Towards Gender Equity – Feminist Service delivery

Feminist Service Provision and Governance: The Perspective of Australian Working Women’s Centres

Presented at the Our Work Our Lives Conference in Timor L’Este in August 2010


The Working Women’s Centres (WWCs) in South Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland are united by a core value of feminist underpinnings. Such an approach dictates that our work is inclusive of all women and that it also works to promote social and structural change.

The attainment of equality and equal opportunity in the workplace has much in common with feminist practices. A feminist analysis of our work also provides us with a critique of patriarchy, including the structures, institutions and policies within society that acknowledge the root causes of disadvantage and how male power and interests might shape the experiences of women in the workplace.

In our paper we will outline the history and work of our centres, some of the key issues for working women in Australia and articulate how feminist values assist us to manage the complex, and sometimes contradictory, work we undertake.

The history of the centres

The Working Women’s Centre of SA (WWC SA) has been at the forefront of women’s work issues since its inception in 1979.

The foundation of the WWC SA was predicated by a fundamental belief in the right of all women to be treated respectfully and fairly in their places of employment. In addition, there was a clear recognition that women were often disadvantaged in the workplace, were poorly represented in the debates regarding wages and conditions and were more likely to suffer hardship as a result of their employment and social status.

At the time of the inception of the WWC SA, Australia was in the midst of broad social change for women through the development of a range of alternative, openly feminist, women-centred organisations and services. Many services were developed around specific issues and these organisations worked towards change for both individual women and for women collectively. In addition to direct services, work included public education, changing policies and working for broad social change in law and legislation (Kravetz and Jones 1991 p 241). This broader social context laid firm foundations for the development of the WWC SA and the methods it adopted for its ongoing development and provision of services and programs.

Discussions held at Trades Hall at the time of the setting up of the centre during 1997 confirmed that its purpose was ‘not to be run as a counselling service’; rather, the primary function was ‘to act as a liaising body [to] refer women to unions and raise matters of particular concern to women with union officials’ (Murphy, 1996).

Indeed, it was envisaged that one of the important roles the WWC SA would play was that of improving communication between working women and unions and increasing female union membership (Murphy, 1996). Instrumental to the beginnings of the WWC SA was also the (then) Women’s Advisor to the Premier and inaugural WWC SA Management Committee Chairperson, Ms Deborah McCulloch. The Management Committee saw its charter as incorporating:

‘… new ideas and styles of management, organising and proselytising … into the running of the Centre’ (Murphy, 1996).

To achieve this goal, the WWC SA consciously created an organisational culture based upon clear feminist organisations where:

  • There is a cooperative basis for decision making,
  • Relationships between centre users and centre workers is based upon a respectful and co-operative model,
  • Centre users are encouraged to participate in some facets of the service – e.g. management, specific service activities,
  • Accountability to funders is acknowledged and contractual requirements are honoured, however it is primarily attributed to women who use and are a part of the service,
  • The centre is heavily involved in activities that contribute to broad social change, such as community education, media watch, contributing to the development of policy and legislation as well as direct service delivery.

Since its inception, the WWC SA has been at the forefront of women’s work issues. It ensures that the ‘voices’ of users of the centre are heard in higher order political debates by responding to legislative proposals, enquiries that focus upon work and women etc. The centre has contributed significantly to broad work, social and 3 gender debates as well as provided individual support for women working in South Australia.

Once considered a;

‘… radical organisation whose management and staff were both optimistic and idealistic about its potential for promoting gender equality within the workforce’ (Murphy, 1996),

whilst providing services including;

‘… community information and education and encouraging working women to take an active role in trade unions’ (Murphy, 1996),

the Working Women’s Centre, has maintained its feminist and political ‘edge’ and now holds a respected position within the fabric of the industrial landscape. Indeed, the centre provides an essential connection to the working women of South Australia and ensures that state and commonwealth legislators, bureaucrats and politicians alike hear their voices.

The role of the women’s movement and its contribution to the political climate at the time of its inception must be acknowledged when mapping the historical foundations and the future focus of the centre.

NT comments: we would like to hand over to Trish (Crossin) here as one of the founding members of the NTWWC in 1993. Trish will talk particularly about the origins of the NTWWC in the (disenfranchised) women’s caucus of the NT union movement.

QLD comments: The philosophical underpinnings of the QWWS are articulated through our mission values and objects statements, which were reviewed in 2007 and again this year when we undertook the process of reviewing our Mission, Purpose and Objectives.

Issues for working women in Australia

In Australia, there are over five million women in the labour force, which represents 57.8 % of all women and 45.3% of the Australian labour force (ABS LF 2008). Indigenous women have a lower labour force participation rate than non-Indigenous women at 47.9%. Female participation in the labour force is ranked 13th out of 30 OECD countries and is comparable to the United Kingdom (OECD). Part-time work accounts for 44.5% of all employment and 71.9 % of the workforce.

Women in Australia are over-represented in precarious employment, and 52.7% of all casual workers are women with reduced access to leave entitlements and employment security. Such exclusions reflect a further element of pay inequity for women when they persist over the long term, particularly in relation to work and family responsibilities, job security, access to training and career prospects

Under existing legislative structures, women have still not gained pay equity and Australia has a high rate of occupational segregation by gender. Women workers employed in Australia are concentrated in a narrow band of occupations and dominate in the service industries, such as retail, accommodation, property and health services, which are relatively low-paid occupations. In addition, within these industries women still earn less than men. For example:

  • The occupations with the highest gender pay gaps in August 2008 were technicians and trades workers (19.4 per cent), community and personal service workers (19.2 per cent) and managers and sales workers (both at 18.4 per cent);
  • The lowest gender pay gaps in August 2008 were for machinery operators and drivers (7.1 per cent), labourers (13.2 per cent) and clerical and administrative workers (13.3 per cent);
    (Source ABS, EEEH 2008).

In 2010, women had to work on average an extra 66 days to earn what men earned at 1 July 2010. This is 3 days more than in 2009, representing an increase in the gender pay gap from 17% in 2009 to 18%.

Since 2000, a number of States (first NSW, then QLD) conducted enquiries into pay equity focused on the historical undervaluation of ‘traditionally’ female-dominated industries resulting in the adoption of legislative tests for pay equity in awards. As a result many industries were found to have pay discrepancies on the basis of gender, leading to the improvement of wages in some industries such as children’s services.

In 2010, unions led by the Australian Services Union and supported by the ACTU and the Federal Government launched a test case in Fair Work Australia using the new Equal Remuneration Laws embedded in the Fair Work Act. The case (once it is decided) will determine if wage increases for the community sector will be passed on at a national level and through the modern awards system. The case has implications for the pay levels and working lives of about 200,000 community workers.

In a preliminary decision Fair Work Australia said:

‘In this decision we have concluded that for employees in the SACS industry there is not equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal or comparable value by comparison with workers in state and local government employment. We consider gender has been important in creating the gap between pay in the SACS industry and pay in comparable state and local government employment.’

WWCs have played an important role in identifying and then supporting claims of pay inequality and we eagerly await the final decision of Fair Work Australia.

Other issues that are significant for working women and are commonly bought to the WWCs include the difficulties experienced by women balancing work and family responsibilities. Issues of concern predominantly for women are discrimination on the basis of sex, pregnancy discrimination, family responsibility and sexual harassment while women also experience discrimination on numerous other grounds including age, race, sexual orientation and religion.

Workplace harassment has been identified and documented by the WWCs as a persistent problem for high numbers of women and encompasses a wide range of behaviours that are offensive, intimidation, exclusionary, humiliating or threatening (to name a few). A study (McDonald and Dear, 2006) examining three years of data from the Queensland Working Women’s Service identified 5,042 reports of workplace harassment from clients (25.6%). Nearly half of the sample were full-time employees and most commonly worked in the health and community or retail industries.

Wajcman (2000) contends that while it can be difficult to distinguish theoretically between the indirect effects of domestic responsibilities arising from the sexual division of labour in households and the gender effects of processes internal to the labour market, the latter has frequently been neglected in industrial relations. We believe that there is rich picking for analysis of the work that we undertake and that such analysis would expose the magnitude of women’s continuing disadvantage in industrial relations.

Making the personal political

While we have resisted adopting a specific definition of feminism, in considering how feminist ideology informs the work of our centres it might be useful to consider that feminist paradigms, while themselves divergent, are derived from women’s experiences and consciousness that posit that gender is not only a biological division but that it affects the presentations of social roles, obligations and opportunities.

The common premise of most feminist thought is that patriarchal society is oppressive and signifies that the rights of men and women are not synonymous.

In the development of organisational goals and objectives of the centres, a feminist approach means that a political perspective to personal troubles and social relations is adopted. This specific analysis and confrontation of gender-based oppression in turn informs our activities of consciousness-raising, empowerment and the development of action programs that respond to the identified needs of our client community (women).

While examining these links between the personal and the political, a feminist approach is valuable because of the necessity to understand the nature of power, inequality and structural disadvantage. In essence, this helps our workers and our clients to understand an issue or problem in its broad context and then be able to relate this to the elements of the issue (and visa versa).

Process versus outcome

The application of the feminist principle of valuing process as much as outcome goes to the very core of how we work with our clients.

Feedback shows that what is valued by our clients is not just the content of the information we deliver to them, but the way in which we deliver it. We locate the woman herself at the centre of her story, rather than locating the law at the centre and fitting the woman’s story into that. She relates her story, defines her needs, and our role is to listen to the story unfolding itself with a keen ear for where this story intersects with avenues for redress as defined by the various workplace laws. At the same time, as we are ‘sifting and sorting’, we are aware of those parts of the story that fall through the legal gaps, or are beyond the role of our service.

A woman who walks into a WWC to talk about sexual harassment at work may also be talking about domestic violence occurring at home, her struggles with homelessness as a result of this violence and her past history of sexual abuse. While these issues are all technically beyond the scope of what the centres work directly with, and while we are not counselors etc, we are conscious of our responsibilities to check in on a woman’s personal support needs and refer her to appropriate services within our networks.

‘You were a huge help in the process – just being able to tell my story and being believed and supported and given advice really helped me grieve, come to terms with all that had happened and take action in a way that felt comfortable for me. You were a true gift. So thank you … so much and I wish you many blessings and strength in your work which is so important.’

This is a sharp contrast to conventional legal interviewing, using an interrogative style to get just ‘the facts’, where a client’s experience is shaped into a legal action via direct questioning by the practitioner. Most importantly, in deciding upon an action, the woman is the driver. For so many women, particularly women from CALD backgrounds, merely obtaining information is an expression of resistance and empowerment. What is done with that information may not be the point of the exercise. We will never tell a woman what to do but will talk with her about what our role is in helping her.

It is our job to educate women about their rights and provide them with realistic options to address their workplace issues, but sometimes there’s very little that can be done, particularly in cases such as when women are excluded from making an unfair dismissal claim or have little or no evidence of workplace bullying or sexual harassment. In these instances a working women’s service might not be able to have any effect or control over a positive industrial relations outcome but working within the feminist paradigm of valuing process as much as outcomes ensures that women don’t walk away from our services with nothing. Clients tell us over and over that they value the process of being part of our service…

‘It is due to lots of respect and acknowledgement given by the women that has given me the strength to succeed. I thank you as a worker and mother on behalf of myself and my family.’

‘Very understanding and extremely helpful service. No time limit on putting my concerns forwards. Listened to every concern. Returned my confidence.’

‘Whilst nothing could be done to help my situation I feel so much better after coming to your service. You treated me with respect’.

Valuing process informs the practice that women must be able to understand the information that is provided to them. Concepts, culture and jargon are explained by working women’s centre staff. Clients from an enormous variety of government and non-government agencies seek interpretation and clarification of information provided to them. This is essential if women are to feel at all empowered.

Our role is also to make sure that women understand what we tell them. We break down the barriers that legal and other systems may impose and ensure that women have access to information and are not confused by systems and jargon.

Comments from our staff:

  • We empower women to ‘do it themselves’. We believe it is inherent to our role to inspire women to take control of their workplace issues – empowering women to stand up for their rights. We do not advocate for the traditional ‘tell me all your troubles and let me take care of it for you’ legal process.
  • If we negotiate a good outcome for a client, but she does not know why she got it or what it means, we have not succeeded
  • We work in ways that acknowledge women’s strengths and abilities – e.g. if a woman can make notes about what has happened to her, we encourage and help her to do this (work with her) rather than doing it for her. If she can’t do this because of language difficulties etc. we may need to do it for her, but we always check that what we have recorded is what she believes happened.
  • We offer women options for action and ask what they had hoped to receive from the Working Women’s Centre. She may just wish to share her story at first. She shouldn’t ever feel forced into doing something, either by WWC Staff or by family members or friends. Her workplace matter is always hers – not ours or someone else’s.
  • We care about the woman and her process, as much as the outcome: It is important that our staff can assess what it is that a woman needs to assist her to move on. Sometimes we may have a strong feeling that her issue will not be resolved but she may need to tell her story in a formal place where someone with authority can tell her that it can’t settle. If she feels she has had an opportunity to tell her story and has been listened to with respect she may accept the outcome better than if we give her this view.
  • A focus on the importance of process does not diminish the fact that outcomes are also an important element of feminist service provision. It is important that the information, advice and advocacy provided by Working Women’s Centres result in wins for women. We are proud of our achievements in supporting thousands of women to claim unpaid wages and win compensation in unlawful terminations or discrimination proceedings. These are the results that challenge and shift dominant workplace structures that are oppressive for women.

    ‘Your work and centre is so precious and gives me faith that justice can be accessed, made meaningful and finally real by the everyday person. Thanks for giving me this experience.’

    A critical role that the centres have performed historically is to gather insights and information from the personal workplace experiences of women, validate and explore these, search for common links with other women, politicise them and in the process, challenge and propose alternative ways of defining such situations. (The evolution of concerns such as sexual harassment, as significantly politicised by our centres, now becoming dealt with through social outlawing and a legislative framework rather than the reliance on the woman’s personal efforts to handle the problem is one such example.)

    Values that inform our practices with clients

    In her book Women Working Together, Wendy Weeks defined feminist services as ‘services run by and for women, who organise their work according to feminist or women-centred principles of practice’ (Weeks 1994).

    In practice, and in the day-to-day operations of our WWCs, in a post post-modern age characterised by the fragmentation of modernist thinking, marked by variety, diversity, contingency, relativism and ambivalence, any philosophical approach needs to be practical in its application. More broadly than just gender alone, our workers need to have knowledge and skills to recognise how structures such as class, age, race, poverty, sexual orientation, ethnicity and employment status impinge on individuals and groups and maintain them in subordinate positions. This is a particularly important aspect of our tool boxes and very relevant to the status of many of our clients who find themselves on the fringe of the labour market through employment in precarious and low-paid occupations where undervaluation of their skills is not uncommon.

    A key value, which underpins all the centres, is to maximise our potential to be inclusive of all women regardless of their race, background, age or other diverse aspect. We aim to provide a message to all women involved with our agencies that they are valued and respected as women. The idea and practice of inclusivity is complex and overlaid by other relationships that we have with each other, including client/practitioner, employer/employee, and with outside organisations such as funding bodies or referral agencies. While the centres have an important role in assisting clients with the provision of advocacy, mediation and intervention, a feminist approach offers the promotion of empowerment and the enabling of self-determination, control over process and choice.

    A worker at our centres must be able to embody skills, values, awareness and attitudes essential to fulfill a professional role skillfully to transform knowledge into action. The action must also be understood in terms of the interests from where it proceeds. In this sense an uncritical acceptance of our practices and service delivery should be rejected, as should universal concepts, which group the experiences, goals and aspirations of women into one common identity. This makes our work complex, uncertain and contradictory. As can be seen from the case studies it is important that we maintain a creative and sensitive approach to manage often difficult situations.

    The role of our centres has increasingly become (and is a significant identified risk) one of allocating scarce access to services (through inadequate funding and resources to meet needs). There are also conspicuous divisions between clients who range from (for want of a better word) women requiring basic information for self-empowerment to those requesting advocacy to assist in redressing injustice in the extreme, i.e., women who are significantly marginalised and disadvantaged. Because of limited resources, at the first point of contact we must make assessments as to the woman’s level of need, ability to self-empower and position of disadvantage. This typifies the neo-iberal approach to funding services such as ours and in the welfare sector. It is significant to our centres that we are currently engaged in discussions with both the Commonwealth and our respective State and Territory governments about better securing our funding arrangements. This has arisen from successive reviews of our services where we were under significant pressure to justify the need for our centres from both a feminist and managerial point of view.

    Feminist management: practising what we preach

    Perhaps this is the point where we can be judged for our ability to apply a feminist approach to our work. Espousing the theory is not even half way there; the practical application of a feminist approach to work is fundamental. This applies to our work not only with clients but also with our staff and committees of management.

    • We practice work/life balance. This includes job-share at any level including the managerial level, working from home, flexible working hours, children in the workplace, staff social events that include family if staff wish, generous leave provisions and as generous paid entitlements that our meager resources can possibly afford (i.e. QLD 6 months paid parental leave). Working Women’s Centres are acknowledged as leaders in this field and send an important message that highly professional and specialised services can be provided outside of the mainstream workplace model, and it’s possible to do it with a limited budget.
    • When hiring new staff we seek applicants who can demonstrate a high level understanding of women’s labour market disadvantage and a commitment to addressing this in all areas of their work. Whilst we may not say ‘you must be a feminist to work here’ we do require a demonstrated understanding of and commitment to the principles of working in a women’s service.
    • We also require demonstration of the ability to advocate on behalf of another woman. This skill is inherent to our ability to work confidently and appropriately with women. We believe that knowledge of industrial, discrimination and associated areas of the law is essential but can be also be learnt if the understanding of why and how we do our work is in place.
    • We often talk about ‘the passion’ of our work, and this too is important in practising what we preach. It is difficult to do the work we do without something at our core that drives us to do it. Having said that, good management of ourselves and our staff not to ‘burn out’ is just as important.
    • Our reputation in the industrial relations and women’s sectors is vital to us, and this is what we have to ‘trade on’. High levels of trust and the power of ‘word of mouth’ between women is what keeps us relevant and at the forefront of issues affecting women in the workplace.
    • Respectful workplace practices. It is important that staff feel valued for their skills and who they are as individuals, including cultural diversity, sexuality, age, previous life and work experience and so on.
    • Opportunity to contribute. Working Women’s Centres don’t profess to operate with flat structures; our organisations operate with directors and senior positions. However, staff are provided with meaningful opportunities to participate in strategic planning and the day-to-day operation of the centres.

    Feminist governance

    The WWCs were set up as not-for-profit organisations with a Constitution and a Board or Management Committee to oversee the governance of the services.

    The Boards are elected by members of the WWCs and work in accordance with the organisation’s vision and values. They are responsible for legal compliance and for making strategic decisions in relation to the structure and operations of the services to ensure that the outcomes for funded service delivery are achieved.

    While this model to some extent borrows from corporate governance, the WWCs recognise that these boards are not automatically gender, class and race neutral. Maintaining inclusiveness and diversity is important whilst upholding elected responsibilities. While our boards do the ordinary things, such as monitoring finances and budgets and assessing program delivery, special projects and themes arise because of the philosophical underpinnings of the organisations that may be broad and challenging and require that diverse perspectives be bought to the table before decisions are enacted. Importantly, the perspectives of staff are a necessary part of all discussions.

    A feminist framework has facilitated innovations not only in the way decisions are made but also guides power sharing, participation and action for social change.


    In the development of this paper and in its presentation we have tried to practise inclusion and respect, working from what we know in our life experiences, working together to create something better and more meaningful than we would if we were working in isolation.

    We aim to be leaders in our sector, demonstrating good practice to other organisations i.e. if we can introduce clauses and practices that foster work life and family balance, and foster pay equity while providing for paid parental leave and responding to issues that disproportionately affect women such as domestic violence then we hope that we foster plurality, equity diversity and resilience and that other organisations will follow suit.


    Australian Bureau of Statistics (August 2008), Labour Force, Australia, Catalogue No. 6202.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.

    Kravetz, D. and Jones, L. (1991), Supporting practice in feminist service agencies, Feminist Practice in Clinical Settings, M. Bricker-Jenkins, N Hooyman and N Gottlieb, Newbury Park, CA, Sage: 233-249.

    Murphy, K. (1996), Talking Back: A History of the South Australian Working Women’s Centre, SA.

    Wajcman, J. (2000), Feminism facing industrial relations in Britain, British Journal of Industrial Relations, 38(2), 183-202.

    Weeks, W. (1994), Women Working Together: Lessons from Feminist Women’s Services, Addison-Wesley Longman Inc.