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Is Gender Equity Successful for the ‘Big Australian’?

Commentary on BHP’s Drive Towards Gender Equality

Former CEO Andrew Mackenzie of mining giant BHP made headlines in 2016 when he declared that achieving a 50 percent female workforce within a decade was a moral obligation for the company. The media praised the company’s efforts to replace half of its male employees with women in an industry known for its masculinity.

Since then, BHP has made significant progress in increasing the proportion of female employees. As of June 30 last year, the percentage of female employees had doubled from 17 percent in 2016 to over 32 percent. To further gauge their progress, BHP reported a decline of 5 percent in male employees and a 7 percent increase in female employees in the 12 months leading up to June 2022.

However, some legal experts argue that BHP’s approach may be legally questionable. Although BHP relies on the “special measures” provision in the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) to justify its positive discrimination policies, lawyers believe that this provision could be subject to a challenge. The guidelines set by the Australian Human Rights Commission state that special measures under the SDA must be proportionate and properly targeted. BHP’s aggressive policy may go beyond what is considered proportionate.

Furthermore, Article 4 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which forms the basis of the SDA, emphasizes the objectives of equality of opportunity and treatment rather than equality of outcome. This suggests that ongoing and disproportionate discrimination against men is not the primary objective of human rights instruments.

BHP’s campaign for gender equality has been relentless, with the company even introducing women-only positions. The 50 percent target is not just an aspiration but has real consequences for executives, as their jobs and bonuses are at stake if they fail to achieve the goal. The hiring process is subject to strict quotas for hiring females, and failure to hire enough women can result in repercussions, including loss of bonus pay. The promotion process also appears to be more influenced by gender than merit, with women being promoted to management on average nine years earlier than men in the mining industry.

BHP has also put pressure on its suppliers to adhere to strict diversity policies, such as excluding males from certain job vacancies. While BHP believes that such measures are legal, there have been concerns raised about the fairness and legality of these policies.

There have been two high-profile cases where BHP was sued for sex discrimination by male employees. These cases not only highlight the alleged systemic pattern of sex discrimination within the company but also shed light on the importance placed on hiring and promoting as many females as possible. Although BHP settled with one of the plaintiffs, there has been little information regarding the outcome of the other case.

It would be interesting to see a case that tests the limits of the special measures provisions and the gender equity framework in Australia. Such a case would provide an opportunity to challenge the prevailing gender politics and potentially promote a more balanced approach to gender equality.

While BHP’s efforts to increase gender diversity in traditionally male-dominated industries are commendable, questions remain about the effectiveness and fairness of their approach. The costs associated with maintaining facilities and initiatives to attract and retain women may outweigh any potential productivity gains. Additionally, the influx of young women into male-dominated industries has resulted in reports of misconduct by male employees, leading to the implementation of measures such as rape kits and surveillance systems.

It is worth considering the unintended consequences of pushing large numbers of women into male-dominated industries without addressing the underlying cultural issues. Simply adding more women to the workforce does not necessarily solve the problem. It is vital to create an inclusive and respectful environment that fosters equality for all employees, regardless of gender.

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