Skip to main content

Creating a more gender equal world: Reflecting on 8 years as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner

Sex Discrimination




National Press Club

2 September 2015





It is such a thrill to be surrounded by so many friends and family.

Thank you Laurie for your warm and generous introduction.

I am proud to be making this address 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.

Today, I want to reflect on my term as Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner – the remarkable journey and privilege it’s been to serve in this role for eight years.

I’m sure many of you at some time may have come to a similar point – a time of transition – professionally or personally - when you look back and reflect on the path you have taken. Part of that reflection is recognizing that experiences teach us something - they help us to make better decisions in the future.

I first stood on this podium in 2009. At that time, I spoke fresh from my Listening Tour where I heard from 1000s of women and men about their lived experiences of gender inequality. Like many of you, I realized that if I was to understand the complexity of the issues and their potential solutions, I needed to listen with both my head and my heart.

It was at a time of deep economic uncertainty with the global financial crisis in its early stages and a growing appreciation of the demographic shift occurring because of our ageing population. It was also a time when a national paid parental leave scheme seemed just a pipe dream.

I next stood on this podium in 2010 when I launched my Gender Equality Blueprint – a report that outlined the laws and policies necessary to make progress. I announced that I would focus on 5 areas –

1. balancing paid work and care including lobbying for a national PPL scheme;

2. women’s economic security - the human face on the gender gap in retirement savings;

3. promoting women in leadership;

4. preventing violence against women and sexual harassment; and

5. strengthening gender equality laws and agencies.

It is easy to seek out information about the policies and laws – about what’s changed and what hasn’t in the five areas outlined in the Blueprint. What is not so easy, is to understand why change happened. So today instead of focusing on the policies, the statistics and the legislation, I want to talk about the stories – the stories that have so powerfully shaped my approach to the role, the stories that have been the catalyst for change – to talk about what I’ve learnt about accelerating reform.

Human stories are an extraordinarily fruitful subject of inquiry because they have the power to sharpen and guide, to connect the head with the heart. So stories is where we begin...

I have listened to individuals from Launceston to Arnhem Land, from Canberra to the Kimberley. This role has taken me from 200 metres under the sea in a submarine to camping out with Aboriginal women in Northern Australia, from slaughterhouse production lines in South Australia, to the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan. It has taken me to remote communities, company boardrooms, small but power-house community organisations, government agencies, the Parliament, the decks of frigates, fast-jets, the Pentagon, NATO, the United Nations, the World Bank and everywhere in between.

In every environment there have been choices. Picture this. I’m dining in a Northern Territory pub when the men at the neighbouring table send over a bottle of expensive bubbly with an encouraging wave. We don’t want to disappoint them, but my three colleagues and I are hardly the easiest romantic targets -- two lesbians, one recently engaged woman and the Sex Discrimination Commissioner – now that’s a tall order even by Territory standards!

The stories I’ve heard echo the feminist adage, ‘the personal is political’ – that personal injustices often demand political solutions. This catch cry was intended to rewrite the rules, to bring the private sphere that women inhabited, into the public domain.

In short, the personal still matters - the lived experience of inequality, of exclusion, of hardship. Not only does the personal matter, it is precisely the thing that will ultimately spark change – it’s the stories that will enable us to take that next step forward.

The stories

Many of the stories have been missing from our national consciousness, from our public debates.

Yet they are the stories that demand our consideration, our empathy and our best and most practical response to human lived experience. These stories teach us the importance of learning through listening; of standing in each other’s shoes; of understanding that decisions that are made (or not) by those in power have an impact on individual lives; of the need to rewrite the rules when they perpetuate injustice; they remind us of the importance of reimagining normal.

They also remind us that gender equality matters – it matters to girls and boys, men and women, young and old, business, unions, government and the community. To me. To you.

Gender equality goes to the heart of who we are and how we live.

Stand in Lurline’s shoes. I’m in Hobart. Lurline is running a young women’s refuge. Every day Lurline makes sure that girls escaping violence, substance abuse and poverty have food, a warm bed, and a chance at an uninterrupted education. On the morning I arrive Lurline has been up at 2am to resolve a dispute between one resident and her boyfriend, then again at 3.30am to call the police because the boyfriend came to torch the refuge and finally at 6am to get the girls to school.

Lurline’s role is unrelenting. She is 72 years old and should have the option of retiring from paid work, but for her the price of a lifetime working in care is to be consigned to poverty in later life. Her story prompts me to ask “Is poverty to be the reward for a lifetime spent caring?” It also reminds us that we need to rewrite the rules when they perpetuate injustice.

Now picture June and Emily. I’m in Fitzroy Crossing. Two strong Aboriginal women from the Kimberley who organise a women’s bush camp to take action after 10 suicides in 10 months. They don’t wait for government to step up. They find their own answers. This is their fight against alcohol misuse and its tragic consequences. Emily and June and the good women and men who support them are protagonists, not passive recipients – shaping the solutions that work for their community, their way. Their stories stand in stark contrast to the stories so often told about Aboriginal women in the wider public discourse – the stories that we might expect.

June and Emily’s story teaches us that we must reimagine normal – challenge the stereotypes and assumptions upon which our belief systems are built.

Now see Maria. I’m in Western Australia. Maria’s working hard in the construction industry. Many of us might take for granted the capacity to have a career and a family in the 21st century. When Maria announces her pregnancy, her manager’s response is “your choice Maria, the job or the baby?”

Maria’s story teaches us that decisions that are made by those in power have an impact on individual lives. Work and care should not sit at opposite ends of one hard choice.

Take heart. As the nation starts to recognise that domestic violence exists in epidemic proportions, and although we acknowledge that there are insufficient refuges in Australia, how often do we hear the story of someone like Catherine? Catherine suffers extreme abuse at the hands of her husband, the very person who proclaims to love her. With four children, two in school uniform, she walks almost 60 kilometres to the nearest violence shelter – sleeping on the river banks, in the freezing cold, to obtain what most of us take for granted – our freedom. If we listened to learn would we learn from Catherine about the systemic failures that she and so many encounter?

Catherine’s story reminds us, as one young woman living with domestic violence recently told me, that “freedom is something you can think about... talk about, ...write about, but if you have not experienced freedom, you cannot feel her essence.”

Gender equality matters

These are stories that when viewed as personal histories, can be seen as dispiriting. Deeply sad. Yet eight years on, I can confirm to you that they are not just done deeds. They are the voices that speak of Australians striving to create a better future. How far have we come in listening – really listening to - such voices?

I have also heard from men – I hear about the pressure they experience to conform to gender norms, and the barriers they face when trying to dismantle them. And I hear about how they are impacted by the inequality that still exists for women.

Gender equality is not a battle of the sexes; it is a battle for equality – a battle that men and women must wage side by side.

The empowerment of women is about the empowerment of humanity.

Where we are today

So what has happened over the last 8 years and how will Australia move forward?

As I review progress against the Blue Print, much has changed. Australia now has a national PPL scheme. We now also have two weeks of dad and partner pay. Under law, we have the right to request flexible work. The number of women on boards has more than doubled. We have one of the strongest repositories of data through the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to enable evidence-based policy. We have strong data on sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination. We have a strengthened Sex Discrimination Act. We have disruptive initiatives like the Male Champions of Change. And most importantly we now have employers acknowledging that domestic violence is a workplace issue and taking action.

Yet the individual stories and the bigger picture alike both tell us that there is still work to be done. We must turn our attention to the fact that:

  • One in 4 women have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the last 5 years.[1]; One in 5 women have experienced sexual assault since the age of 15 years[2]; 2 women a week this year have been murdered, often by men they know, including their intimate partners[3].

  • The continued under-representation of women in leadership positions, in the community, in business, in the board rooms and in parliaments. Fewer big Australian companies are run by women than by men named Peter.[4] Indeed, companies run by a Peter, a Michael, a David or an Andrew outnumber those run by women four to one.\

  • The majority of unpaid caring work, whether that’s caring for children, or a family member or friend with disability - is undertaken by women[5];

  • The gender pay gap, for full-time working Australian woman over a typical 45 year career equates to about $700,000.[6] That’s enough to buy an average Australian home. It shouldn’t surprise us therefore that women have just over half the retirement income and savings of men;[7]

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. The picture I have just painted of continuing inequality is not the ravings of the feminist left but rather the hard facts as described by reputable bodies such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

What have I learnt over the eight year journey

What I have come to understand over the last 8 years, is that "what we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems."

To make progress we must continue with the process of change. Continuing this process means looking into both the dark and the light of experience for guidance. Where we have been, and what we have experienced, are at the same time memories of the past, and indicators to the future.

So what have I learnt from experience?

Number One. Persistence

I've learnt that most progress comes in countless small, intentional steps rather than one giant leap. 

Shaping a more gender equal future is a path characterised by persistence. On any matter like this that requires an investment of time and energy, you will be affected by some doubt and touched by some belief. Doubt because that is a trait that bestows humility whilst acknowledging your responsibility; that keeps you searching for the best solution. And strong belief because belief keeps you focused on the outcome, helps you convince others to get on board. But to accelerate change, we must bring our doubt and belief into some kind of productive balance. Because in that productive balance of doubt and belief is my best reason for being optimistic. We must persist. I am optimistic that many of you will move the dial in your own corner of Australia.

Two. Having influence

You don’t have to be extraordinary to have influence. One woman in the United Nations told me, “She did what she could, when she could and that’s how she changed the world.” That simple concept gives me confidence and energy.

“Do what you can, when you can” is a beacon of hope.

Three. Collaboration

You don’t have to change the world alone. As a new Commissioner, progressing a paid parental leave scheme, I reached out to Sharran Burrows, head of the ACTU and Heather Ridout, head of AIG to look for common ground. And common ground we found. Our opinion piece published shortly thereafter stated:

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

Strong partnerships have been key to making progress throughout my term in areas such as sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination. Collaboration always brings insight that is often a prerequisite to developing wisdom.

When you stake out common ground, you create a strong foundation for future reform.

Four. Intersectional discrimination

Not all women start from the same position. Therefore, we must be wary of averages, of presenting a uniform picture, or of proposing a one size fits all solution. The fact is that certain groups of women represent the “minority of the minority”. Inequality will affect those who have less power to a greater degree.

Take the experience of women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds for whom gender and cultural background intersect and compound the barriers faced in attaining equality and stepping up into leadership roles.

Or take violence against women with disability. Last year, in rural NSW, a man shot his 3 children and then his wife before taking his own life. The media reported that there were 5 victims. No. There were 4 victims and a murderer. As the late Stella Young wrote "When we hear that a murdered wife is also a woman with a disability, we can find ourselves a little bit less horrified. As though her status as a disabled woman gives us a little more empathy towards the perpetrator of violence. It's victim blaming at its very worst."

Five. Actively and intentionally include

If we don’t actively and intentionally include women, the system will unintentionally exclude them. The fact is that the idea you can just pour in women and stir will never work. That’s why embracing targets is important.  It does not matter so much what the target is, it’s the act of agreeing on a target and making it public that is important. Targets and merit are not mutually exclusive. In fact, targets are necessary to allow women’s merit to be revealed.

Six. The data is not enough

To create change you must take the case for change from people’s heads to their hearts, with individual stories the spark that fuels a commitment to take action.

This means you must operate on two levels. On one, you must pursue systemic change - reforming the broken systems of which you find yourself a part.

On the other, you must value acts which correct injustice, which make another person's day more kind, more just, more dignified. It is right and necessary to hold your compassionate self with your strategic self. You can’t be overwhelmed by the sadness and powerlessness you might feel on hearing the stories. When you are moved by what you hear or witness, you must use it to affect change.

For example, part of my work has been driving the Male Champions of Change, a strategy to engage men to step up beside women on gender equality.  For the last few years the MCCs have focused on addressing women’s under-representation in leadership.  Last year, however, the men decided they wanted to learn more about gender-based violence.

We brought the MCCs together to listen to the stories of two courageous survivors of domestic violence – Rosie Batty and Kristy McKellar. The men heard about the “pieces that are taken from you that can never be reclaimed ... like the joy of seeing your son grow up.” They began to understand that domestic violence is a serious workplace issue. They heard about struggling to hold down a job while living with domestic violence. For Kristy, a senior manager it meant hiding the bruises; finding that her husband had sawn the heels off her shoes because he didn’t like that she was taller than him – the difficulty of trying to find her car keys that her husband had hidden.

Since then, we have seen the MCCs step up their work in this area.

Seven. Engaging Power

Perhaps the most crucial lesson I’ve learned is to identify where power resides. Then to take the personal directly to its heart.

For example, in 2011, I led a Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force.

One of the great privileges of my role has been to work with the ADF.

As I travelled across Australia and beyond, a great many people told me stories – stories about how the ADF had served them well. That was the majority. Others, however, told deeply distressing stories - stories they had never told before. 

I started to understand that whilst it was important to document these stories, it was even more important that those who had the power to redress the wrongs – in other words, powerful decent men - heard these stories first hand.

So what did we do? We made arrangements so that the Chiefs of Navy, Airforce, Army, VCDF and the CDF could hear and feel what extreme exclusion means; what it’s like to be on exercise for two months when no-one speaks to you; what it’s like to be sexually assaulted by your instructor the very person you go to for advice; what it means to have your career ruined because you spoke out.

I’ll certainly never forget that first face to face session – the Service Chief sitting uncomfortably in his chair – the mother nervously escorting her daughter to the chair beside, a box of tissues in the middle. Then that courageous young woman said simply “Sir, I’m so nervous” and the Chief replied, “Believe me, I’m scared too.”

In that moment I knew we had a chance at change.  It takes a courageous young woman and an authentic and compassionate military leader to admit that he fears what he’s about to be told.

All of our military Chiefs demonstrated enormous courage and compassion in those face to face meetings. I am so delighted that one of those Chiefs is here today.

These sessions taught me that inclusion is not something that can be applied from outside. Inclusion must grow from within. When we prompt an insider to hear and feel exclusion’s unwelcome consequence, we start to plant the seeds of inclusion.

Eight. Importance of Women’s Voices

Women’s voices must elevate. As Leymah Gwobee, Liberian peace activist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner says, “there can be no legitimate conversation without the voices of women.” As Rosie Batty said, “Prior to Luke’s death no-one wanted to hear my story of living with violence. Now everyone does.”  It saddens me that, when women living with violence speak, the system doesn’t listen. One of the most important contributions we can make, then, is to give voice to those who have been silenced – to tell the individual stories that make the broader issue mean something more than just the data.

Nine: Women as change-makers

To have influence, to create momentum, I must have a strong belief in myself, both finding and maintaining courage. Some good counsel for anyone stepping into a role like mine – it is as vital for women to be powerful and influential as it is for men.

Ten FINALLY. We see the world as we are rather than as it is

Too many experts roll up to organisations and want to change things before understanding the investment each individual has in what is there already. It is as true for you as it is for me to seek to understand each individual’s contribution to the existing structures and systems before trying to change them.

We show up to each new situation with a backpack of everything we’ve ever learnt. If we do it right, that experience can be instructive. We can take what we have seen and help shape the future. But we must also take on board the experiences of others.

Don’t be limited by your own experience – when it comes to gender equality, like anything else worth doing, think big, think creatively, and rewrite the rules.

Rewriting the rules one story at a time

Now, I began with stories. And I continued with my learnings – which I suggested Australia might consider for the way forward. I don’t want to leave you hanging, without me imparting to you my sense of immense optimism for our continued work.

The stories as I told them are incomplete. They lack a continuation. A what-happened next moment.

I call this continuation rewriting - rewriting the rules.

In fact, the individuals whose stories I’ve shared know a thing or two about rewriting the rules.

Lurline for example may not be in possession of a solution to her own economic woes. But over her lifetime continued to teach young women about the importance of economic independence – that a man is not a financial plan - that it is as important for women to have economic power as it is for men.

June and Emily and the women of Fitzroy Crossing succeed in getting alcohol restrictions in place across the 52 communities in the Fitzroy Valley. This lead to a drop in domestic violence reports. They travel with me to the UN to tell their story of rebuilding their community to the world and they have just finished Australia’s first study of the number of children affected by alcohol.

Maria is the catalyst for the development of a suite of tools for pregnant women so that every pregnant woman in this nation now has access to comprehensive information about their rights through the PPL scheme and every employer, information about their obligations. This resource was launched just last month.

Catherine finds the courage to give evidence against her abusive husband who was sentenced to 17 years imprisonment.  Not only has she found her voice, she has recognised that out of tragedy comes immense power.  Catherine is now a highly effective advocate with an international reputation. She was recently in Beijing, working with survivors of domestic violence, helping them build their advocacy skills. One of things that I feel most optimistic about, is that domestic violence is now firmly recognised as a workplace issue. This is a huge step forward.

These women all rewrote the rules, and in the process began to understand that their words were powerful beyond measure. I fervently wish that these experiences had not been theirs, but I am immensely grateful that they found the courage to share them with others.


Gender equality is the unfinished business of the 21st century. When I hear the system is not working, I remind myself that it is the imperfections that teach us to make better decisions, to right the wrongs of the past and to work for a better future. As Dag Hammarskjold, previous Secretary General of the United Nations once said “the future is the horizon but it is also the first step we take tomorrow”.

Like the pioneers of the women’s movement, the women whose stories I’ve shared with you today have taken the first steps - they are doing what they can, when they can...and that’s how they are changing the world. This means we have cause for hope – because there will always be women and men of courage, because there will always be stories that engage both the head and the heart, stories that remind us that the personal is still, and always should be, political.

As Commissioner I have had a wide ranging responsibility – to speak when I see unfairness, to disrupt the status quo, to create opportunities for women, to raise my son and daughter to believe that equality is the only path. This is an ongoing responsibility for all of us - not one that I will set aside simply by departing this role.

Just as for you, whatever comes next for me, must have meaning. As John Gardner, Secretary of the US Dept of Health, Education and Welfare in the 1960s, a man of power who set one of the most ambitious policy agendas in America’s history, perhaps a male champion of change, said:

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, ... the things you believe in ... the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life...”

A life without advocating for change, is not a life that will have meaning for me.

So I will continue to use my voice to create an Australia that welcomes women, that cherishes their voice and eagerly awaits their wisdom. I will use my influence to create a world where a woman’s value does not decrease because of another’s inability to see her worth. A world where vulnerability transitions into power, where difference is celebrated, where leadership is shared and where each half of humanity respects and embraces the other.


[1] Australian Human Rights Commission, Working without fear: Results of the 2012 sexual harassment national telephone survey (2012). At

[2] Australian Bureau Statistics, 4906.0 - Personal Safety, Australia, 2012 at

[3] Counting Dead Women,

[4] Analysis conducted by Conrad Liveris (Diversity and Productivity Researcher).

[5] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Disability, Aging and Carers (2012). At:

[6] ANZ, ANZ Women’s Report: Barriers to Achieving Financial Gender Equity, 2015.

[7] R Clare, Developments in the level and distribution of retirement savings (2011); Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4125.0 - Gender Indicators, Australia (July 2012);

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner