Young Women: are we making progress?


Speech by Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination

The Jessie Street Trust Annual Lunch, NSW Parliament House, Sydney

Friday 30 April 2010


Let me begin by paying my deep respects to the elders, both past and present, of the land upon which we are gathered today - the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation.

It is great privilege to be with you celebrating the Jessie Street Trust Annual Lunch for 2010. My sincere thanks to Jessie Street’s family and I am particularly delighted to see Jessie’s daughter, Belinda McKay in the audience today. I would also like to thank the Trustees - Jeannette McHugh and others for the invitation to be a part of this gathering in her honour.

Thank you also to Linda Burney for hosting today’s event here at Parliament House.

This invitation has given me the opportunity to be in the company of some of our country’s most significant and influential national advocates for the rights of women. It is also a pleasure to join the company of previous Jessie Street speakers including previous Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Quentin Bryce and Elizabeth Evatt, an eminent jurist and advocate for women’s rights both in Australia and internationally.

I can also see many familiar faces here today that I have to thank for inspiration and the myriad ways in which your own work has greatly influenced my thinking over the years.

If I may, I would like to particularly acknowledge one of our great human rights advocates, Susan Ryan. Many of you know that not only was Susan instrumental in the enactment of the Sex Discrimination Act more than 25 years ago, more recently she has worked tirelessly in the promotion of human rights and a human rights act for Australia

I know we were both profoundly disappointed at last’s week’s announcement that, despite the wide-spread and broad support for a human rights act, it is not to likely be something we are going to see in this country – at the least in the short term. It must also be said that last week’s announcements did include some significant improvements to the way human rights are protected by our legislature, the public service and the education system and these improvements owe much to Susan’s commitment to the issue.

I also want to acknowledge Faith Bandler, who addressed this annual lunch in 1997. I understand that Faith has actually never missed a Jessie Street Trust Annual Lunch and I am so pleased to join her here today. Faith is one of the recipients of the Human Rights Medal awarded by the Australian Human Rights Commission and one of the National Trust of Australia’s 100 Living Treasures – a formidably qualified dining companion indeed.

As a nation we are indebted to Faith and Jessie and all of those who were part of the movement towards the 1967 referendum and the ensuing, overdue changes to the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were recognised by the Australian constitution.

We are, of course, surrounded today by women who are also still working on the issues which Jessie Street so vigorously campaigned for during her life. There have been many significant gains in the areas of gender equality which she spearheaded. While I am pleased that some of these gains are so entrenched that we can take them for granted, we also know that many of them remain unfinished business.

For example, while women’s rights to keep their job after they get married is now unquestioned, women continue to perform the majority of unpaid caring work and unpaid work in the home. While it has been close to 40 years since we had both the Equal Pay for Equal Work and Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value decisions, women still only earn 83 cents in the male dollar.

Jessie Street didn’t live to see Quentin Bryce appointed as the fist Sex Discrimination Commissioner, or the first female Governor General for that matter, but the position and work of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner and the Australian Human Rights Commission is the legacy of her, and many other women’s, commitment and vision.

As Commissioner I have regular cause to reflect on her legacy. For the past two years I have attended the United Nations meeting on gender equality and women’s rights known as the Commission on the Status of Women. It is held in New York and as I stood there this year, surrounded by over 10 000 delegates from around the globe - representing some 192 countries - I was reminded just how much of a debt we owe Jessie Street.

As many of you would know, Jessie was one of the 15 original members of the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women which was established shortly after the close of the Second World War. It was this Commission (known as CSW) which ensured that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stood as an affirmation of “the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women[1]

It was CSW that undertook the first comprehensive global survey and gave us a detailed, country-by-country picture of the political and legal status of women.

It was CSW that convened the International Women’s Year in 1975 and drafted CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women often referred to as the global Charter of Women’s Rights. And it was CEDAW which laid some of the foundations for our own anti discrimination legislation, enacted almost fifteen years after Jessie’s death.

The Jessie Street Trust has asked me to speak about the progress of gender equality in Australia today. Such a review is timely, as not only am I about to reach the mid point of my term as Commissioner, but also Australia’s implementation of CEDAW is due to be reviewed by the international Committee later this year.

Many of the issues Jessie Street brought to the fore remain, over 50 years later, dynamic and active campaigns. As we can increasingly take for granted formal equality between women and men – that is, that men and women on the face of it have the same legal rights, we are now seeing many new voices calling for the changes needed to achieve real, substantive equality – to ensure that women and men have equality in outcomes over the course of their lives.

When I came into the position of Commissioner two years ago now, I spent a significant amount of time travelling through Australia, talking to women and men about the state of gender equality. While many people had lived through significant changes and improvements, I concluded that our progress towards gender equality seemed to have stalled.

There are a number of key indicators of gender equality where we have stopped making progress, or worse, where we are now going backwards.

The representation of women in leadership and decision-making positions, the persistent and worsening gender pay gap, ongoing workplace segregation, alarming rates of gender-based harassment and violence, the unabated levels of unpaid caring work undertaken by women, the gender gap in retirement savings – these are all signposts at what could be described as the cul-de-sac of gender equality.

Women in Australia have made significant advances in education. When compared with other countries, Australia is ranked first in the world for women’s educational attainment.[2] Women account for over half of all students enrolled in higher education and completing higher education qualifications.[3]

These significant advances obscure the fact that educational choices for young women remain highly segregated on the basis of gender.

Women continue to be over-represented in areas of study linked to lower earning industries, while men continue to be over-represented in higher earning industries. For example, women outnumber men by 3 to 1 in health and education courses and men outnumber women by 5 to 1 in engineering courses.[4]

Young women will also find that pay inequity begins at the beginning of their careers – the median starting salary for women graduates is $3 000 lower than their male counterparts.[5] Indeed, this is one of the areas where are sliding backwards - the disparity between men’s and women’s ordinary full time earnings has steadily increased over the past four years and is currently around 17%.[6] If current earning patterns continue, the average 25 year old man will earn $2.4 million over the next 40 years. The average 25 year old woman will earn $1 million less.[7]

During the Listening Tour I heard from women and men across the board that leadership and role modelling are needed to drive deep cultural change and I made women and leadership one of my key areas of focus for my term as Commissioner. Despite making up 45% of Australia’s total workforce, women remain grossly under-represented in leadership and decision-making positions in virtually all sectors of the workforce and in public life.

Again – this is an area where we are sliding backwards – for example, it is now well known that in the top 200 publicly listed companies in Australia, women hold only 2% of CEO Positions and 2% of Board Chairs.[8] But there are also signs that things are going to get worse for young women who are just entering or coming up through the ranks of corporate Australia. In 2006, 7.5% of line executive management positions in ASX 200 companies were held by women.[9] Now, line executive management experience is considered essential for progressing to top corporate positions. In 2009, rate of women in these positions had dropped to 5.9%.

Sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence continue to affect an unacceptable proportion of Australian women. When the Commission recently ran a national survey on sexual harassment I was dismayed, but not surprised, to find that one in five women still experiences sexual harassment in the workplace in their lifetime.[10] ABS data shows that one in three Australian women has experienced physical assault since the age of 15 and one in five has experienced sexual assault since the same age.[11]

Perhaps the most telling indicator of the challenges that lie ahead is the inequality that emerges between women and men over a life time. Current average superannuation payouts for women are less than half of men’s – $63 000 compared with $136 000.[12] Half of all Australian women aged between 45 and 59 have $8 000 or less in superannuation[13] and of all household types in Australia elderly single women are at the greatest risk of persistent poverty, with more than half of these households living in poverty.[14]

The research shows that without intervention young women’s lives will most likely follow a similar trajectory.

So, it’s a confused landscape that young women come into today. Much of the overt formal discrimination has been removed by the courage and activism of first and second wave feminists. But, as you can see, gender equality is still not a lived reality for most women across Australia in 2010. The barriers to equality which we see today are in many ways more complex and more difficult to change – they include deeply entrenched attitudes, cultures and gender stereotypes which underpin so many practices, systems and structures. We are still in dire need of significant cultural change – at school, at work and at home.

This is the Australia that young women have inherited.

Recent years have been marked by public concern about whether young women are willing and able to take up this challenge. The health or otherwise of feminist activism is not something I want to spend any time on today – largely because what I have seen gives me very little cause for concern.

I am fortunate that this is a position that brings me into contact with many young women from all works of life. I can tell you there are many young women who are actively and innovatively working to initiate the shifts in culture which will bring us closer to gender equality. Just a few weeks ago I spent the weekend at the F Conference, which some of you may have attended or heard about. I will talk a little more about this later but, if we are looking for a sign of what’s to come, it was a conference predominately organised and executed by young women and even with a 500 person capacity – it was quickly sold out!

However, I do want to acknowledge the challenges which young women have inherited must be overcome in a world of far greater complexity in terms of how we organise and communicate amongst the cacophony of new media surrounding us and the messages conveyed about who young women are, and what they want - or should be.

Australian professor Chilla Bulbeck has suggested that, “Young women today confront an even more baffling landscape than their mothers did. They are encouraged to demand equal respect and equal wages but also to pursue gender difference in a culture which is increasingly individualised, commodified, sexualised and information laden.”[15]

As she continues, “young women are encouraged not only to be sexy and available, to please men, but to see this as a sign of their empowerment.”

Young feminist commentator and novelist Emily Maguire describes this habit of describing anything women might do as signifying their empowerment as maddening and contradictory. It is her observation that,

“Stripping is empowering, so is being a stay at home mother. Watching porn is empowering, and so is withholding one’s virginity until the right man comes along. A girl is empowered by new shoes and Brazilian waxes, and by handing over the family finances to her husband. Women, if the mainstream media are to be believed, are becoming more powerful with every wax strip, lap-dance, oven-scrub and baby-bath.

As she continues,

My question is, if all of this is so empowering, why the hell aren’t men doing it? How come men manage to control the political, legal and business worlds without having first been empowered by taking off their clothes for a magazine, pole-dancing or submitting to spousal authority? The issue is not whether a woman might want to do these things – it’s none of anyone’s business what an adult woman does with her life – but let’s not kid ourselves that every choice a woman makes gives her power.”[16]

In a speech to mark International Women’s Day in 2008 I asked, “What’s to stop us harnessing the technology that is already a part of our lives and using it to inspire and activate women across generations and cultures, across cities and states, across schools, communities and workplaces?” As I said then, “Globalisation and technology have offered us new and exciting ways of communicating with one another and influencing change. Social networking websites and virtual communities provide us with opportunities to discuss and debate women’s issues, and organise a movement for change locally and globally.”

Young women and men are already doing this. As the consumption of alternative and informal media continues to escalate, the number of websites and blogs and the amount of comment on gender equality issues is truly staggering. The connections this sort of activism can create are inspiring. Australian writers Monica Dux and Zora Simic recently described the feminist blogosphere as the “new front line of feminist activism”[17]

As Anne Summers recently said, "there are more male and female feminists today than at any other time in Australian history".[18] She is indeed, well qualified to make this assessment.

What I think this means is that action for gender equality is becoming increasingly issues-based, particularly among young women who seem to have built flexible, interlocking and responsive coalitions.

For example, as I mentioned earlier, the recent F Conference was one of the biggest feminist conferences in Sydney in over decade. It ran over the course of a weekend – 500 women and men, young and old, mother and daughter duos (I took my 12 year old, Lucy) gave up a gorgeous Autumn weekend to talk about the state of gender equality.

Two days later I was speaking at an event about domestic and family violence in the workplace. Here I ran into two of the young organisers of the F Conference. Given the pace of the weekend I am not quite sure how they were still standing, but one was there as part of her work at the Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse. The other, an organiser with the ASU was there promoting the ASU’s current equal pay test case.

So in conclusion, let me say we have all benefited from the decades of activism which precede us and have seen some major reforms. Today we can enthusiastically pursue and maximise opportunities that our predecessors could only dream of.

And so, for me, I am passionate about supporting the voices of young women – the myriad of young women who are speaking up about the need for change and progress towards gender equality. One of the most exciting opportunities for all of us is to forge alliances with the many young women who are grappling with the next phase of reform to secure what Jessie Street worked so hard for during her life - equality, dignity and respect for all.

As young women take full advantage of all the tools and tactics available to them and continue to build wider circles of influence, I am optimistic.

I am confident that the future of the women's movement and gender equality in Australia is in strong and innovative hands.


[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Preamble
[2] Ricardo Hausmann, Laura Tyson and Saadia Zahidi, The Global Gender Gap Report 2008 (2008) p 43.
[3] See Chapter 2, Australian Government, Women in Australia 2009 (2009)
[4] Ibid.
[5] Graduate Careers Australia, Gradfiles 2009, (2009). At www.graduatecareers.com.au/content/view/full/24. (viewed 25 March 2010).
[6] NATSEM, The impact of a sustained gender wage gap on the Australian economy, (2010)
[7] R Cassells, R Miranti, B Nepal & R Tanton, She works hard for the money: Australian women and the gender divide, AMP.NATSEM Income and Wealth Report issue 22 (2009) p 34.
[8] Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA), 2008 EOWA Australian Census of Women in Leadership (2008),
[9] EOWA, above
[10] Australian Human Rights Commission, Sexual harassment: Serious business Results of the 2008 Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey (2008), p 1
[11] Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006), p 7.
[12] Ross Clare, The Age Pension, superannuation and Australian retirement incomes(2009), ASFA, p 22,
[13] S Kelly, 'Entering Retirement: the Financial Aspects' (Paper presented at the Communicating the Gendered Impact of Economic Policies: The Case of Women's Retirement Incomes, Perth, 12-13 December 2006) p 12. NATSEM, 2006)
[14] Between 2001 and 2005 Bruce Heady and Diana Warren, Families, Incomes and Jobs, Volume 3: A Statistical Report on Waves 1 to 5 of the HILDA Survey (2008) p.55. This includes: working age couple with no children; working age couple with children; working age lone female; working age lone male; lone mother household; elderly couple household; elderly lone male; elderly lone female.
[15] C Bulbeck, ‘Equality – Do today’s young women and men want it?’ Equal Opportunity Commission WA, International Women’s Day Breakfast, March 10 2008. At www.equalopportunity.wa.gov.au/pdf/speech_iwd08.pdf (viewed 26 April 2010)
[16] E Maguire, Princesses and Pornstars, (2008) p 5
[17] M Dux and Z Simic, The Great Feminist Denial (2008), p 54
[18] N Funnell, ‘Who says feminism is dead?’ The Age, April 12, 2010

Address: 
Australia