I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. For 60,000 years before this nation took its form as the Commonwealth of Australia, the Aboriginal people were the custodians of this land. We give due respect to their years of care and we own the truth of their shared history with us, both its pain and its joy.
And I have been asked to speak about the important issue of equity. Little did I think when I majored in Archaeology, English and History at Sydney University that I would spend most of my adult life in State and City politics. So I thought I would talk briefly about my dramatic change of gears, and will then focus on the status of women and their employment at the City of Sydney.
On returning to Sydney after five years in London, with my husband and three-year-old daughter and one-month-old son, we bought our first house in Redfern.
We wanted to live in the inner city and it was what we could afford, but I was dismayed by the wholesale neglect of the area especially after London’s parks and facilities. Through traffic ran down every street, children’s playgrounds had rusty play equipment and cyclone fencing topped with barb wire, and trees were routinely massacred by our local council operatives.
So, I started a community group, Redfern Community Concern, but our petitions to local State and Council representatives were either rebuffed or ignored.
So when local council elections came around and I couldn’t persuade anyone else to stand, I stood as a community independent and surprisingly was elected to South Sydney Council. I was called an “Alderman”; meetings were combative and I was the wrong sex, the wrong age and didn’t have the backing of any political party!But I took to it, and working with the community, I started to achieve small but important changes. While those in power concentrated on power play, I walked around the neighbourhood with staff getting trees planted, roads closed and playgrounds improved.
The following year South Sydney Council was forcibly amalgamated into the City of Sydney. I was still called “Alderman” and council had to re-gender some of the male toilets to accommodate increased female numbers.
Six years later the City was sacked for political reasons by a State Labor Government. I was so outraged by this manipulation of the democratic process that I stood for the seat of Bligh as an independent in the 1988 State elections and narrowly won. I won’t dwell on those years except to say that for a period I held the balance of power with two other independents and we achieved significant reforms including fixed 4-year parliamentary terms, but rather I will focus on my return to the City of Sydney.I was the Member for Bligh, and as the seat was renamed, the Member for Sydney, for 12 years when the Labor Government sacked the amalgamated South Sydney and City of Sydney Councils. Again I was appalled at this further attack on democracy so when I was urged by the community to head a team of independents for council, I did, and we won and had the opportunity to create a new and progressive City administration. For the next 8 years I fought alternatively an election for Member of Sydney and Lord Mayor of Sydney every 2 years.
Then in 2012 the Barry O’Farrell Liberal/National Government introduced legislation which banned me holding both positions, not-withstanding four democratic elections. It was aptly named the “Get Clover Bill”.
I chose to stay at the City as it continued to be an exciting and powerful challenge, the results of which on this occasion I will restrict to gender equality and related issues on progress for women.
Leading the Way
Often, it’s all about getting your foot in the door.
As the first female popularly elected Lord Mayor, and after many years battling patriarchal party politicians, I wanted the City of Sydney to be an organisation that attracted, supported and retained talented women. So, along with the second only woman CEO of the City of Sydney, Monica Barone, we set about making needed changes.
We became the first local government organisation to monitor and publicly report on gender pay equity and we introduced new family friendly policies for women and men.
For 6 years we have defied Australian trends with a pay gap in favour of women of 5.3% compared with 14.1% in favour of men across Australia. One of the reasons for this is the leadership profile of our organisation with 70% of councillors, 55% of our Executive team including our CEO, 53% of our senior managers and 50% of our section managers all females.By promoting the City as an employer of choice for women and by addressing conscious and unconscious gender bias, the City’s workforce composition has become more gender balanced. The number of women employed by the City of Sydney has grown substantially from 29 per cent in 2005 to 42.7 per cent in 2022.
Also women shouldn’t be penalised by having lower superannuation benefits at retirement because caring for children has interrupted their careers. City of Sydney staff can access 52 weeks of parental leave – 18 weeks on full pay (or 36 weeks at half pay) and 34 weeks of unpaid leave – with superannuation paid for this entire period. Non-primary carers also receive
four weeks’ paid partner leave.
The City was one of the first organisations to gain White Ribbon workplace accreditation back in 2013, and currently offers staff paid domestic and family violence leave. We also have an active Women’s Staff Network, support for breastfeeding women, and a range of mentoring programs.
And next week, at our upcoming Council meeting, I will be asking the CEO what we need to do to increase paid parental leave to 26 weeks. We know that the first six months of a newborn’s life are crucial to their future wellbeing, and yet we don’t give parents the support they need to ensure they are able to care for their children as they would like throughout that period. This must change.
What more needs to be done
Though we have come a long way since I first ran for council in 1980, progress on a broad scale is slow.
Workplace Gender Equality Agency data estimates it will take another 26 years for Australian women to reach pay parity with men if we progress at the same pace. Our State and Federal governments must do more to effectively close the gender pay gap and introduce compulsory superannuation for primary carers while on parental leave.
Pleasingly, Australia has made great progress when it comes to women on government boards, but less so when it comes to private boards.
Similarly, we have a long way to go when it comes to adequate representation of women in political life, especially in NSW. The major political parties talk about gender balance, but factional warfare and deals with mates mostly win the day. And isn’t it interesting the number of independent women, the “Teals” who won formerly safe Coalition-held seats at the last Federal election. Hopeful signs of better things to come!
Women with Special Needs
Finally in terms of gender fairness and equity, the City, under my leadership is doing all it can to assist unempowered women and women with special needs.
Women over 55 are the fastest growing group of homeless people in Australia. The reasons for this include time taken out of the workforce to care for children; lower levels of superannuation, lower pay rates, and domestic and family violence. In 2016, the City invested seed funding of $1.5 million in a HammondCare facility in Darlinghurst, which now houses 42 older people who were at risk of homelessness, and includes a floor just for women which caters for survivors of domestic and family violence. As well we have built almost 1,500 affordable housing units, have 600 more affordable homes in the pipeline, and 700 planned for the future.
But the City cannot address Sydney’s housing affordability crisis on our own, especially as the State and to a lesser extent the Federal governments are responsible for social and affordable housing.
And – with 58,000 households on the social housing waiting list, responsible governments would build more social housing across the city, without selling off existing stock, as this Government has done. They would also reduce the age at which people are given priority for housing from 80 to 55, in line with the lived experiences of older women.
The City also has initiatives for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, staff who identify as LGBTIQA+ and staff with disability.
And so, to conclude, thank you for the collaborative work you do for this vital cause of equity and fairness.