Women would be denied long-standing legal rights under a plan to replace the term “maternity leave” with “birth-related leave”, opponents say.
The proposal to introduce ‘gender neutral language’ is one of a number of changes being considered to Queensland’s workplace laws, following an independent five-year review.
A bill to amend Queensland’s Industrial Relations Act 2016, introduced by the Labor government in June, aims to protect workers from sexual harassment.
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But opponents have labelled one of the proposals – to scrap the term “maternity leave” because the language implies ‘gendered division’ of parental care – as regressive and alarming.
They say a change to the terminology would strip away the recognition that maternity leave exists to enable women “to recover from pregnancy and birth and to care for their newborn baby, including breastfeeding”.
Karleen Gribble is Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Western Sydney University.
Gribble, who last week gave evidence at a public hearing into the proposed changes to the Act, said the planned amendments were an attempt to deny women their legal rights.
“It is very concerning they are not recognising maternity leave is a right that women hold, and it exists to enable them to recover from pregnancy and birth and care for their newborn baby, including breastfeeding,” Gribble said.
“Removing that recognition in legislation, with the explicit aim of encouraging or promoting the idea that it shouldn’t be normal for mothers to be the primary caregivers of their newborns, is alarming.”
As well as proposing to drop the “maternity leave” definition, the bill also seeks to remove gendered language such as “she” to “employee”.
The scrapping of sex-based language is a trend sweeping across government and workplaces, although not necessarily a popular one.
Last week, Government Services Minister Bill Shorten reversed the gender-neutral language on Medicare forms from “birthing parent” back to “mother”.
But Principal at the Feminist Legal Clinic, Anna Kerr, has described as a “travesty” the Queensland government’s proposal to drop the term “maternity leave”.
“The failure to acknowledge the need for sex-based rights in relation to childbearing is clearly an attack on women’s rights and should be strongly resisted,” Kerr said.
Karleen Gribble says there has been a desire to gain equality by saying men and women are the same, “but when it comes to reproduction, the roles they play are very different and the repercussions are very different”.
“And you need to recognise that, in order not to disadvantage women further,” she said.
“The care of a newborn is not a context in which sex equity should be a goal.
“It is an inappropriate goal that doesn’t recognise human physiology.”
Stephanie Hughes is co-founder of Fair Go For Queensland Women, which also provided a submission to the public hearing.
She agrees women have greater needs than other parents when they have just given birth.
“It is important that the term ‘maternity’ remain, out of respect and recognition to the challenges women have faced just to get this right,” Hughes said.
“Removing language that respects women and their important … role in gestation, birthing and primary care, including breastfeeding, is not in the interests of the mother, their babies, their families or the larger community.”
However, the professional body that supports the human resources industry, Australian HR Institute (AHRI), is in favour of most of the proposed changes to the IR Act, saying the impact on women will be positive.
On the proposed scrapping of the “maternity leave” terminology, AHRI CEO Sarah McCann-Bartlett says removing the “gendered language” will provide the opportunity for parents to take leave “as it is needed to fit with their own family arrangements”.
“These types of arrangements provide for more productive and engaged workplaces, as employees can balance their work and family commitments,” McCann-Bartlett said.
“Opening up family-friendly policies to all parents also normalises them in the workplace, and reduces the career and financial disadvantages women often experience by taking extended periods of leave.”
McCann-Bartlett says the changes also bring Queensland parental leave entitlements into line with the federal Fair Work Act entitlements.
Queensland’s Office Of Industrial Relations says the proposed changes will “not reduce or remove entitlements for mothers”.
“An independent review of Queensland’s IR Act recommended the use of gender-neutral language wherever possible to modernise and bring it into alignment with the Fair Work Act, and avoid implying gendered divisions of parental care,” the office said in a statement.
“The government accepted this recommendation because it recognises families can take many forms, and there is no place in modern legislative drafting for gendered assumptions that one parent in particular is to be the primary caregiver of the child.
“The proposed provisions intend to ensure parental leave can be taken in a way that best suits the unique needs of each family unit.
“The changes do not reduce or remove entitlements for mothers.”
The bill to amend the state’s IR Act is currently before a parlimentary committee, which is due to report next month.
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