The United Nations’ International Labour Organisation released the Equal Remuneration Convention, stating that men and women are entitled to equal pay for work of equal value. Over the next two decades, unions and the general public called on the government to ratify this in Australian law.
Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission (ACAC) established the general female award minimum wage at 85 percent of the male wage. The ruling applied nationally and assumed men, as ‘breadwinners’, were entitled to a higher wage than women. The ruling also secured equal pay for women doing exactly the same work as men in male roles—a landmark achievement.
ACAC’s review of the 1969 ruling found that few women were benefiting from equal pay, as few were assessed as performing exactly the same work as men. After significant union lobbying, ACAC ruled that ‘equal pay for work of equal value’ be applied to all women working under federal awards of the Commission. This was a defining moment that meant work in traditionally ‘female’ industries and occupations could be equally recognised in terms of the value of its contribution. 
After much public debate, Australia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 and signed by Australia in 1980. Ratifying CEDAW committed us to ‘being a society that promotes policies, laws, organisations, structures and attitudes that ensure women are given the same rights as men’.
Australia passed the Sex Discrimination Act to enforce the rights enshrined in CEDAW. The Act made it unlawful to discriminate against people because of their sex and other factors , but omitted provisions for affirmative action.
Instead, Affirmative Action for Women: A Policy Discussion Paper was presented to Parliament, outlining reasons for affirmative action and proposing a way forward. As a result, a pilot affirmative action program was conducted and a Working Group was established.
At this time, Australia had the most gender-segregated workforce in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Following recommendations by the Working Group, the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act (AA Act) was passed, with the Affirmative Action Agency established to implement it. This was the first legislative attempt to promote the participation of women in the workforce and seen as critical to achieving equal employment opportunity. It did this by requiring employers to develop affirmative action programs (in line with a prescribed eight-step model) and submit annual progress reports.
Despite being a critical piece of legislation in Australia’s journey towards gender equality, the AA Act was not without resistance. Critics pointed to weak enforcement mechanisms, with naming non-compliant employers in reports to the Minister being the only sanction for non-compliance. Further, submitting a report was all that was required to show compliance; employers did not need to demonstrate progress towards specified, substantive outcomes.
In response to these concerns, the Government conducted a review of the AA Act in 1998. It found that ‘while central parts of the legislation should remain intact, various changes were desirable’.
The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act (EOWW Act) was passed (replacing the AA Act) and the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency was established to implement it.
The EOWW Act removed the standardised eight-step model, requiring employers to identify their own gender and equal opportunity concerns and develop actions to address issues identified. It also developed an outcomes-focused reporting format and made employer education and consultation key objectives of the Agency.
The Government announced a review of the EOWW Act. The review examined the effectiveness and efficiency of the legislation and the Agency in promoting equal opportunity for women in the workplace. It also considered opportunities to reduce the cost of existing regulation and provided practical advice on how to deliver better outcomes for Australian women.
The Review of the EOWW Act Consultation Report was publicly released. The Report highlighted that:
- women continued to be over-represented in areas of study linked to lower earning industries, while men continued to be over-represented in areas of study linked to higher earning industries
- female dominated industries had been historically undervalued
- women were less likely to be in leadership positions within organisations
- despite improvements, women’s earnings remained persistently lower than men.
It also raised issues with the EOWW Act, including that its focus was on women, coverage was insufficient, and penalties and sanctions were inadequate.
In response to the Report, the Workplace Gender Equality Act (Act) was passed by both Houses of Parliament. The new legislation represented a fundamental change to the way gender equality in the workplace was approached. It also established the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (the Agency) to implement the Act, headed by Director, Helen Conway.
Importantly, the new Act:
- introduced a new standardised reporting framework, requiring private sector employers with 100 or more employees to report against six Gender Equality Indicators (‘GEIs’), enabling comparative analysis across employers
- gave the Agency new advisory, research and educational functions
- modified coverage so that all employers and employees in the workplace, regardless of gender, could benefit from the educational resources of the Agency
- provided further transparency regarding sanctions for non-compliance through the Commonwealth procurement framework of not being eligible to tender for government contracts or trade with government (The Workplace Gender Equality Procurement Principles.
Notably, the Agency:
- introduced a new online reporting system and implemented full reporting under the Act whereby non-public sector employers with 100 or more employees report in a standardised format against six Gender Equality Indicators (GEIs)
- released its first comprehensive dataset on workplace gender equality, covering over one-third (four million) Australian employees and provided a benchmark for measuring future progress. This world-leading dataset provided Australia with the most comprehensive picture of workplace gender equality ever seen
- released the first customised, confidential benchmark reports to reporting organisations – the first data of its kind in Australia. The reports allow employers to assess their gender performance against their peers, identify areas for improvement and track the effectiveness of their gender equality strategies over time.
- commenced its WGEA Employer of Choice for Gender Equality citation, a leading practice recognition program aimed at encouraging, recognising and promoting organisations that demonstrate an active commitment to achieving gender equality across seven focus areas.
- Libby Lyons was appointed Director of the Agency for a five-year term.
- The Act was further reviewed and a new, updated Legislative Instrument was introduced for reporting.
The Agency secured funding through the Women’s Economic Security Package to develop and implement a replacement, fit-for-purpose online reporting system. The new online system has the capacity and flexibility for voluntary reporting (such as public sector organisations) and allows for a significant increase in the dataset.
After five years of data collection, the Agency has developed a detailed picture of the state of gender equality in organisations across Australia and our reach is bigger than ever, with over 12,000 relevant employers, growing online engagement, and valuable partnerships and international engagements.
Our data shows change is happening for the better. There has been a strong increase in employer action on gender equality. As employers have taken action, gender equality outcomes have improved and the gender pay gap has declined. Women continue to move into management roles and an increasing number of employers now have a strategy or policy to support gender equality or promote flexible work.
But there is still work to be done. Men continue to out-earn women across all industries and occupational categories, gender segregation remains deeply entrenched, and women remain underrepresented in senior leadership. It is with this front of mind that we continue to work towards our vision for ‘women and men to equally represented, valued and rewarded in the workplace’.
 National Australian Museum (2020), Equal Pay for Women, viewed 24 July 2020, available: https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/equal-pay-for-women
 National Australian Museum (2020).
 National Australian Museum (2020).
 Australian Human Rights Commission (2012), The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), viewed 24 July 2020, available: https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sex-discrimination/convention-elimination-all-forms-discrimination-against-women-cedaw-sex
 Australian Human Rights Commission (2012), About Sex Discrimination, viewed 24 July 2020, available: https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sex-discrimination/about-sex-discrimination
 Department of the Parliamentary Library (1993), Sex Discrimination Legislation in Australia, Background Paper Number 19, viewed 24 July 2020, available: https://www.aph.gov.au/binaries/library/pubs/bp/1993/93bp19.pdf
 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (1984), The Integration of Women into the Economy, cited in B Pocock (1998), All change, still gendered: The Australian Labour Market in the 1990s, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 40, no. 4
 Department of the Parliamentary Library (1993).
 Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986, viewed 24 July 2020, available: https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2004C01666
 Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986
 Manfre, L. (2013), The Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 (Cth): Rethinking the Regulatory Approach, Honours thesis, University of Sydney, Sydney, pp. 7
 Department of the Parliamentary Library (1999), Bills Digest No. 71 1999-2000 Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 1999, viewed 24 July 2020, available: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Bills_Legislation/bd/Bd9900/2000bd071
 Department of the Parliamentary Library (1999).
 Department of the Parliamentary Library (2012), Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012, viewed 24 July 2020, available: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Bills_Legislation/bd/bd1112a/12bd147
 Department of the Parliamentary Library (2012).
 Department of the Parliamentary Library (2012).