How Far We've Come with NGS Super - Susan Ryan and The Sex Discrimination Act

Part 5: Susan Ryan and The Sex Discrimination Act

Squiz it to me

You know the drill... Take me back to the 80s...
A time when the mullet was the hairstyle to have, and more was more when it came to shoulder pads. Kylie Minogue was the star of Neighbours, and Cold Chisel and INXS ruled the charts.

Sounds like a pretty fun time. How were things for women?
It was still a time when women couldn't get a chequebook without their husband's permission - even if they were the sole earner. They couldn't apply for a mortgage, and career options could be pretty limited.

Hang on, I thought women could work, right?
They could, but it wasn't illegal to discriminate against women during the hiring process. Deborah Lawrie, for instance, was rejected by Ansett several times when she applied to become a commercial pilot in the 70s.

Because she was a woman?
Exactly. They claimed that women were not strong enough, they went crazy once a month and couldn't do anything, and, if they had children, would be a financial burden on the company.

That's awful. Did anything change?
Fortunately, Deborah Lawrie took Ansett to court and won her case thanks to the Equal Opportunity Act 1977 in Victoria. Ansett was forced to hire her, and she eventually became the world's oldest female pilot in 2020. But discrimination against women in the workplace was pretty common, and not all Aussie women had the resources to pursue it in the courts.

So what was done about it?
Enter Susan Ryan - the first woman to hold a Cabinet post in a federal Labor government. She was elected as an ACT senator in 1975 under the slogan "A women's place is the Senate". She drafted a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on gender in employment, pay, promotion, and unfair dismissal.

Did she cop criticism?
She sure did. There were full-page ads in newspapers criticising the bill, rallies were held, and, for a while, she was known as the 'feminist dictator'. Critics claimed the bill would destroy families, the economy, and some said it was part of a communist plot.

And what happened?
Despite the critics, the Sex Discrimination Bill passed through the parliament with a strong majority. It became a cornerstone reform in the fight for equal opportunity for women, especially in the workplace.

How did Ryan feel about it?
She said it was "probably the most useful thing I've done in my life". And after she left politics in 1988, she became the Commissioner for Age and Disability Discrimination.

Where are we today?

Protections under the Sex Discrimination Act now cover discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status and marital or relationship status. 

What it means: Businesses and employers can't discriminate against people based on these characteristics. And it also applies to other areas, like education, access to credit and insurance, and the provision of goods and services.

How it works: Anyone who believes they've been discriminated against based on these characteristics can file a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

The numbers:
597 - the number of complaints in 2021-22 received by AHRC that were covered by the Sex Discrimination Act. Of those, 72% were made by women, 32% were based on discrimination due to gender, and 23% were for sexual harassment.

39% - of women say they've experienced sexual harassment at work in the last 5 years. For men, 26% say they've experienced it.

#1 - Sex discrimination is the driving cause of the gender pay gap, according to economic consultants KPMG. The second biggest driver?  Care, family and work participation.

Where to from here?

• In response to the #MeToo movement and recognition that harassment is an issue in Australian workplaces, the former Coalition Government commissioned a report led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins in 2018. The Respect@Work Report, released in 2020, revealed widespread sexual harassment in the workplace and contained 55 recommendations to address the issue.

• Late last year, the parliament passed the first of these recommendations, which increased the responsibility of employers to take proactive steps to eliminate harassment in their organisations. The changes also introduced lower the threshold for what qualifies as sexual harassment.

• Another hot topic of debate surrounding the Sex Discrimination Act is the exemption that allows religious organisations to discriminate against people based on their gender identity or sexuality. This means that religious schools can kick out or fire LGBTQ students, teachers, and staff. This came up during recent debates about legislating for religious freedoms.

• The Albanese Government has picked this up and has released a paper for public feedback that suggests changes to these exemptions. However, religious groups are pushing back, claiming that these changes would attack their freedom of belief. So, you can expect lots more discussion to come.

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