Gender equality and consumer affairs

How well are women represented in Oz consumer affairs?

A report commissioned by CHOICE has found that while there is better gender equality in the area of consumer affairs in Australia than in many others, there is still a long way to go.

A strong history of women in consumer affairs

Today on the eve of World Consumer Rights Day (and almost a week after International Women's Day) we will celebrate the annual Ruby Hutchison Memorial Lecture. Hutchison was not only the founder of CHOICE in 1959 but a key trailblazer in consumer rights and gender equality.

To mark this occasion CHOICE has released a report on gender equality in the consumer affairs space and plans to release a report annually at the same time each year.

Why does gender equality matter?

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) identifies workplace gender equality as important primarily because it’s ‘fair’ and the ‘right thing to do’. It also identifies a number of other benefits for both organisations and the broader economy, including:

  • improved national productivity and economic growth
  • increased organisational performance
  • enhanced ability of companies to attract talent and retain employees
  • enhanced organisational reputation.

To achieve this you need to aim for:

  • equal pay for work of equal or comparable value
  • removal of barriers to participation
  • elimination of gender-based discrimination, including in relation to family and caring responsibilities.

Importantly, achieving workplace gender equality also involves access to all roles, including leadership positions, regardless of gender.

The consumer movement and women in Australia

Women have always played a key role in the development of a consumer movement in Australia, from CHOICE founder, Ruby Hutchison, to a number of women have followed her footsteps into key roles in the consumer movement, including Louise Sylvan, Jenni Mack, Carolyn Bond, Catriona Lowe, Nicole Rich and Fiona Guthrie.

When it comes to women representatives in government in consumer affairs, currently only 30% are women. Of the two national consumer agencies, as well as those in each state and territory, all are currently led by men.  However, some other key leadership roles in consumer affairs are held by women, notably Delia Rickard, as deputy chair of the ACCC, and commissioners Sarah Court and Christina Cifuentes. Cathy Armour is an ASIC commissioner. 

Overall, while gender equality at ministerial level in the consumer affairs portfolio has been relatively strong, women are still underrepresented at senior levels of consumer affairs agencies. 

Non-government organisations lead the way

Non-government organisations working largely in consumer affairs arguably have a better record than regulators of employing women in leadership positions: CHOICE and Consumer Action Law Centre (CALC) have been led by women, and CHOICE has had a woman as Chair of its Board continuously for over a decade. 

Although the CEOs of CHOICE and CALC are both currently men, other key organisations like Financial Counselling Australia, Energy Consumers Australia and the Financial Rights Legal Centre are currently led by women. 

Here at CHOICE, we're the only non-government organisation of sufficient scale to undertake comprehensive gender equality reporting. Currently:

  • 54% of the workforce is female
  • 29% of senior managers are women 
  • 43% of the Leadership Team are women
  • 51% of all managers are women. 

CHOICE has introduced a Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan that includes gender equality as a key priority. One of the targets in this plan is for 50% of the members of all key decision-making groups (including at senior management level) to be women by June 2018. 

To help achieve this goal, there is a focus on improving career development, providing more internal opportunities for career advancement and providing workplace flexibility. Other initiatives include supporting the needs of employees as they change over time, 12 weeks' paid parental leave, superannuation payments to employees on parental leave for up to 52 weeks and up to five days of paid leave for staff experiencing domestic violence.

CHOICE is also committed to reducing pay inequity, following our first report to WGEA in May 2016, which identified 11% salary gap in favour of men (compared to an Australian average of 16.2%).

Better, but not best

While the report reveals gaps in gender equality at senior levels in consumer agencies and organisations it does to some extent follow patterns in other organisations, however the strong history of women in senior consumer affairs roles across the public and non-government sectors suggests that we should expect to be doing better. 

As a result CHOICE is committed to continuing to report publicly on gender equality in consumer affairs, to create pressure for consumer agencies and organisations to achieve equality at all levels.