The Federal Government says it will not do business with companies not actively pushing gender equality in the workplace.
Reforms announced today include spot checks on businesses to assess fair pay and working conditions for women.
Businesses with more than 100 staff will be required to report on how many workers are female and how their conditions compare to male employees.
The Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, says businesses that do not comply with the laws will not be eligible for government-funded grants and industry assistance programs.
Government trade with non-compliant organisations will not be permitted by law, with Ms Ellis pointing out that government contracts were worth more than $40 billion.
“Annually, both CEO and employee representatives will be required to sign off on the reports to verify the accuracy and whether they are a true illustration of what’s happening in those work places,” Ms Ellis said.
Under current rules companies are required to report to the Government on workplace equity plans, but they can apply to be excused from doing so.
With the changes they will have to spell out employment conditions, including equal pay, and flexible work arrangements for male and female employees.
Senior management and employee representatives will have to sign off on the markers and provide copies of the report to employees and shareholders.
The reforms will let the Government know what is happening in all businesses with more than 100 employees, with no exceptions, Ms Ellis said.
The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency will receive an extra $11.2 million in federal funding over four years to monitor the reforms.
It will do regular spot checks to ensure companies are acting within the rules.
“The agency will have the muscle it needs to make a real difference when it comes to gender equality in the workplace,” Ms Ellis said.
Heading the Government’s reform push will be the agency’s newly appointed director Helen Conway, who is leaving a $700,000-a-year corporate salary at Caltex to take up the position.
The pressure will be on her to bring about significant changes.
“I want to be part of the action to get some real achievements, get some real runs on the board,” Ms Conway said.
“We hear a lot of talk, particularly in recent days, about getting more women onto boards and that of course is very, very important, but what I’m really interested in achieving is equality for women across all levels of work.”
The announcement follows worldwide celebrations on Tuesday marking the centenary of International Women’s Day.
Statistics show there are significant salary discrepancies between the sexes, and women also remain under-represented in higher corporate echelons.
In Australia women earn 84 per cent of their male counterparts, and at 64 per cent the numbers are even worse for those in part-time work.
Earlier this week, Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick told ABC News Online the statistics show not even women in powerful jobs escape sex discrimination.
Ms Ellis says in order to boost women’s participation in the workforce, more needs to be done to make men’s conditions more flexible.
She says the bulk of household work too often falls to women because men do not feel their work is flexible enough to share the load more equally.
“It is absolutely two sides of the coin. We must support women’s participation in the workforce and men’s participation in caring and unpaid work. To do one without the other is futile,” Ms Ellis said.
Business groups, however, are sceptical about the Government’s plan to boost women’s participation in the workforce, saying the new guidelines risk being heavy-handed.
But Ms Conway says it is premature to talk about how the amendments will play out in practice, adding consultation with industry is ongoing.
Ms Conway says the robust new powers would allow the Government to effectively blacklist non-compliant businesses.
“I think there’s the name and shame, of course, and an ability to disclose widely those companies that are not complying with the act,” she said.
“But I think the most important thing is that those companies that don’t comply will not be able to participate in any procurement by the Government. So any goods and services the government seeks to procure from companies must be from companies that are compliant with this act.”
She has denied the new laws are about legislating a quota system in the workforce.
“I think the debate about quotas tends to sideline what is the substance of the issue. What’s important is that we get outcomes; there are various ways of getting outcomes,” she said.
“I’m pretty focused on looking at all those various ways of achieving the outcomes and working out what is the best option for Australia.”
The new legislation will be introduced this year, with the first reports under the new system scheduled to start in 2013.