Men have been prevented from taking on greater responsibilities at home by the Sex Discrimination Act, the legislation designed to break down gender inequality.
A review of the legislation has found it should be overhauled to reflect the changing workplace and people's needs for greater flexibility to allow them to meet caring responsibilities for children and aged or sick relatives.
The Federal Government is considering a three-stage overhaul of the Sex Discrimination Act as recommended by the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee. Its chairwoman, the Labor senator Trish Crossin, said that although there was widespread support for the act, now nearly 25 years old, the suggested changes would ensure it remained "modern and relevant".
The committee heard evidence that men had found it difficult to get flexible working hours. Amending the act would make it easier for men to take action against recalcitrant employers and help speed up the process of achieving equality between men and women, the committee heard. The Productivity Commission has recommended to the Federal Government a system of paid maternity leave with some paid time off for new fathers.
But there is doubt that such a scheme will be adopted because of the Government's concern about the slowing of the economy.
The existing legislation assumes the person seeking flexible hours is a woman.
Also among the committee's recommendations is specifically outlawing discrimination against breastfeeding. This is now covered by the more general area of sexual discrimination. Sexual harassment and sex discrimination should also be generally outlawed, the committee recommends, because the current legislation does not cover all circumstances. For example, customers of businesses, volunteer workers and independent contractors cannot be prosecuted for sexual harassment.
The Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, was shocked to hear numerous stories of overt sexual harassment while on a recent tour of the country.
At one workshop she attended, Ms Broderick told Fairfax, half the women told of being harassed in their first or second jobs. This included supermarket checkout operators being told to wear see-through blouses or women being asked for sex by their bosses.
Labor members endorsed a suggestion by the Australian Human Rights Commission that there no longer be separate pieces of legislation covering discrimination in such different areas as sex, race and disability.
Instead, they see merit in the possibility of a National Equality Act encompassing all areas.
Greater powers for the Sex Discrimination Commissioner are also recommended. These include giving the office the power to investigate complaints and initiate legal proceedings. Parents are under constant strain to balance their work and family commitments, a struggle likely to get worse as the economy slows and workers fear for their jobs.
The Federal Government promised to introduce "right to request" laws that would allow parents to have one year of unpaid leave after the birth of a child.
Parents would also then be able to request flexible work arrangements with the onus on the employer to demonstrate why such conditions would then not be possible.