gap pay equity online course, payroll analysis tools, helpful fact sheets, illustrative YouTube clips, business cases and case studies, comparative research and statistics and practical implementation and monitoring advice.  

We are currently leading and sponsoring the development of an Australian Standard on Gender-inclusive Job Evaluation and Grading.  

We also require EOWA Employer of Choice for Women organisations to undertake a remuneration analysis to understand  any gender pay equity issues in their organisations and explain what they are doing about it.

Under proposed changes to the legislation governing EOWA, there will be an increased focus on pay equity and we will intensify our efforts to facilitate better pay outcomes for women.

Does EOWA provide specialist personnel to help employers gather pay equity data and systematically analyse it within an organisation?  

EOWA’s client consultants work with our 3000 or so reporting organisations across the range of gender equity issues, including pay equity. EOWA also has a specialist Pay Equity Adviser who works with EOWA staff and reporting organisations. 

EOWA is further developing its payroll analysis tools and preparing workshops on carrying out pay equity reviews. The workshops, which are to be delivered later this year, are targeted at HR and remuneration consultants and other interested stakeholders. These workshops will build capacity for doing high quality pay equity reviews, and will engage HR and remuneration practitioners in understanding how they can deliver these reviews as part of their mainstream remuneration suite.

How do you regard the decision that was handed down by Fair Work Australia (FWA) in May 2011 for the Australian Services Union’s (ASU) Equal Remuneration Case confirming that gender was an important factor in creating the gap between pay in the Social and Community Services sector and pay in comparable state and local government employment. Whilst this is an important step towards equal pay, it seems that it will be phased in over a number of years and funded by cuts to services and jobs. Do you believe that this case has sent the right signals to employers and employees for similar cases to follow?  

The case is still underway, with a further hearing on 21 September and a final hearing on 24 October which will deal with the key question of remedies. The interim ruling in the case determined that pay for social and community workers is affected by gender-related undervaluation, and they are paid less than public sector social and community workers for work that is generally of comparable value. Fair Work Australia found that neither proof of sex discrimination in the existing rates, nor comparisons with male dominated groups, was required for the finding of gender-related undervaluation. Fair Work Australia considered a wide range of evidence in the case, especially in relation to the value of the work undertaken, and confirmed that assessments and comparisons of work value are made according to the skills, responsibilities and demands of the work, irrespective of similarities and dissimilarities in tasks undertaken. These findings provide very useful information for employers and employees about how the new provisions are likely to be interpreted.

Although there are three legal options available for Australian women to achieve pay equality - equal remuneration applications, sex discrimination claims at both federal and state level and adverse action claims - do you believe that these legal avenues continue to be difficult for Australian women to successfully achieve pay equality?  

Equal remuneration, adverse action and sex discrimination claims have proved to be very difficult avenues for pursuing pay equity.  The cases are complex for all participants. There are few cases and there is not yet a substantial body of expertise for developing and running them. The costs and time involved can be substantial. In some countries, cases are undertaken by contingency-fee and pro bono lawyers and resources for the cases are met from punitive and other damages and backpay. This does not occur in Australia.

Having effective legal redress for pay equity problems is critically important in fixing longstanding pay equity problems that date back to when sex discrimination in pay was lawful and also in addressing emerging pay equity issues. However, in view of the prevalence and scale of pay equity problems that need addressing, processing them all through the legal system would be putting a long cavalcade of camels through the eye of a very small needle.

Legal avenues provide just one approach to fixing pay equity problems, and they are unlikely to be effective in addressing the full range of pay equity problems across the economy. We need a wide range of other solutions, through collective enterprise bargaining and through changes in HR and management practices.

What changes if any would you like to see to the Australian legal system to reduce the gender pay gap?  

The provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009 have now had their first test in the social and community workers case. When the case is completed, the findings and reasons for the decision will provide guidance for negotiating agreements in other sectors and organisations. The effectiveness of the Fair Work Act provisions cannot be assessed until the current proceedings are determined.

We need to remember that most of the gender pay gap reflects differences in the labour market position of women and men and is not amenable to legal solutions. Women and men are concentrated in different occupations, industries and job levels. Women still do more of the unpaid caring work which limits their working hours, in a day, a week and a working lifetime. It also critically affects their opportunities to progress to the full range of jobs and job levels. While in some cases these obstacles reflect unlawful discrimination, for the most part they reflect different work patterns for men and women, in contexts where there are still significant rigidities in labour markets and employment practices and arrangements.

As Companies listed on the stock exchange are required to since January 2011 set gender diversity targets at board and senior executive levels and to report every year on their progress towards achieving those targets, how optimistic are you that this will be achieved within five years or do you believe that it would be better to introduce mandatory gender quotas for corporate boards as we have waited long enough?  

The effectiveness of the current measures cannot be assessed yet. We are yet to see the first round of reporting on the obligation under the ASX Guidelines to set objectives for achieving greater gender diversity. I am optimistic, at least so far as Board composition is concerned, that we will see far better gender diversity given the number of recent female Board appointments.

Quotas for women on boards have been used to great effect in some countries but they can also have unintended consequences, including undermining the legitimacy and the standing of the women appointed to meet the quotas.

Are you interested in finding other ways to tackle notions of gender inequality in the consciousness of Australian society? 

EOWA has specific responsibilities for working on gender equity in workplaces. We recognise that women's and men's choices and opportunities are inextricably interrelated. The proposed new legislation for EOWA will explicitly include a focus on the caring responsibilities of both men and women. Raising awareness and promoting a wider range of quite concrete possibilities in workplaces - for example, more flexible work options for men so they can share the caring responsibilities - can enable, reflect and reinforce changes in consciousness about gender roles in Australian society.

EOWA will continue to identify new opportunities for communicating about what enables and inhibits gender equality through its work on gender equality at work.