Gender equality in 2008: What matters to Australian women and men

Speech by Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

Launch of the Listening Tour Community Report and
Plan of Action Towards Gender Equality

22 July 2008


Today I am proud to be launching my agenda on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I pay my respect to your elders and ancestors – you are strong and resilient people – and we all have a lot to learn from you.

In particular today, I pay my respect to the many Indigenous women of this area and others who, for many decades, have spoken out locally, nationally and on the international stage, for the rights of women and their communities.

I have had the privilege to meet and work with some of you already – women from Yirrkala, Darwin, and Fitzroy Crossing in the North, through to Canberra, Brisbane and Redfern – your energy and determination is a real inspiration to me.

We are here today to discuss the future of gender equality in Australia.

Gender equality is something that matters to all of us – boys, girls, men, women, young, old, business, government and community.

And as many of you know well, gender equality goes to the very heart of who we are and how we live.

I am often asked: Liz, how far have we come on our journey towards gender equality?

I tell them:

  • Australia was amongst the first to give women the vote.

  • We have legal protection from sex discrimination in our workplaces, places of study and other areas of public life.

  • Domestic violence and sexual assault are recognised as crimes under the law.

  • We now see women in decision making role across almost all areas of community, government and business.

These are great achievements. But in 2008, our progress towards gender equality seems to have stalled.

  • There remains a serious gap between what women and men earn. Women working full time earn just 84 cents in the male dollar.

  • Men continue to dominate all spheres – look at our governments, business, churches and sport. Women make up a tiny 8.7% of board positions for the top 200 ASX companies.

  • We remain one of two OECD nations without paid maternity leave.

  • Women continue to do the lion’s share of unpaid work, caring for family members and managing our households.

  • Fathers of infants are likely to be working a greater number of hours than other men – an average of 46 hours per week.

  • Disturbingly, 1 in 3 women will experience domestic violence over her lifetime.

The Listening Tour Findings

My Listening Tour was about finding out where we are at in our pursuit of gender equality and where we should focus our efforts in the future.

From my Listening Tour, I can report to you – without reservation – that in 2008, gender inequality remains an everyday lived experience for women and men in Australia.

Over the last few months, I have travelled the length and breadth of this country.

From Launceston to Arnhem Land. And from the Kimberley region to our nation’s capital, Canberra.

I have personally met over 1000 Australians from all walks of life. Many more of you have had your say on our blog, and many thousands more followed our journey on the internet.

The everyday experiences I have heard provide a powerful human dimension to the statistics that come across my desk every day. They have put heart into what our brains tell us.

Economic Independence for Women

Women shared with me how hard it can still be to get paid work – to pay your bills and to be respected for the skills that you have. The barriers to women’s full and equal participation in the paid workforce are real. Issues such as pay inequity, the lack of quality part time or flexible work are deeply entrenched.

I heard about the difficult experiences for immigrant and Indigenous women in finding employment - women who need better support and access to training. Their stories of discrimination, and rejection should not be part of a society where we are all entitled to dignity and respect.

I heard about the experiences of women in low paid caring work, fighting for nearly two years just to win a one dollar a week pay rise.

Other women told me of appalling work conditions – no breaks, no leave, no chair to sit down on let alone air-conditioning for their overheated factory.

Many older women shared their anxieties about living in poverty in their later years struggling to make ends meet, often after a life spent caring for others.

I heard many inspiring stories of women’s leadership, from board rooms to community organisations. I met Indigenous women who are driving immense social change within their communities – often in the face of extremely limited resources.

They are leading efforts to make their communities safer, healthier and stronger. Their stories have inspired and energised me.

Balancing Work and Family Across the Lifecyle

Wherever I went, men and women shared with me the daily grind of balancing work and family.

Across the country, I heard that fathers are feeling the pressure of being the primary breadwinner – and many told me they want to do it differently. From the corporate offices to the slaughterline at the abbatoirs, men are feeling this pressure. Workplace cultures often mean they can’t access flexible work arrangements, even when they are available.

I heard that women in low paid jobs - who need paid maternity leave the most - are currently missing out. The need for legislated paid leave for parents was supported widely – as far as many were concerned, it is a national embarrassment that Australia lags so far behind our international counterparts.

Many also called for paid leave for both parents. The sharing of care for children lies at the heart of true gender equality.

I heard from many businesses that have introduced innovative strategies to make family friendly and flexible work more than just empty slogans.

But most importantly, what I heard from women and men across the board – is that leadership and role modelling are needed to drive deep cultural change.

We are what we do, and I for one, am committed to modelling what is possible on work and family balance.

Freedom from Discrimination, Harassment and Violence

Sexual harassment came through as a major problem deeply embedded in our workplaces – across industries and occupations.

With justification, women reported fearing repercussions if they complained. One woman described to me reporting sexual harassment as ‘career death’.

Many employers were reluctant to talk about sexual harassment, and those who did told us they were often unclear about the best way to respond. Men felt confused about what was acceptable behaviour.

I also heard that sex discrimination, in all its forms, remains alive in our workplaces. It is often more subtle, and less easy to prove, but still with the same consequences.

Women told me of being passed up for promotions, because of their gender or caring responsibilities.

Some refugee women told me that wearing the Hijab can result in knock back after knock back when they look for a job.

The ability to live a life free from violence was a significant issue for many. I heard that gender based violence was pervasive – it does not discriminate based on age, wealth, postcode, culture, disability, or sexuality.

Access to appropriate services such as emergency housing and support was reported as a serious problem, particularly for women with disability, Indigenous women and women leaving prison.

I heard of some great community-owned solutions in Indigenous communities around domestic and family violence – alcohol management strategies, night patrols, and support groups for young mums.

Other issues

Men told me that there is a need for a well funded national men’s health policy. I heard that many men are often reluctant to seek health care which leads to poor health outcomes.

The Northern Territory Intervention was a key topic of conversation up north and we heard of the need to review its effects – good and bad.

I also heard from same sex parents about the need to recognise their relationships and their families in the law.

Work of state government agencies

As I travelled the country, I saw some positive initiatives happening at a state level.

In WA, a specialised Pay Equity Unit has been set up to raise public awareness of pay equity.

The South Australian Government has introduced Australia’s only gender equality benchmarks, setting an example for others to follow.

The ACT Government uses ‘hard to let’ public housing as transitional accommodation for victims of family and domestic violence, freeing up beds in crisis accommodation.

Queensland has set up a taskforce to investigate ways to enhance women’s participation in traditionally male-dominated industries – science, technology and engineering.

Victoria and Tasmania have leading programs to address domestic and family violence supported by strong leadership from their respective governments.

NSW is building the capacity of tomorrow’s women leaders through their well regarded young women’s mentoring program.

The Northern Territory has initiated women’s forums in communities, for women to raise their concerns directly with the Minister and share their ideas for change.

It is encouraging to see this great work happening.

Thank you for Listening Tour

The Listening Tour has provided me with a deep level of knowledge that no number of reports or papers ever could.

Many of you here today have enriched my understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing this country by sharing the everyday experiences that make up the fabric of your lives.

To everyone who participated – thank you.

A special thank you to those individuals and organisations that provided assistance to make it happen.

I hope you’ve found it a positive and worthwhile experience.


Following the Listening Tour, in deciding where I should focus my efforts, I was guided by three questions:

  1. What were the most important issues for the Australians I met?
  2. where can I have the greatest impact given our current political, social and economic context?
  3. How can I best complement the excellent work already being done by a great number of organisations?

My Plan of Action focuses on five key areas:

  • Achieving greater balance between paid work and family responsibilities for men and women;

  • Increasing the number of women in leadership positions, including supporting Indigenous women’s leadership

  • Driving down the incidence of sexual harassment;

  • Reducing the gender gap in retirement savings; and

  • Strengthening laws to address sex discrimination and promote gender equality.

These priorities have been shaped by the stories you told me. Each of them is equally important.

Balancing paid work and family responsibilities

Let me start with balancing paid work and family – an issue which continues to affect women and men from all walks of life.

In 2008, there is a fundamental mismatch between caring responsibilities and the structure of our workplaces.

My learning from the Listening Tour is that flexible and family friendly work policies need to become more than a mantra. They need to become business as usual. Which means they need to be embraced as business opportunity.

In a time of skills shortage and demographic change, employers and policy makers are starting to see the value of flexible work. We need a commitment to job redesign. We need to change how success in the workplace is defined.

No longer can our workplaces only afford to value what is known as the ideal worker – who is male, without caring responsibilities and able to exceed full time work hours. This model has never worked well for women and increasingly not for men either. This is a big priority for me.

A national scheme of paid leave for parents is no longer a question of whether or how but when. There is no question that legislated paid maternity leave is a basic human right.

I will work with many of you here today to continue to advocate for a government funded paid leave scheme for parents that is world class – one that Australia can be proud of. A scheme that will deliver for our children, families, communities, business and government.

Women and leadership

Let me now turn to women and leadership.

Women’s voices continue to be under represented in leadership and decision making roles across the community, government and business.

In my view, increasing women’s representation at the most senior levels is a top priority.

We often hear of the absence of women on boards, but it is equally important that we support and resource the efforts of the many women who are working at the grassroots to improve the lives of their communities – women found everywhere across our nation.

These are women who are leaders in their own communities often without the fame or fortune afforded to others.

Indigenous women must be supported as leaders in Australia – regionally and on the international stage. There is a lot to be learned and shared with women across the world.

I am keen to do what I can to support the building of bridges between the corporate world and Indigenous Australians, particularly through fostering relationships between women leaders in these two spheres of Australian life.

To this end, I am working to create a forum to bring together Indigenous women and corporate women to share experiences and knowledge – this will be important for creating opportunities and building a critical mass for change – benefiting both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Other initiatives will follow.

Sexual harassment in Australia

It is clear from my Listening Tour that there is a dire need to put sexual harassment back on the radar. Sexual harassment comes at a high cost – both to individuals and business. Quite simply, we can no longer afford that cost.

I am pleased to announce today that I have commissioned a national survey to track trends on the extent of sexual harassment in Australia.

This is the only national research of its kind. This will be the second time HREOC has run this research, and the first time we have accurate trends.

I will use this research to develop an education strategy which will include new technologies to reduce the incidence and impact of sexual harassment.

It is my goal that in five years time, every employee in Australia will know their rights about sexual harassment and feel confident to make a complaint. I want to see that every employer – small or large - understands their responsibilities and is taking active steps to prevent and eradicate sexual harassment.

Today, I challenge all employers to step up and take a leadership role on this issue. I think it’s time we said enough is enough, don’t you?

The gender gap in retirement savings

Half of all women aged 45-59 have $8000 or less in retirement savings - compared to $33,000 for men. This is an injustice which, if left unaddressed, will only grow as a major social and economic problem.

As we enter an unprecedented period of longevity this is one area that we cannot ignore. Many older women are now living in poverty, and unless action is taken, many more will share this same fate.

Addressing women’s low levels of superannuation and retirement savings includes looking at innovative ways to recognise and value unpaid work, the large majority of which is done by women.

This is a very complex area of public policy.

Today, I am pleased to announce that I will be working with a range of experts – academic, policy, finance and superannuation – to investigate these factors.

Reducing the gap between women and men’s retirement savings, and ensuring women’s financial security over their lifetime, will be a priority for my term.

People who spend a lifetime providing care deserve better than poverty in their old age!

Legal protection

Strong legal protection from sex discrimination and sexual harassment is at the foundation of gender equality.

In 2008, it is time to look at ways to improve protection afforded by law.

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee recently announced a review of the federal Sex Discrimination Act.
This is an historic opportunity for us to evaluate whether the legislation has effectively delivered on its objectives.

It is clear that protection from discrimination on the grounds of family responsibilities needs to be broadened. Currently, it only covers individuals if they are sacked because of family responsibilities, and provides even less coverage for men.

I will be making a contribution to this review to secure a first-rate system of legal protection from sex discrimination and sexual harassment for Australia. Importantly, I am keen to look at ways the legislation can be strengthened. This is an inquiry that matters to all of us here today, and I urge you to get involved.

Overall comments on the agenda

An effective gender equality agenda must recognise and illuminate the different experiences of women including Indigenous women, women with disability, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, older women, younger women, same-sex attracted women and low paid women.

Importantly, gender equality is not a battle of the sexes. It is about men and women working together to create a fairer and more equal Australia. It is about recognising that men play an important role in our families and communities.

I pay tribute to the many individuals and organisations that have gone before me, particularly the previous Sex Discrimination Commissioners, and the many individuals and organisations that live and breathe these issues every day.

You work directly with the community, you listen to their concerns and you make sure these concerns are heard –put simply, you don’t give up.

I am determined to keep listening and learning from you.

For me, this is just as much about how we do it, as what we achieve.

Call to action

When the Sex Discrimination Act was debated in 1984 it was highly controversial. It was met with resistance across the political spectrum. Many individuals and politicians argued that it would dissolve the fabric of our society as we know it – it would destroy families and push women into work against their will.

25 years later, the sky has not fallen in. Women are now doing things their grandmothers only dreamed of. And as a country, we are all the better for it.

People on my Listening Tour told me loud and clear – gender equality matters. It matters to individuals, families, business, governments, the economy and our community as a whole.

Australia can again be a world leader in achieving gender equality, as we once were.

In 1902, we led the way by being amongst the first to give women the vote. In the 1940s, Australian women lead negotiations at the United Nations to secure women’s rights at the international level.

And, in 1984, we were internationally celebrated as the first country in the world to produce a national women’s budget statement - a sophisticated report card on how the Commonwealth budget impacted on gender equality.

What’s to stop us now in 2008 from again dreaming big for this country and our children?

I want a future where our girls and boys believe that anything is possible - and our country does not disappoint them.