Friday, 03 August 2018 12:00

40 years ago the first sex discrimination case in Australia paved the way for equality

Cast your mind back – if you can – to late 1970's Victoria.

Sir Rupert Hamer was Liberal Premier, continuing the conservative rule held since 1955.

Average full-time earnings were around $8000.

Personal computers were just beginning to enter the workplace.

A litre of milk cost 30 cents.

Women could be, and regularly were, refused service in public bars.

Pregnant women were expected to resign before they started to "show too much".

A common attitude towards women at work was that they didn't deserve promotion because they weren't "dedicated like men".

It was in this social and political climate that Victoria introduced its first anti-discrimination law. The Equal Opportunity Act 1977, which came fully into law 40 years ago, addressed discrimination on the basis of sex and marital status in employment.

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Where would you be without equal opportunity?

Victoria's Equal Opportunity Act has evolved over time and now protects people from discrimination based on 18 different characteristics, including disability, race, being a parent or carer, age, gender identity and sexual orientation.

In a testament to the influence of this legislation, some of the major issues women were facing in 1978 seem foreign to us now: "discriminatory job ads, women being required to wear uniforms in jobs where men were not, refusing to offer women credit in the same circumstances as men and women not being allowed to drink in hotel bars".

But 40 years isn't actually that long ago. And we still have a long way to go:

  • Women continue to earn less than men – the gender pay gap in Australia currently sits at 17.3 per cent.
  • LGBTI people still face discrimination and often experience mental health issues as a result.
  • While a proudly multicultural state, racism is still a very real problem and leaves people feeling disconnected from work, from their fellow Victorians and from society.
  • Parents face discrimination when asking for flexible work to allow them to manage their caring responsibilities.
  • Sexual harassment is rife and the #MeToo movement has revealed just how prevalent and damaging it is.

How we can help

The Commission has a vision for Victoria, one of a fair, safe and inclusive state where every person is respected and treated with dignity.

Victoria pledged its commitment to equal opportunity 40 years ago but we're still waiting for the day when discrimination is a thing of the past. In the meantime, we're here to help you:

  • We can give you information on your rights.  
  • We can help you understand what discrimination is and when it is against the law.
  • If you are an employer or business owner we can help you make sure that you are meeting your positive duty to prevent discrimination and sexual harassment from happening in the first place.
  • We can provide you with postcards, magnets and badges so you can show others that you believe in and stand up for a fair go for everyone.

Browse our website or call us on 1300 292 153.

If you think you have been discriminated against you can contact the Commission on 1300 292 153, chat to a staff member online or email enquiries@veohrc.vic.gov.au.

How the Act developed

Victoria's changing social attitudes are apparent in the protections added to the Act over the past 40 years. Click through on the links to find out more about each attribute or characteristic.

Significant cases under the Equal Opportunity Act

Sex discrimination

In 1977 flight instructor Deborah Lawrie applied to become a trainee pilot with Ansett. Despite being more qualified than many of the male students who had already been accepted as trainee pilots, her application was rejected simply because she was a woman. She lodged a complaint of sex discrimination under Victoria's Equal Opportunity Act and won. She's still flying and training today. Find out more about the case: Ansett Transport Industries (Operations) Pty Ltd v Wardley

Disability discrimination

When Ella Ingram challenged QBE’s refusal to pay out on her travel insurance claim the insurance giant was found to have discriminated against her under the Equal Opportunity Act because of her disability. Now the industry is starting to remove the blanket mental health exclusion clause and the Commission has launched an investigation into the issue. Find out more about the case: Ingram v QBE Insurance (Australia) Ltd

Religious discrimination

Sidak was a five-year-old Sikh boy who wanted to go to the same local school as his cousins, but the school wouldn't let him wear his patka because it breeched the uniform policy. The school was found to have discriminated against Sidak under the Equal Opportunity Act and subsequently adjusted its policy. Sidak now attends the school and can wear his patka. Find out more about the case: Arora v Melton Christian College

Sexual harassment

One employer who sexually harassed a female staff member was ordered to pay more than $330,000 in damages and costs. Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act makes sexual harassment against the law. Find out more about the case: Collins v Smith

Sexual orientation discrimination

When Christian Youth Camps refused to let a group of same-sex attracted young people use one of its youth camps, it claimed religious exceptions in the Equal Opportunity Act. But, because the business wasn’t ‘established for religious purposes’, it was found to have acted against the law. Find out more about the case: Christian Youth Camps v Cobaw Community Health Services 

Race discrimination

Mr Obudho, a professional DJ, organised an event called Africa Fest. Five days before it was due to take place Inflation nightclub cancelled the event when it discovered that the majority of patrons would be of African descent. The nightclub was found to have discriminated against Mr Obudho because of his race and he was awarded $12,000 in compensation. Find out more about the case: Obudho v Patty Malones Bar Pty Ltd

In the early 1990s a caravan park that refused to rent to an Aboriginal couple – knowing full well it was discriminatory and against the law under the Equal Opportunity Act – was made to pay more than $20,000 compensation and publish two public apologies in the local newspaper. Case study in Report of the Commissioner for Equal Opportunity Victoria for the year ended 30 June 1993 (Victorian Government, 1993), 13.

Media contact

Kat O'Shea
Mobile: 0459 114 657
Email: kat.o'shea@veohrc.vic.gov.au

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