Two views of EEO

Wednesday, March 20, 1991

The Gifthorse: A critical look at Equal Employment Opportunity in Australia.

By Gretchen Poiner and Sue Wills

Allen and Unwin. 1991. $16.95.
The Promise and the Price: The Struggle for Equal Opportunity in Women's Employment.

By Clare Burton

Allen and Unwin 1991. $18.95.

Reviewed by Sally Low

"Time has wrought changes in our view of EEO, which has fulfilled neither the hopes nor the fears of its early characterisation. Some members of the groups covered have profited from it. For the majority there have been few changes. Fundamentally their social position and even conditions and opportunities in employment remain much as they were. By the same token, the dire consequences prophesied to follow the introduction of EEO have not come to pass. The Australian way of life has not crumbled, its values remain intact, the family persists and there is no evidence to suggest that standards in the workplace have fallen."

In their critical assessment of Equal Employment Opportunity legislation and practice in Australia, Gretchen Poiner and Sue Wills highlight not only the weaknesses in both state and federal laws but also the fact that EEO laws alone cannot redress the inequalities in employment and career opportunities inherent in Australian society.

Many, especially the governments enacting it, saw and promoted EEO as promising great changes of attitude and practice in workplaces around the nation. The hopes and promises have not been fulfilled.

By definition, groups that suffer discrimination are seen and treated by society as "other". Attempts to redress the discrimination in terms of employment will not be successful unless they are accompanied by "changes in social structures". This, however, was never the intention of EEO legislation. Indeed "the intention appears to have been to postpone such change (indefinitely, if possible) by distributing distracting baubles".

One of the most entertaining chapters in this book is entitled "Bastards" and looks at forms of resistance to the implementation of EEO. Their "Fifty ways of avoiding change: a checklist for saving time and ingenuity" will ring a bell with anyone who has suffered the patronising responses of senior bureaucrats to innovative suggestions.

Despite the criticisms, Gifthorse does not throw out the baby with the bath water. "EEO and other legislative reforms carry their own limitations, inhering in part in their specificity of focus, in the shallowness of their immediate impact and sometimes in their implementation. Yet the alternative to EEO is not to turn away from the quest, not to resile from action — a likely enough reaction to criticism." Instead, the experience of EEO should be used to develop more appropriate responses.

The Promise and the Price looks at EEO from the point of ment only. Author Clare Burton is the director of equal opportunity in public employment for the New South Wales government. Like Poiner and Wills, she stresses that the introduction of EEO programs alone will not redress gender imbalances in the workforce. But Burton maintains that EEO programs have the potential to "open up more difficult issues and contribute to the shaping of a more egalitarian social order".

Unlike Gifthorse, this book chooses to take as given, and in some places explicitly acknowledges, the assumption that governments are genuinely interested in achieving real improvements for women in the workforce. For example, in the sections that discuss restructuring there is a tendency to point out the gains that could be made if state and federal governments' restructuring ("work reorganisation") agendas were something other than what they are and even to create the hope that they might undergo such a metamorphosis.

Both books contain some useful insights into the way discrimination in the workplace operates, and into the shortcomings of current Australian EEO legislation.

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