Sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of gender should never be tolerated. Likewise, boosting women’s income relative to men’s, and greater sharing of paid and unpaid work between men and women, appear to be laudable goals. But are top-down prescriptive measures the best way to pursue them?

Yesterday, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission released its five-point plan to address gender inequality. HREOC plans to look at sexual harassment and sexual discrimination, encouraging family-friendly work practices, and boosting women’s career opportunities, income, and retirement savings.

Calls for the “gender gap” to be closed are predictably followed by calls for more government intervention in the workplace and in the home — paid maternity leave, increased child care subsidies, or laws to enshrine the right to request flexible working hours, for example.

But what if, in our enthusiasm for promoting equality and choice for women, we actually undermine it?

Earlier this month, Nicola Brewer, chief executive of Britain’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission, called for a rethink of a policy that entitles British women to nine months of paid maternity leave, soon to rise to a year. Brewer echoed the sentiments of business leaders, claiming that the policy had the “unintended consequence of making women a less attractive prospect to employers.” There are concerns that plans to extend the right to request flexible work for parents who have children up to sixteen years old could further disadvantage working women.

The problem in Britain may revolve around the fact that the policy is gendered—women are entitled to fifty-two weeks’ maternity leave, while paternity leave for men is capped at two weeks. Yet even in some countries with very generous periods of parental leave — which mums or dads can take — women’s employment suffers as a result. In Germany, for example, parental leave is so long that less than half of the women who take it actually return to work. The result is that German women face a gender wage gap significantly greater than that in Australia.

Governments need to be aware that policies designed to help parents balance work and family may have unintended consequences that could actually increase gender inequality.

Increased regulation to make workplaces more family-friendly could also crowd out true innovation by employers. About 45% of Australian working women now have access to paid maternity leave through their employer. Businesses that offer this or other family-friendly provisions, such as flexible working hours, claim that these policies give them an edge over their competitors when trying to attract and retain staff.

This can only be good for women, and good for gender equality. So, why would we want to smother competition between employers with a layer of government regulation that cancels it all out?

In the push to for greater equality between the sexes, we should consider that the best employment outcomes for women are most likely to come about because of a strong, competitive, and flexible labour market — not because of increased regulation by government.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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