Research Paper 33 1995-96

Affirmative Action and Equal Employment Opportunity: definitions

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Affirmative Action and Equal Employment Opportunity: definitions

In America recently, affirmative action has come under attack as disadvantaging the majority by providing preferential treatment based on race and gender. (2) There, affirmative action has been implemented through the establishment and implementation of quotas. Affirmative action in Australia has been introduced as part of a legislative framework at both Federal and State levels, with an emphasis on the establishment of targets rather than quotas, and on changes to processes in recruitment and promotion.

Equal employment opportunity is a broad term covering strategies to improve women's position in the labour market. (Like 'anti-discrimination' it can also apply to other disadvantaged groups). The idea is to use proactive measures to open up a greater range of jobs to women as a group, and to ensure that women can compete on equal terms with men for promotion. Ziller's definition of equal employment opportunity reflects its application in Australia:

Equal Employment Opportunity refers to the right to be considered for a job for which one is skilled and qualified. It is the chance to compete with others and not be denied fair appraisal or excluded during this process by laws, rules or attitudes. Equal employment opportunity is the operation of the principle of recruitment and promotion on merit. The test for equal employment opportunity is the outcome of selection and promotion procedures. Only the successful passage of qualified women and migrants through these convincing evidence that equality of opportunity in employment exists. (3)

Anti-discrimination legislation applies to individual cases and forbids such actions as refusing to hire a woman for a job merely because of a preference for men in such jobs. Action under such legislation is case by case, and each case must be established retrospectively.

Anti-discrimination legislation is one means towards equal opportunity and the principal means for achieving this goal is affirmative action. This is defined in the federal government policy paper Affirmative Action for Women as:

a systematic means, determined by the employer in consultation with senior management, employees and unions, of achieving equal employment opportunities (EEO) for women. Affirmative Action is compatible with appointment and promotion on the basis of the principle of merit, skills and qualification. (4)

Affirmative action is defined in the Victorian Ministry of Education Action Plans for women in the Teaching Service as:

a systematic means, determined by the employer, in consultation with unions of achieving equal employment opportunity. It is not positive discrimination, is not an introduction of quota systems, but is part of a total equal employment opportunity policy which enables the redress of past discrimination whilst ensuring that all employees have equal access to the promotional opportunities on the basis of merit, skills, and appropriate qualifications. An affirmative action program is a planned, results oriented, management program designed to achieve equal employment opportunity (5).

These definitions focus on merit. Equal employment opportunity (EEO) is used as a term to describe the opening up of employment, education and training to women with affirmative action as the means by which this is to be achieved.

The Report, Halfway to Equal, by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, (6) noted that the federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and the related Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986, have had a significant impact on increasing equal opportunity and equal status for women in Australia. It noted that while achievements for women have been significant, there was still a long way to go. It noted also that 'At the time that the legislation was introduced, public knowledge of and acceptance of gender discrimination was not widespread. Indeed the passage of legislation was accompanied by a deal of cynicism and even fear as to repercussions.' (7) This was also the Victorian experience.

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