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The government of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard Saturday asked the Human Rights Commission to launch an inquiry into the treatment of women in the workplace, marking a return to the vexed issue of gender equality.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick will oversee a national survey to assess the prevalence, nature and consequences of discrimination relating, in particular, to pregnancy at work and return to work after parental leave.
The inquiry will convene a series of roundtable forums with industry and employer groups, unions, workers and other organisations before preparing recommendations to reduce discrimination.
"There is significant anecdotal evidence that women in particular are being demoted, sacked, or having their role or hours unfavourably 'restructured' while on parental leave or on their return from leave," Attorney General Mark Dreyfus said.
"The inquiry will measure the prevalence of this discrimination and help ensure parents, particularly mothers, are treated fairly at work."
It was launched after the embattled Gillard reignited a simmering debate about gender by warning voters in a recent speech that women's voices would be banished from decision making if the conservative opposition was elected in September polls.
The comments were followed by Gillard being targeted by a sexist and offensive menu at an opposition party fundraiser and then a radio host was fired after pressing her on air whether her partner Tim Mathieson was gay.
Gillard, Australia's first female leader, said the inquiry would be ''pivotal'' in assessing the scale of the problem for women in the workplace and what should be done about it.
''It's very concerning that there are even anecdotal reports that people, particularly women, feel discriminated against when they are caring for young children,'' she told the Sydney Morning Herald.
''Given that I want us to be a nation where (there is) equal opportunity for everyone at every time in their life, I want to get to the bottom of the problem and what the solutions could be.''
Despite Gillard attempting to marginalise the opposition by playing the gender card, it appears to have backfired with a poll on Monday showing male voters are deserting her and the ruling Labor Party's popularity continued to slump.
On Saturday, The Melbourne Age newspaper called on Gillard to stand down, saying she must accept she had failed as a leader.
"The government under Ms Gillard has lost its way," the Fairfax Media-owned newspaper said in an editorial.
"The Age's overriding concern is that under Ms Gillard's leadership, the Labor Party's message about its future policies and vision for Australia is not getting through to the electorate.
"Our fear is that if there is no change in Labor leadership before the September 14 election, voters will be denied a proper contest of ideas and policies -- and that would be a travesty for the democratic process."
The newspaper's call comes amid continued speculation about Labor's leadership ahead of the final week of parliamentary sittings before the September 14 election.