What Does a World of Gender Equality Look Like?

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

Keynote address to Insights – A Fresh Look at Girls’ Education Conference

Grand Hyatt Hotel, Melbourne

Thursday 17 June 2010

Let me begin by acknowledging that we are gathered here today on the traditional land of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. I well know the enormous contribution they make to the education of their communities and to the Australian community more broadly.

Thank you to April and Trish for organising this wonderful conference and for inviting me here today. As Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, I can think of few better ways to start my day.

As I was preparing for this conference, I was reminded of a story I heard Sir Ken Robinson tell during a presentation on creativity in education at one of the TED conferences.

It concerned a little girl, aged six, spotted furiously scribbling up 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 rolling her eyes. ‘Well, they will in a minute!’ the little girl replied.

Now, I do not use this story to suggest that it is only through divine intervention that we will at last attain genuine equality for women, although I’m happy to take submissions on this point.

What I do suggest, however, is that, whilst we may have reached a stage where young girls are able to view the world in terms of endless possibility – as a picture of their own making – the realities they confront as they move through life mean that the picture starts to contract, all because we’ve yet to discover what such a world might actually look like.

We used to think, of course, that access to education was the door through which women would enter the world on an equal footing to men.

Experience shows us that access alone is not enough – that we also need to dismantle the stereotypes and relationships which limit the social and professional realities of girls and boys (and ultimately men and women) if we’re to achieve genuine and lasting change.

My main point today is that leadership from educators such as yourselves is critical if we are to reach our potential – and design a better future - as a nation.

The possibilities for women in the 21st century Australia are certainly expansive, particularly when compared with those of my mother’s or grandmother’s generation.

Women and girls have made extraordinary and hard won advances in recent decades – often due to the efforts of their teachers. Most formal barriers to women’s participation in the spheres of education and paid employment, in particular, have been removed.

As a result, girls are some of our highest achievers at school and women are more visible on tertiary education campuses and in a range of Australian workplaces than ever before.

The longer I am in this position, however, the more it seems to me that – as a nation, and as a global community – too often we are prepared to forgo the possibilities that these advances offer – to balk at the next and perhaps harder hurdle.

Yes, the formal obstacles are largely gone; yes, the visibility of women is on the rise. The opportunities, we say with confidence, are there.

But we remain a long way from achieving equality of outcomes – at home, in education, in the public sphere, or at work. There is an enormous gap between girls’ and women’s capabilities and expectations on the one hand; and their social, professional and political realities on the other.

It is this gap, then, that we must bridge and, while the significant miles we’ve traversed have been fuelled by the energy and intellect of countless women – and men – to whom we owe so much; the picture so far has been, understandably, painted in terms of a problem or inequity to be addressed.

As crucial, and as legitimate, as this picture has been, it seems to have taken us only so far. The miles ahead require us to expand this picture’s horizons towards an opportunity we can no longer delay seizing; a picture of how a community can flourish when all its members are able to participate, to contribute and reap the rewards of that engagement.

In short, we need to imagine what equity might look like in every sphere of life – the opportunities that such a world offers us as individuals, as communities, as workforces, governments, and economies; imagining it in the classroom and lecture theatre, yes, but also on the sports field, in the media, in the Board room, and on the legislative floor.

But to reach this Utopia, we must understand the less favourable circumstances in which we find ourselves today.

Let’s look first at the picture in terms of educational achievement. Every year, the World Economic Forum releases the Global Gender Gap Report, a Report which measures the size of the gender inequality gap in four critical areas - economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; political empowerment; and health and survival.

In the most recent Global Gender Gap report, Australia is ranked number one for women’s educational attainment.[1] This is something of which this audience should be very proud, and should position our girls perfectly to participate fully in the economic and political life of the nation.

But has this access to quality education translated into a quantifiable improvement in gender equality and the status of women?

As Laura Liswood, Senior Advisor at Goldman Sachs and co-founder and Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders, has said, “We thought that if we educated girls and women, and gave them access to healthcare the rest would follow. But it hasn’t worked out that way.”[2]

We need only look at other key indicators of gender equality in Australia – labour force participation, pay equity, the number of women at decision making level, unpaid work and violence against women - to see at best, stasis, and at worst, regression. To illustrate this, I want to give you an overview of the areas in which the picture needs to change.

When we move to examining women’s labour force participation, the Global Gender Gap Report is not glowing. In terms of women’s labour force participation, in 2009 we were ranked a profoundly disappointing 50th.[3] Given that, in 2008 we were ranked 40th, that’s a spectacular drop of 10 places in 12 months![4] Meanwhile, the workforce participation of Australian mothers, in particular, continues to be low by international standards.[5] This means there is a chasm between the picture we might hope for or expect; and the accurate picture of women’s professional reality.

While we are leading on women’s education, when we dig deeper we understand that educational choices remain highly segregated on the basis of gender - during primary, secondary school and tertiary education.

Women continue to be over-represented in areas of study linked to lower earning industries. For example, women outnumber men by 3 to 1 in health and education courses, with men outnumbering women by 4 to 1 in engineering courses.[6] This audience may be able to confirm my suspicion that there is a considerable disparity between the weekly earnings of a teacher and a mining engineer![7] And when we look at the overall value delivered to our economy and our society by highly feminised industries such as education, why there should be a disparity is unclear.

Indeed, 100 years after women first marched in the streets demanding equal pay and four decades after the first Federal equal pay case, the gender pay gap lingers malodorously in Australian workplaces. Women in Australia currently earn approximately 82 cents in the male dollar.[8] The gap is even greater when we factor in women’s part-time and casual earnings, with women earning just two thirds the amount men earn.[9]

Even more alarming is that, over the last four years, the gender gap in pay has actually widened[10] and, if current earning patterns continue, the average 25 year old male will earn $2.4 million over the next 40 years with the average 25 year old female earning only $1.5 million that’s almost 1 million less.[11]

Meanwhile, young women entering the workforce need only glance up the ladder to see another manifestation of women’s professional reality.

Women are underrepresented in leadership in virtually all sectors of the workforce and central decision making positions across the country. In federal politics, women represent just under one third of elected positions in the Parliament[12] while, in the public sector, women outnumber men at all junior classifications but remain under-represented at all higher classifications, comprising only 37% of those in Senior Executive roles.[13]

In academia, women comprise over half Australia’s total lecturing staff, but numbers decrease significantly as their seniority rises. In my own field, 65% of law graduates are female,[14] but they account for only 16% of equity partners and roughly 15% of total barristers;[15] while, in the Federal Court, women only make up 16% of the bench.[16]

In sports leadership – one of our most culturally influential sectors - only 21% of board directors are women, while one in five of our National Sport Organisations have no women on at all.[17]

Without doubt, however, one of the worst performing is the corporate sector. At last count, women hold only 2% of CEO positions, only 5.9% of executive line manager positions (down from 7.5% in 2006) and just over 10% of Executive Manager positions in the top 200 publicly listed companies in Australia.[18] Women chair only 2% of ASX200 companies (that is four boards) and hold only 8.3% of board directorships.[19]

More urgently and more pervasively, perhaps, the advances in women’s education have failed to elicit a significant decrease in rates of violence against women and sexual harassment. Australian women continue to experience violence in epidemic proportions, with one in three experiencing physical violence since the age of 15,[20] and nearly one in five experiencing sexual assault since the age of 15.[21] Reporting and conviction rates for these crimes, however, remain consistently low.

Young women also remain one of the primary targets of sexual harassment in Australia.[22] In fact, last year, sexual harassment accounted for more than one in three complaints that the Commission received under the Sex Discrimination Act.[23]

Although rates of violence show little signs of abating, we are at least seeing a growing awareness of its cost – and of family violence, in particular – and, while the emotional costs to individual women and to communities have been understood in many circles for years, the economic costs are just as real.

Violence has serious implications not only for individual women’s short and long term financial security[24] but also for the nation’s economic security and 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.[25]

While the levels of violence have not necessarily decreased as women’s level of education has increased, I do know that education does offer the possibility of breaking generational cycles of violence. I was speaking to a woman who provides counselling and support to women who have experienced domestic violence. She had recently seen a woman who was 72 years old and, for the first time in her life, sought support from a domestic violence service. She had been living in a violent relationship for over 40 years. When the counsellor asked her what prompted her to seek help, she said her daughter and her grand-daughter had recently come to visit. During their stay her husband had come home from the pub, as he usually did, and assaulted her, as he usually did. While this was happening, her daughter, now middle-aged, hid in the bedroom, also as she had always done. It was her grand-daughter who at 12 or 13, had just been through respectful relationships education at school that said to her grandmother afterwards – ‘that’s not right, that’s not acceptable and I know a number we can ring to get help.’

It is my fervent hope that as this sort of education and change spreads across Australia fewer and fewer Australian women will understand this particular reality first hand.

One reality that I suspect all adult women will continue to experience for some time, is inequality in the amount of unpaid work done by men and women. Every day I hear stories of women struggling to balance paid work and caring responsibilities, as women continue to shoulder the large majority of unpaid work in all households.[26]

The birth of children, then, is a common point in the lifecycle at which gender inequality in the division of unpaid work widens.[27] Sadly, an international comparison of five countries undertaken by Lyn Craig at the Social Policy Research Centre found that Australian women with children are doing more unpaid domestic work and childcare than women in the United States, France, Denmark and Italy.[28] Much more.

As if this weren’t enough, women continue to be subject to financial penalties because of their gender and their caring responsibilities, by virtue of their absence from the workforce. It is projected that women who have children will earn around half that of men who have children.[29] There is also a stark difference in the projected lifetime earnings between women with children and women without.[30]

Everyone in this room would know women who have decided not to continue in paid work after having a baby. This is because, once they take into account the cost of child care, commuting and the loss of tax benefits, the end result is simply not financially ‘worth it’.

Additionally, for many people, but mostly for women, caring doesn’t end when their kids turn 18. Women continue to care across the lifecycle – for their parents, for family members, for grandchildren or for adult children with disability.[31] Balancing this ongoing care can make it very difficult for women to re enter the workforce, while older women find this difficulty compounded by discrimination on the basis of age.

Getting women into education, then, is not enough. The attitudes which constrain the picture girls and boys design for themselves, remains extraordinarily resistant to change.

This is perhaps the opportunity to be seized upon by educators – helping young men but also young women – embrace gender equality in their picture of how the world should look. After all, the education system’s responses to gender are inseparable from broader public debates, meaning that we are all limited – but also empowered - by similar forces.

For example, the changes that moved through Australia’s education system in the 1970s reflected the rise of the broader women’s movement. While Australian women (and some men) became increasingly aware during the late 1960s and early 1970s of the way that women were continuously disadvantaged by institutionalised power imbalances, then, educators were also becoming keenly aware of the role that schooling played in laying the foundations of this inequality.

As well as the UN declaring 1975 International Women’s Year, this watershed year also saw the publication of the Australian Schools Commission report, Girl’s, School and Society which exposed the way that education helped to produce and cement gender stereotypes.[32] As the report suggested, “An observer not raised with our cultural assumptions would be struck by the fact that one half of the population was assigned by birth to activities which, whatever their private gratifications and social importance, carried no economic reward, little public status and very limited access to public power.”[33]

Against a similar backdrop on the Federal political and legislative stage, the 1980s and 90s then saw educators focus on the formalisation and institutionalisation of national frameworks, 1987 bringing with it the landmark National Policy for the Education of Girls, the first national gender policy in education in the Western world.

From these foundations emerged the Framework for Action on Gender Equity in Schooling. Maree Herrett, head of a progressive Senior Girls’ School in suburban Sydney and a PhD student in her spare time, has suggested that the Framework marked a shift from a specific focus on girls to a more inclusive one of gender equality.[34]

Indeed, the Framework seems to build on a concern about the participation and performance of boys and girls; recognising that schools play an active role in the construction of gender, a construction which limits the social and professional lives of girls and boys. Herrett also suggests that the Framework was influenced by the emerging perception that boys were disadvantaged in education during the late 1990s.[35]

As with all gender policy in recent years, then, gender education policy has been affected by a backlash against feminist gains, as well as the rise of a companion perception that men are victims of reverse sexism.

This idea – that the success of girls and women comes at the expense of boys and men – is one that I confront every day, particularly when I talk about the gender inequality manifest in corporate boardrooms all across Australia.

As gender equality advocates, then, we are presented with competing victims’ syndrome, with national political leaders having told us that we are in a ‘crisis of masculinity’. In this way, the idea of ‘gender’ starts to be mobilised to generate and exacerbate conflict, rather than to resolve it.

Clearly, we have much to do if women – and men – are to design a better picture of how their lives might look. We need renewed determination to achieve an equality that matters not only for individuals now, but for their future participation in our civic and economic life.

While the human cost of forgoing women’s talent and potential is probably unquantifiable, we are, however, collecting evidence about the economic cost – evidence which has the potential to reinvigorate the debate. An awareness of the value of equality, then, is growing – among human rights advocates and those striving for fair and sustainable communities, yes; but also among economists and decision makers.

A few years ago, The Economist reported that “the increase in female employment in the rich world has been the main driving force of growth in the past couple of decades...[contributing] more to global GDP growth than ...either new technology or the new giants, China and India.”[36]

Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs argue that closing the gap between male and female employment rates would have huge implications for the global economy, and that narrowing the gap in Australia would boost our GDP by 11%[37]. They suggest, amongst other things, encouraging young women to choose more highly rewarded work roles.

To my mind, a broader area of potential is to renew our discussion about the roles of girls and boys, and the extent to which narrow stereotypes about gender continue to constrain our next major leap forward.

Children, after all, provide us with our greatest incentive, as well as our greatest inspiration – leading, as they do, by example; imagining what is possible, unconstrained by limitations they have yet to confront.

I finish, then, as I started – with the story of a child, poised over an illustration. As the child – a five year old girl – sighed ruefully, her mother inquired what was troubling her.

‘I can’t decide what to draw, because I can’t decide what I want to be when I grow up’, said the little girl.

‘You can be whatever you want to be, darling’, said her mother. ‘What are you trying to choose between?’

‘Well’, said the girl earnestly. ‘I can’t decide whether to be a helicopter pilot, a ballerina, the Prime Minister...or a cockatoo’.

I fear that scientific advances, no matter how dramatic, will never quite realise the last of this little girl’s ambitions.

But as educators, as equality advocates, and as concerned Australians, we have an obligation – and an opportunity - to ensure that the other three remain as real, and as possible, as the day they were imagined.

[1] World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2009 (2009), p 63. At (viewed 5 March 2010).
[2] Ernst and Young, Groundbreakers: Using the strength of women to rebuild the economy, p 13. At (viewed 5 June 2010)
[3] World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2009 (2009), p 63.
[4] World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2008 (2008), p 43
[5] Organisation for Economic Co=operation and Development (OECD), Social Policy Division, Directorate of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, ‘LMF1.2: Maternal employment rates,’ OECD Family database. At (viewed 15 July 2010)

[6] Australian Government, Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Women in Australia 2009: Chapter 2 (viewed 5 June 2010); Gradsonline, Gender Profile: Bachelor (Under 25)/Engineering, (viewed 5 June 2010)

[7] ABS, Average Weekly Earnings, Australia, February 2010 Catalogue No 6302.0 (2010).

[8] ABS, Average Weekly Earnings, Australia, February 2010 Catalogue No 6302.0 (2010).

[9] ABS, Average Weekly Earnings, Australia, February 2010 Catalogue No 6302.0 (2010).

[10] ABS, Average Weekly Earnings, Australia, February 2010 Catalogue No 6302.0 (2010).; R Cassells, Y Vidyattama, R Miranti & J McNamara, note 5
[11] 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.
[12] Politics and Public Administration Group Parliamentary Library, Composition of Australian Parliaments by Party and Gender, as at 3 May 2009. At (viewed 31 May 2010).
[13] Australian Public Service Commission, State of the Service Report 2008/09, p 8. At (viewed 31 May 2010).
[14] Graduate Careers Australia, Gradsonline Survey, (2010) (viewed 31 May 2010).
[15] ABS, Legal Practises, 8667.0, 2001–02,$File/86670_2001-02.pdf (viewed 31 May 2010).
[16] Federal Court of Australia, List of appointment date of current judges,  (2 March 2010)
[17] J Adriaanse, Gender distribution on boards of National Sport Organisations in Australia, Doctoral Study Data Stage 1 (2010), University of Technology Sydney
[18] Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, 2008 EOWA Australian Census of Women in Leadership (2008), p 3.
[19] Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, 2008 EOWA Australian Census of Women in Leadership (2008), p 5.
[20] ABS, Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006)
[21] ABS, Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006)
[22] P McDonald & K Dear, 'Discrimination and harassment affecting working women: Evidence from Australia' (2008) 22(1/2) Women’s Studies Journal p 42
[23] Australian Human Rights Commission, Annual Report 2008 – 2009, p 73
[24] S Franzway, C Zufferey and D Chung, ‘Domestic violence and women’s employment’, Paper presented at Our Work, Our Lives Conference, September, Adelaide (2007).
[25] Access Economics, The Cost of Domestic Violence to the Australian Economy: Part I (2004); National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children, The costs of violence against women and their children (2009),
[26] 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 11.; L Craig, 'Is there really a "second shift", and if so, who does it? A time-diary investigation,' Feminist Review 86 (1) 149-170 (2007).
[27] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Striking the Balance: Women men, work and family (2005) p 35.
[28] Craig, L. & Mullan, K. (forthcoming) ‘Parenthood, gender and work-family time in USA, Australia, Italy, France and Denmark’  Journal of Marriage and Family (accepted 1/6/10).
[29] Partnered men with children are expected to earn 2.6 million over their lifetime, compared to 1.3 million for partnered women with children. R Cassells, R Miranti, B Nepal and R Tanton, She works hard for the money: Australian women and the gender divide, AMP NATSEM Income and Wealth Report, Issue 22 (2009) p 33.
[30] Partnered women with children are expected to earn 1.3 million over the lifetime, compared to 1.9 million for women without children. See Cassells et al, above.
[31] In 2003, of the 2.5 million carers, 19% were primary carers and over two-thirds (71%) of primary carers were female. For further information see ABS, A Profile of Carers in Australia, 2008, Cat no. 4448.0 (2008) p 8.
[32] M Herrett, Government policy on gender and education in Australia, Paper to the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia Conference 2010, Sydney, 28-30 May 2010
[33] Quoted in M Herrett, Government policy on gender and education in Australia, Paper to the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia Conference 2010, Sydney, 28-30 May 2010
[34] M Herrett, Government policy on gender and education in Australia, Paper to the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia Conference 2010, Sydney, 28-30 May 2010
[35] M Herrett, Government policy on gender and education in Australia, Paper to the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia Conference 2010, Sydney, 28-30 May 2010
[36] “The importance of sex: The Economic Power of Women,” The Economist, April 12, 2006
[37] Goldman Sachs JBWere Investment Research, Australia's Hidden Resource: The Economic Case For Increasing
Female Participation, (2009)