Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Gender reporting is a red-tape nuisance

Scrapping gender reporting laws will relieve businesses of unnecessary red tape without harming the ability of women to rise to the top of their profession.

Since 2012 the federal government has obligated employers of 100 people or more to report on gender-related matters, such as the gender composition of company staff and boards, pay equity arrangements and the availability and use of flexible work for parents and carers.

In advance of the planned legislation ''repeal day'' for federal parliament, scheduled for late next month, speculation has been rife that mandatory gender reporting, if not the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, which enforces the reporting regime, will meet their demise.

Not surprisingly, there has been significant resistance by prominent Australian feminists to the idea, nominating several arguments in their efforts to maintain the status quo.

The first is that the mandated gender reporting requirements are not really ''red tape'' because large firms are collecting gender-related information about their staff already.

It would be obvious that large firms — firms of all sizes, for that matter — would collect some form of information about the gender status of their staff, and keep track of maternity, carer and other forms of leave taken up by workers.

That firms would voluntarily keep records in any case, even in the absence of government intervention as part of prudent human resources management, suggests that government-mandated gender reporting is an instance of red-tape overkill.

That is because company HR managers and administrators are now obligated to spend extra time, filling out and lodging additional paperwork as part of their daily business, to satisfy WGEA requirements.

The prevailing regulatory arrangements are defended on the basis that the administrative compliance burdens are minimal, as if large firms readily have the resources at hand to undergo the rigmarole of more compliance in the interests of gender equality, or some other regulatory fashion of the time.

But this is beside the point:  the burdens of adhering to gender-reporting regulations, even if not nearly as great as, say, environmental regulatory compliance, do, nevertheless, exist.

The second argument for keeping gender reporting, contradicting the first, is that if the obligation to report is wiped from the statute books, Australia will be plunged into the dark recesses of no disclosure.

It is something of a stretch to suggest that businesses would not ordinarily make public disclosures about their senior staff, at the very least names, if not photos, from which gender identity can be fairly readily established.

In fact, any customary glance over business websites or corporate reports in Australia suggests that firms often do reveal who works for them, and who represents them, without being obligated by the government.

This is because it is often to their advantage that they disclose their staffing details, as this provides a way of signalling the diversity of in-house labour skills and capabilities on offer to potential customers.

Companies may also voluntarily engage in initiatives, organised by others, to provide and publish detailed data about the gender mix of staff.

The Australian Securities Exchange maintains a framework in which listed companies can disclose in their annual reports achievements against gender objectives set by their boards, and the share of women in senior management and other employment roles.

There are also economy-wide regulations obligating companies to lodge statements that, among other things, must disclose the names and particulars of directors and other officeholders.

Even back in the 1980s and 90s, when the Affirmative Action Act existed with its emphasis on imposing ''equal opportunity'' standards on firms, it was not beyond the wit of journalists to uncover details about the gender composition of senior management among Australia's biggest firms.

Therefore, it should be reasonably clear that the government's gender reporting, again, represents a clear case of nuisance red tape forced on business.

The final criticism of the proposal to end gender reporting regulations is that firms will be relieved of naming and shaming campaigns against them, so that, allegedly, they can go about their discriminatory ways.

These cynical views ignore the fact the costs of gender discrimination are largely borne by the firm, which forgoes the opportunity to hire a woman who can provide sufficient value to the firm's production processes.

Compounding this cost is the risk that consumers, who are particularly sensitive about these matters, would direct more of their custom towards non-discriminating firms.

Employers should remain free to select employees, including excellent female staff, on their merit, and female employees should be free to seek employment in conformance with their own lifestyle and other needs.

But the risk is that the existing gender-reporting obligations could serve as the basis for even more prescriptive and burdensome regulations into the future.

This is because dissatisfied Australian feminists will keep using gender reporting to claim that women are under-represented in the corporate sector, irrespective of actual improvements, and conclude that Scandinavian-style formal gender quotas are needed to force companies to heel on this issue.

If the time ever comes that regulated quotas become a reality, the business community will rue the days when it initially supported gender-reporting regulations, only to meekly complain about their compliance costs later on.

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