Men and women need apply: How i became a labourer

30 years ago today the Hawke Labor Government's Sex Discrimination Act came into effect.

I wrote a piece in today's The Canberra Times reflecting on how the Act changed the course of my life.

*Source Kate Lundy's twitter feed

In 1984, I left my Canberra school at age 16 to become a builder's labourer. I was earning the same pay as a man removing asbestos because the industry award didn't discriminate by gender or youth rates. I was motivated to apply for the labouring job because The Canberra Times advertisement specifically stated ''men and women need apply''. This caught my eye and it changed my life.

It was through this first job as a labourer that I got involved with the Labor movement, specifically the union, which led to an opportunity to represent the people of Canberra as an ALP senator. To this day I don't think I would have applied for that labouring job if the ad hadn't said ''men and women''.

I found out some time later that the federal Labor government's Sex Discrimination Act came into effect on August 1, 1984 – 30 years ago today – to redress the occupation and industrial segregation of men and women that had become the status quo in postwar Australia. No longer could employers designate jobs as male only or female only. Women's groups and some unions began to encourage girls and women to apply for non-traditional work.

So now I knew why that labouring ad was worded that way. The labourers' union, the BLF, had campaigned on the back of the new act to ensure women were encouraged to actually apply. This is why I can say with confidence that had it not been for the 1984 Sex Discrimination Act, I would never have got that job. The fact that it was my predecessor, ACT Labor senator Susan Ryan, who initiated the bill makes it very poignant for me.

The passage of the Sex Discrimination Act was a remarkable achievement for Australian politics, especially reflecting on how extraordinarily under-represented women were in Australian parliaments in 1984. After the 1983 election, the Federal Parliament had a grand total of 19 women (senators and members of the House of Representatives) of the total 189 federal parliamentarians.

The context is relevant too. In 1980, during the Fraser Liberal government, Australia had signed the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. During this time, it was Canberra's good fortune to be represented in the Federal Parliament by Senator Ryan. In November 1981, Senator Ryan introduced a Sex Discrimination Bill as a private member's bill designed to give effect to the provision of CEDAW. However, it was not until May three years later, after some amendments and a change of government, that Senator Ryan's bill passed through both houses of parliament.

The 1984 act aimed to promote recognition and acceptance of ''the principle of the equality of men and women''. It sought to eliminate discrimination against persons on the grounds of sex, marital status or pregnancy and discrimination involving sexual harassment in the workplace and in educational institutions.

I was naively oblivious to all of these machinations back in 1984 working on site, but it undoubtedly shaped my life's opportunities and those of countless other young women of my generation.

Today, I remain humbled by and grateful to a generation of feminists who worked hard to make equality a real life experience for girls like me.

After 30 years, can we judge whether the collective optimism and high hopes of the '80s and early '90s were justified for generations to come? Would it keep working the way it did for me? What has the act achieved since then? 

In December 2008, a Senate committee presented a report on the effectiveness of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 in eliminating discrimination and promoting gender equality. It reported a consensus view that, yes, there had been progress but that more was needed. 

Today, the lack of pay equity is still an issue, and the gap between the incomes of men and women does not appear to have decreased markedly. Women are still very much under-represented on boards, in senior executive positions – for example, as partners in law firms.

While there has been measurable progress in community attitudes since 1984, there are also fears that hard-won gains could be lost. I will play my part by being vigilant to protect hard-fought gains and to break new ground where needed.

Kate Lundy is ALP senator for the ACT

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