Applying a gender perspective in public policy: What it means and how we can do it better

Addressing Gender Equality and Women’s Rights in Public Policy, International Women’s Day Forum APS Human Rights Network Meeting Members Dining Room 2, Old Parliament House, 18 King George Terrace, Parkes

Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

9 March 2012


Thank you, Cate, for your kind words.

Let me begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of the land on which we now gather. I pay my respects to elders, past and present.

Thank you to the Attorney-General’s Department for co-hosting today’s meeting of the Australian Public Service Human Rights Network with the Commission. And I would also like to acknowledge my colleague Padma Raman, Executive Director of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Cate McKenzie from the Office for Women, and my fellow panellists.

The APS Human Rights Network is such an important initiative, even more so following the enactment late last year of the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011 (Cth). I am proud of the Commission’s involvement in the initiative and, as you might imagine, am extremely pleased to be here today to focus on addressing gender equality and women’s rights in public policy so early on in the programme.


Let me start by wishing everyone a belated happy International Women’s Day!

I have to confess that International Women’s Day is one of my favourite days on the calendar - it is such an important opportunity to celebrate women, and our hard-fought successes.

I had a shaky start yesterday. Channel 10 – not sure if you’ve watched it – well don’t! But the day got better with the release of the Security Council Resolution 1325 national action plan.

There have been many important developments for women over the last year.

Just last month, we had an historic win in the equal pay decision.[1] This decision will award more than 200,000 workers in the social and community services sector—mostly women—much deserved pay-rises of between 19 and 41 per cent.

Without question, the decision will make a substantial difference to these workers and their families. Importantly, it will also play a significant role in helping to reduce the gender pay gap, which, as we all know, has stagnated around 17 to 18 per cent in recent years.[2] And it will undoubtedly assist in addressing the gap in both retirement income and superannuation.[3]

But International Women’s Day also provides an opportunity to look to the future and to reflect on how we can make gender equality a reality in Australia.

I often find myself on days like this thinking about the kind of world I want my 14 year-old daughter, Lucy, to grow up in, go to work in, travel in, have a family in, and retire in.

When I find myself thinking about this, I am reminded that there is still much we need to achieve.

For me, an important place to start is examining how we, as public servants, can address gender equality and women’s rights in public policy. With that in mind, I thought I would share some brief thoughts on 3 things:

  • the importance of taking a gender perspective into the development and implementation of public policy;
  • how we might do that; and
  • who is responsible for ensuring a gender perspective is applied.

I will make my remarks very practical in the hope of offering some possible concrete tools that you can take away and use in your day-to-day work to address gender equality and women’s human rights.

The importance of a gender perspective in public policy

So, why is it important to apply a gender perspective? And what are the likely consequences of gender blind policies?

A gender perspective is important for the very simple reason that ‘[a]ll policies impact on men and women’s lives in one way or another’[4].

Because of economic and social differences between men and women, policy consequences, intended and unintended, often vary along gender lines. It is only through a gender analysis of policy that these differences become apparent, and solutions devised.[5]

Public policy has the capacity to either perpetuate or eliminate discrimination and gender inequality. It is only by making gender a central consideration in the development and implementation of public policy that we can hope to advance gender equality and women’s human rights in Australia.

The risk in failing to do so is that public policy responses will not only perpetuate existing forms of oppression against women and limit women’s and men’s autonomy, but will also create new forms of gender oppression and undermine broader efforts to achieve equality.

How to apply a gender perspective in public policy

The question that we each need to ask ourselves, then, is: how can I apply a gender perspective in my day-to-day work as a public servant?

Let me say at the outset that I don’t think there is a single correct way. I also don’t think that you have to be a gender expert to be able to apply a gender lens to your work.

Each time I deal with a new or an existing aspect of public policy, I like to ask myself a number of basic questions.

(a) Asking the woman question

Firstly, I ask myself the woman question - a staple of feminist methodology for some decades now.

The woman question seeks to reveal the gender implications of public policy for women. It asks: ‘have women been left out of consideration? If so, in what way; and how might that omission be corrected? What difference would it make to do so?’[6]

For example, what does a drought assistance policy or a climate change policy that is gender-neutral on its surface, say or assume about women?[7] More specifically, what attributes, characteristics or roles does it ascribe to women? And in what way does it disadvantage women?

The purpose of asking the woman question is to uncover the gender implications of public policy that might otherwise appear to be neutral or objective.[8] Asking this question helps us to understand better how law and public policy ‘fails to take into account the experiences and values that seem more typical of women than of men, or how existing legal [and policy] standards and concepts might disadvantage women’.[9]

As public servants, it is important that we are also sensitive to the multiple, often invisible, forms of exclusion that many women face, based on their race, their ability, their sexual orientation or, for example, their age.[10]

Last week I attended the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York - it’s the highest intergovernmental forum at the UN that meets each year to consider exactly how public policy at an international level impacts on gender equality. This year the CSW focused on the empowerment of rural women, examining how gender equality can be incorporated into a range of issues including: rural development, financing, land rights, access to resources, food security and climate change.

At CSW, I talked at length about the importance of tailoring the implementation of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children to the specific experiences of victims and survivors of domestic and family violence in rural contexts.[11] It’s at times like this I remember the story of Catherine Smith and her daughter Vickie - 2 women from a rural community who had experienced violence and who travelled to the UN with us. In relation to the lack of services Catherine said in her speech at the UN:

“It’s not easy to escape the violence. I remember running from the house with my four children. We ended up walking almost 80 km to the nearest town that had a refuge, sleeping on the river bank along the way, with just the clothes we had on – my children in their school uniforms.

There was also a lot of discussion about the need to tailor policies on violence and other issues to the specific experiences of subgroups of women, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women from a non-English speaking background and women with a disability.

(b) Asking the man question

In order to analyse the full range of gender implications of public policy, I also like to ask myself the man question.

‘Asking the “man question” means simply to ask “What is the position of boys and/or men in this situation?”’ ‘Implicit in this a second question, “Does this apply to all boys and/or men, or does it affect different men differently?’[12]

Asking the man question can help us understand better how public policy contributes to the construction of male privilege and dominance in Australia.

It also helps us to understand how certain policies assign women and men distinct attributes, characteristics and roles. Consider the example of the sex-role stereotypes of men as breadwinners and women as carers, both of which are commonly found together in a wide range of public policies, including in the areas of taxation, employment and childcare. When public policies enforce or perpetuate these stereotypes, rather than allowing individual men and women to determine responsibility for breadwinning and caring roles for themselves, they can exacerbate existing conditions of inequality between men and women. As Sally Sara said at the UN Women’s Australia Breakfast this week, “to change the world for women we also need to change the world for men”.

The risk in not asking the man question is that the complex nature of gender relations in Australian society is ignored and a central part of gender inequality – the construction of masculinities, male privilege and male dominance – is left unattended.[13]

(c) Interrogating institutions and structures for hidden gender implications

Asking the woman question and the man question only gets us so far in analysing the gender implications of public policy.

As public servants, it is important that we also consider how institutions and structures are gendered and how this might affect the implementation of a public policy.

I think feminist legal scholar Sandra Fredman said it best when she suggested that

[t]he future is not simply one of allowing women into a male-defined world. Instead, equality for women entails a re-structuring [of] society so that it is no longer male-defined. Transformation requires a redistribution of power and resources and a change in the institutional structures which perpetuate women’s oppression. It requires a dismantling of the private-public divide, and a reconstruction of the public world so that child-care and parenting are seen as valued common responsibilities of both parents and the community.[14]

Advancing gender equality and women’s human rights in a policy context is consequently not just about including women’s voices or, for example, removing barriers to women’s participation. It is also about the adoption of positive measures to bring about a transformation in the institutions and structures that cause or perpetuate discrimination and inequality.[15]

Responsibility to ensure a gender perspective is applied in policy development and implementation

So, who is responsible for ensuring a gender perspective is applied in policy development and implementation?

The simple answer is that we all are.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recently reminded Australia and other States Parties that they obligated under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (and other international human rights treaties) to

‘ensure that all Government bodies and organs are fully aware of the principles of equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex and gender and that adequate training and awareness-raising programmes are set up and carried out in this respect.’[16]

Hilary Charlesworth, a leading feminist legal scholar, has also cautioned that a genuine commitment to advancing gender equality and women’s human rights requires gender to ‘be taken seriously in central, mainstream, “normal” institutional activities and not simply left in a marginalized, peripheral backwater of specialist women’s institutions.’[17]

So, whether we are a graduate, a departmental Secretary or a Minister and whether we work in the Office for Women, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry or the Department of Defence, each of us is responsible for applying a gender perspective in the development and implementation of public policy.


In conclusion, let me return to where I began.

International Women’s Day is a time for celebration and reflection.

Each of you here today has made such important contributions to public policy in Australia. There is so much for you to be proud of and for us to celebrate as a group.

I look forward to working with you and supporting you in your efforts to advance gender equality and women’s human rights through public policy.

Thank you.

[1] See Equal Remuneration Case: Australian Municipal, Administrative, Clerical and Services Union and others, Australian Business Industrial [2012] FWAFB 1000 (Fair Work Australia). Available at (viewed 8 March 2012). See also Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘Historic Decision leads Australia a Step Closer to Making Equal Remuneration for Women a Reality’ (Media Release, 1 February 2012). Available at (viewed 8 March 2012).
[2] See Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, ‘Pay Equity Statistics Fact Sheet’ (May 2011). Available at (viewed 8 March 2012).
[3] See Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘Accumulating Poverty? Women’s Experiences of Inequality over the Life Cycle’ (September 2009). Available at (viewed 8 March 2012).
[4] Louise Chappell, Deborah Brennan and Kim Rubenstein, ‘Australian Intergovernmental Relations: A Gender and Change Perspective’, in Paul Kildea, Andrew Lynch and George Williams (eds) Tomorrow’s Federation: Reforming Australian Government (2012), 228, at 228.
[5] Above.
[6] Katharine T. Bartlett, ‘Feminist Legal Methods’ (1990) 103(4) Harvard Law Review 829, at 837.
[7] See, for example, Margaret Alston, ‘Drought Policy in Australia: Gender Mainstreaming or Gender Blindness’ (2009) 16(2) Gender, Place and Culture 139; Margaret Alston, ‘Gender and Climate Change in Australia’ (2010) 47(1) Journal of Sociology 53.
[8] Katharine T. Bartlett, above note 6, at 837.
[9] Above.
[10] ‘Intersectionality is a basic concept for understanding the scope of the general obligations of States parties contained in article 2. The discrimination of women based on sex and gender is inextricably linked with other factors that affect women, such as race, ethnicity, religion or belief , health, status, age, class, caste, and sexual orientation and gender identity. Discrimination on the basis of sex or gender may affect women belonging to such groups to a different degree or in different ways than men. States parties must legally recognize and prohibit such intersecting forms of discrimination and their compounded negative impact on the women concerned.’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General Recommendation No. 28 on the Core Obligations of States Parties under Article 2 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women UN Doc.CEDAW/C/2010/47/GC.2, (19 October 2010), at para. 18. Available at (viewed 8 March 2012).
[11] See Elizabeth Broderick, ‘The Need for a Contextualised Response to Domestic and Family Violence in Rural Areas’ (Speech delivered at Commission on the Status of Women, 56th Session, Side Event: Impact of Violence against Rural Women, United Nations Headquarters, New York, 2 March 2012); Elizabeth Broderick, ‘Violence against Women with a Disability in Rural Australia’ (Speech delivered at Commission on the Status of Women, 56th Session, Side Event: Rural Women and Girls with Disabilities: Economic Empowerment & Political Participation, 28 February 2012). Available at (viewed 8 March 2012).
[12] Nancy E. Dowd, ‘Asking the Man Question: Masculinities Analysis and Feminist Theory’ (2010) 33 Harvard Journal of Law & Gender 415, at 415 note 1. See also Angela P. Harris, ‘Gender, Violence, Race, and Criminal Justice, (2000) 52 Stanford Law Review 777.
[13] See Nancy Levit, ‘Feminism for Men: Legal Ideology and the Construction of Maleness’ (1995-6) 43 UCLA Law Review 1037, at 1054.
[14] Sandra Fredman, ‘Beyond the Dichotomy of Formal and Substantive Equality: Towards a New Definition of Equal Rights’ in Ineke Boerefijn et al (eds) Temporary Special Measures: Accelerating De Facto Equality of Women under Article 4(1) of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (2003), 111, at 115.
[15] Above.
[16] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, above note 10, at para. 17 [emphasis added].
[17] Hilary Charlesworth, ‘Not Waving but Drowning: Gender Mainstreaming and Human Rights in the United Nations’ (2005) 18 Harvard Human Rights Law Journal 1, at 1.