Getting Women off the Bench:
A Gender Equality Blueprint for 2010

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

Australian Human Rights Commission

National Press Club, Canberra

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Thank you Ken for inviting me back to the National Press Club today. It is wonderful to see so many familiar faces.

It is over a year ago, that I stood here for the first time, amidst an economic downturn and wondered whether the long awaited Paid Parental Leave scheme would end up on the cutting room floor.

Back then, I joked that – despite the 2009 Budget being ‘one of the toughest Budgets’ – I wanted to wage a bet that we would finally get a National Scheme.

You might remember I was worried “that if I got it wrong, I didn’t want a stream of new mothers, nursing babies called Elizabeth demanding compensation!”

Now of course I wish I’d thrown down the gauntlet. The passage of the PPL scheme has been an exciting signal that progress can be made – not in spite of, but because of times of national challenge.

So today, I think it is fitting that we send out a national cheer for everyone across the country who worked tirelessly, and with determination, to secure paid parental leave– truly a step towards greater equality. Thank you. I want to particularly acknowledge former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward who helped put paid parental leave on the map. And I want to thank Minister Macklin for her political courage and determination to make sure this reform saw the light of day! And I want to congratulate all of you who have advocated so long for this reform.

Today I wish to lay out my vision for the next stage of national reform – my Gender Equality Blueprint for 2010. And in doing so I am proud to be launching my Blueprint on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. I pay my respects to their Elders past and present and thank them for their custodianship of the land.

Last year, when I spoke in this place, I made a very specific case - Gender equality matters – it matters to girls and boys, men and women, young and old, business, government and the community. It goes to the very heart of who we are and how we live.

At a time when we faced a potential economic crisis, coupled with the ageing of our population, my point, backed by hard evidence was - that if we are to be a strong, secure and vibrant player in the world game, we must have everyone on the field. No-one should be on the bench! Now there’s a good idea – what about the Matildas versus Serbia in tonight’s world cup decider. After all, didn’t the Matilda’s win the Asian cup!

But what we needed at that time was to get gender equality back on the national agenda.

Sometimes you need to be careful what you wish for. I say that, because since that time, my office has been involved in no fewer than nine major national reviews which have considered, at least in part, how to improve gender equality.

Unlike some, I am not against reviews. It was my view that opening up debates such as -

  • how do we close the gender pay gap?

  • how do we get better laws to promote gender equality?

  • how can we develop national leadership to eliminate violence against women?

  • Do we need quotas to get more women into leadership roles?

has been an important – indeed critical - step in designing new and effective public policy.

Reviews have their place. As journalist Paul Kelly recently noted, it was the Productivity Commission Inquiry which established the policy making path that lead to success with paid parental leave.

Yet, with so many important reviews now behind us - I think there is a risk that we won’t follow through – that because we have opened up the debate on so many fronts, further reform may be put in the too hard basket. This is my main point.

We cannot let the prevailing wisdom become that, because we have secured one major reform – through the passing of paid parental leave – we have expended our political capital, that we have “done” gender equality – at least for now.

Because, if these nine reviews tell us anything, it is that there remains a major gap in equality between women and men - that we still have a long way to go!

So, today, half way through my term of office, and as we head to the polls once again, I am here to launch my vision for gender equality for Australia. I thought I’d get in early. It is a next stage of reform.

My Gender Equality Blueprint 2010 sets out 15 achievable, practical recommendations in five major areas, identified as priorities following my national listening tour:

  • balancing paid work and family and caring responsibilities,

  • ensuring lifetime economic security for women,

  • promoting women in leadership,

  • preventing violence and harassment against women and girls; and

  • strengthening Australia’s gender equality laws, agencies and monitoring.

No doubt to your relief, I don’t intend to take you through all 15 recommendations, although I urge you to read them in all their glory at your leisure.

What I offer you today, then, is a brief exploration of three of the Blueprint’s major recommendations in the areas of:

  • Childcare and out of school hours care

  • Promoting women in leadership

  • Preventing violence against women

And in so doing, I will draw on some of the lessons we learned through the paid parental leave reform.

We now have a national paid parental leave scheme. But what about its vital companion – universal childcare?

I’m reminded of a story I heard in a presentation by Sir Ken Robinson, a world class educator, when he spoke about children and creativity.

His story concerned a little girl, aged six, spotted furiously scribbling at the back of her class. As the little girl didn’t always pay attention, the teacher went over to see what she was doing.

She asked the child, ‘What are you drawing?’ The little girl explained, ‘I am drawing a picture of God’.

‘But nobody knows what God looks like,’ said the teacher.

‘Well, they will in a minute!’ the little girl replied.

Now, I don’t use this story to suggest it is only through divine intervention that we will at last achieve truly universal, quality and affordable child care in this country, although I’m happy to take submissions on this point!

But what I do suggest, is that whilst we may have reached a stage where many young girls and boys are able to view their own world in terms of endless possibility – the realities confronted by their parents, mean that our picture of what we can achieve contracts, all because we’ve yet to discover what such a world might actually look like!

For my 13 year old son, endless possibility means non-stop computer games, hot chips and coca cola!

But for parents, imagine what our world would look like if everyone in paid work could confidently know, from the time of their child’s birth, that there was a clear path to quality early childhood education if they choose to take it.

But in Australia today, you have only to talk to any parent who is in paid work to hear a litany of tales about the problems with childcare – a picture of high costs, long distances, the stress of finding a vacancy, inflexible hours, and anxiety about quality and reliability.

Why is childcare and out of school care so important? It is important because it enables women and men to choose how and when they participate in paid work.

The promotion of universal childcare is not a call for mothers to abandon their maternal instincts. Children benefit from consistent primary care, particularly in the early years and, given the choice, most mothers and fathers want that primary role.

A great many, however, want to continue participating in the paid workforce as well. Indeed, many need to, in order to pay the mortgage and support their families.

But the costs of childcare often mean it is not worth both parents continuing in paid employment.

And because of the way Society’s structured and the gender pay gap, it makes greater sense for the father to work full-time even when parents want to do it differently. When the mother seeks to return to paid employment, her capacity to compete for senior roles is diminished. We still have deeply entrenched beliefs about the ‘ideal worker’. Added to her previous time out of the workforce, her superannuation entitlements compare poorly to that of her male partner. For many women significant economic disadvantage becomes the reward for a lifetime spent caring.

Just two years ago, the United Nations Children’s Fund ranked Australia third last in child care provision out of 25 developed countries, and called for a major increase in funding. It also urged a reduction in our reliance on private sector childcare services.

Meanwhile the Senate Committee report on the Provision of Childcare in Australia – sparked by the collapse of ABC Learning - confirmed in November last year that ‘the need for quality childcare for children of all ages is beyond question and governments have a responsibility to ensure that it is regulated and affordable.’[1]

I am therefore very encouraged by the recent COAG Communique, concerning the new National Quality Framework and COAG’s commitment to establish a national body with clear authority to oversee the development of our child care system.

We cannot stall this reform. A national universal system of early childhood education and care, including school age care is the most important piece of social infrastructure missing in Australia. Its absence impoverishes us in comparison with other developed nations – both economically and socially. Our fragmented early childhood environment acts as a handbrake on women’s involvement in business and paid work generally.

That is why the Blueprint recommends that we retain a clear bi-partisan commitment to establish a national body with the resources and authority to build this major piece of national social infrastructure. Its work must be transparent and accountable to the Australian people, including both families and Australian business.

It is vital that the new national body undertakes the continued planning and policy work necessary to contain costs as the National Quality Framework unfolds. Childcare is already too expensive for many parents. After all, an ordinary family spending $80 to $100 a day sending their toddler to the local day care centre soon finds it is not much cheaper than sending a teenager to a private school.

Whilst it is cause for celebration then, that we will soon have paid parental leave, the next part of the equation is still missing.

A decade into the 21st century we need a child care system that works for children, for mums and dads and ultimately, for our community, for business and for the economy.

Now I’d like to turn to an area that, I believe, requires a genuine openness to finding common ground and building new alliances. And that is the issue of promoting women in leadership.

One lesson I believe we learnt from paid parental leave is the importance of seeking out common ground amongst traditionally opposing stakeholders.

As a new Commissioner, I co-wrote an opinion piece with Sharran Burrow and Heather Ridout in support of paid parental leave. It began:

‘It is not often that the Australian Industry Group, the ACTU and the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner agree on something, but we all support the need for a national, government-funded scheme of paid maternity leave.’

Through similar alliances, there was a clear message sent to our political leadership, that this reform had strong and broad support.

And, I knew the day I woke up to an early morning media enquiry, asking me what I thought about Tony Abbott’s new paid parental leave scheme, that despite the furiousness of the political environment, we had clearly established some serious common ground.

A bidding war on paid parental leave? Now that is something none of us would have imagined possible even a couple of years ago.

To my mind, securing a major increase in the number of women in decision making roles is another major reform ripe for a seismic shift – a shift built on identifying shared benefit and interest.

Like all change, there are some key turning points. In efforts to promote women into leadership roles, there is no doubt in my mind that a major turning point occurred last year which I will explain shortly.

Up until then, the prevailing view was that the system was merit-based and that the problem was with women, who couldn’t - or wouldn’t - step up and take high office. The prevailing mantra was that women would just have to wait for things to change in the fullness of time - that we needed to sit quietly, patiently waiting to be asked.

The turning point happened in September last year, when there was a major conference about women on boards. The data was shocking – the number of women on boards was down from 8.7% to 8.3%, the number of women in line management roles down from 7.5% to 5.9%.

Australia’s overall workforce participation rate for women was spiralling downwards from 40th to 50th place in one year, when compared with other countries.

Now that’s almost as bad as our record at Wimbledon.

In Australian workplaces, there was no doubt - Australia was going backwards and was likely to descend into free fall without systemic intervention.

I agonised over whether I would use the “Q” word - No – I don’t mean Quagmire – a soft area of low-lying land that sinks underfoot although possibly an apt description for women in business at that time. No I’m talking about quotas. The question was would I call for a mandatory quota for women on boards. After much consideration I decided that a lively debate about quotas was an important vehicle for identifying common ground - for calling business to action.

It is now reassuring to see an open and engaging discussion about “targets” and “quotas”. These words have become part of the mainstream debate and are being used by many people, including male and female senior directors who, up until recently, would have been aghast at the very suggestion.

The business case for increasing women’s representation at leadership level is explicit. While it may be difficult to prove a single causal link between more women in decision-making roles and increased corporate performance, there is definitely a strong correlation.

And the national economic case has also become obvious. Goldman Sachs recently identified that narrowing the gap between male and female employment rates would have huge implications for the global economy - in Australia, it would boost our GDP by 11%[2].

Change is now happening.

The ASX Corporate Governance Council is to be congratulated, then for amending their guidelines requiring listed companies to set measurable objectives or targets for the number of women at Board and senior executive level- targets which must be disclosed to the market, with progress reported annually. These changes are being supported by a number of innovative initiatives by business groups including the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

And there is good news already. I am delighted to report that whereas in 2009 only 5% of appointments to ASX200 company boards were women, by mid June 2010, women made up 24% of new board appointments. Not a bad outcome for the first 5 months of reform. Sometimes, in this job, I’m genuinely surprised.

About 18 months ago, I ran a consultation with a wonderful group of male investment bankers of all ages. We were having an earnest and concerned discussion about how to attract more women into the industry. Suddenly there was a pause, and at that moment the youngest participant chimed in “Come on – what you blokes aren’t saying but what we all know is this - “Men make the rules, men make the money, she stays home and cooks his dinner. It’s the way it’s always been in my family it’s the way it always will be! And as I thought of him down at one of the slick city bars on a Friday night I thought - he should come gift wrapped with a label – “women proceed with care!”

So both the pleasant and the not so pleasant surprises remind me why we need strong intervention!

Gender equality targets for state and territory government boards are now in place in several states. They have had a dramatic impact.

But what of federal government boards?

My Blueprint recommends that the Australian Government announce a minimum target of 40 per cent of each gender on all federal government boards to be achieved within three years. This target should be publicly announced with annual reports of progress made.

As importantly, I have recommended that, in future, all government contracts awarded to Australian business should require the businesses to be certified as meeting their gender equality obligations under the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act. This will create a real market incentive for businesses to take gender equality seriously.

In this way, both business and government will be doing their part to increase the representation of women at decision making level across our country.

Which brings me to my final and for me, the most compelling case for courageous, sustained political leadership on gender equality - Violence against women.

Violence against women is not determined by socio-economic standing, racial background, geography or demography.

The strongest predictors for holding the view that violence against women is ok are being male and not believing in equality between women and men.

Violence against women is one of the most pervasive human rights abuses occurring in our country - devastating and terrifying for the women involved, having far-reaching and negative consequences that ricochet throughout their lives.

Every day in Australia, we hear about the need to make our borders safer – to plan a national response to any terrorist attack. But the stark reality is that, for a great many women, the risk of death or injury from terrorist attack is relatively low, whilst the risk of death or injury from intimate partner violence is high. These women do not fear explosions in the mall or on the train, but they do face the prospect of entering their own home with cold, bone-shaking fear. And if you think I am being dramatic, consider this:

Almost every week in Australia, one woman is killed by her current or former partner, often after a history of domestic violence. Intimate partner homicides account for one-fifth of all homicides. Research from Victoria confirms that domestic violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness of women under the age of 45.

It’s important to understand that sexual harassment sits on a continuum with demeaning attitudes against women on one end through to sexual assault and violence on the other. Meanwhile, young women also remain the primary target of sexual harassment. Our Commission has found that 22% of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. And, last week’s case of a high profile CEO sends a clear message – sexual harassment goes from the most senior levels to the most junior - with silence often the common thread.

Rates of violence and harassment, then, show few signs of abating. What we are seeing, at least, is a growing awareness of their cost - emotional and physical, yes – but also economic. Put simply, violence has serious implications not only for short and long term financial security[3] of individual women, but also for the nation’s economic security.

In fact, the National Council on Violence Against Women recently estimated that, in 2009, violence against women and their children cost the Australian economy $13.6 billion. Without significant intervention, they estimate that, by 2021/22, the cost will increase to $15.6 billion.[4]

It is commendable that the Australian Government has committed to a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to violence against women and is developing a National Plan to address the issue – the release of which we eagerly await. It is also commendable that the Prime Minister has added his voice to a campaign that calls all men to action under the slogan “not silent, not violent”.

This is a complex area of policy. Both Federal and State and Territory Governments have responsibilities. Many government portfolio areas are affected, including education, health, policing, legal and justice, and housing.

We must not allow this national reform agenda to be a casualty of blame shifting, or arguments about who should pay. The National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women must put in place a national system of accountability which ensures coordination, clarity of responsibility and consistency.

I therefore recommend that the implementation of the National Plan is independently monitored to assess progress. The independent monitor would report to the Australian public on where the Plan is progressing well, and where it is not. It would provide the robust check on all those responsible under the Plan. It would also be involved in education and promoting best practice.

Whilst I’m very pleased that the Attorney General has moved to strengthen the sexual harassment provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act, I also call for a specific National Prevention Strategy to address sexual harassment in our workplaces. We need a major intervention in this area, with clear roles for government, agencies such as the Australian Human Rights Commission, and Australian business.

This is a national reform agenda which must endure and be strengthened, year after year.

Reducing violence and harassment against women in our country, as around the world, is not a quick fix. It will require strong political courage, honesty about success and failings, and a determination to get it right.

I stand ready to be a part of this journey with all of you.

As I have outlined today, we have much to do if women – and men – are to design a better picture of how their lives might look.

In summary:

We need a national child care body, adequately empowered and resourced:

We need a minimum target of 40 per cent of each gender on all federal government boards to be achieved within three years;

We need government procurement procedures to require any business tendering for government work to be certified by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency;

We need independent monitoring of the implementation of the national plan to reduce violence against women; and

We need a major national prevention strategy to drive down the incidence of sexual harassment in our workplaces.

During my term, I’ve heard loud and clear from people all across Australia that gender equality does matter. The challenge for all of us, however, is to make that aspiration a reality.

In launching my Blueprint for Gender Equality today, then, I call on all sectors of the Australian community to get on board.

So my call to action is –

To Government and all political parties – I urge you to show leadership by adopting the Blueprint’s recommendations.

Gender equality has got to be front and centre of our plan for the nation’s economic and social security – particularly in an election year - and the good news is that the Blueprint’s recommendations can be implemented now.

Just as we will all share in the benefits of equality, however, so we must collaborate in its achievement.

To business, therefore – I urge you to take up the challenge. Show leadership by early adoption of the recent changes to the ASX Corporate Governance Guidelines and Recommendations. Identify whether you have a pay equity problem and apply your best thinking just as you would in other areas of the business. Set clear and measurable objectives. Put innovative strategies in place and measure your achievement. What’s more, don’t flog a dead horse - if existing strategies fail, learn from the experience and persevere!

To unions – Four decades after the first Federal equal pay case, the pay gap is widening and your continued focus in this area, including in the ASU test case, is not only welcome, but absolutely essential. I congratulate you on your leadership and offer my support.

To women’s groups and other NGOs that support gender equality, I pay tribute to you for your sustained and sophisticated advocacy. The achievement of paid parental leave is only the beginning. We have a map for the journey but we need your help to create the political and community will to cover the terrain that lies ahead.

Finally, to women and men across this country I say – make your voice heard. The issues I have raised today are not only achievable but are ones that need action right now.

If we’re to make the next leap forward we need the efforts - and the energy – of all sectors of the community – all individuals and organisations fuelling the journey. I want to particularly acknowledge the efforts and energy of my own team who have supported me for the last two and a half years. Thank you.

As the mother of both a daughter and a son, it’s my hope that each of them can travel full tilt into a future defined not by the limitations of our past, but only by promise and possibility.

[1] Report, 16.
[2] Goldman Sachs JBWere Investment Research, Australia's Hidden Resource: The Economic Case For Increasing
Female Participation, (2009)
[3] S Franzway, C Zufferey and D Chung, ‘Domestic violence and women’s employment’,
Paper presented at Our Work, Our Lives Conference, September, Adelaide (2007).
[4] Access Economics, (2004) The Cost of Domestic Violence to the Australian Economy: Part I; National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children, (2009), The costs of violence against women and their children