Skip to main content

The State of Gender Equality in Australia

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

The State of Gender Equality in

on International Women’s Day: What more needs
to happen?

Speech by Elizabeth
Sex Discrimination Commissioner and
Commissioner responsible for Age

Australian Human Rights

NT Anti-Discrimination Commission
Women’s Day Centenary Dinner

Cyprus community Centre, 30 Batten Road, Marrarra, Darwin,

12 March 2011

Thank you Bilawara Lee for your warm welcome to country.

I also acknowledge the Larrakia people and pay my respects to their
elders past, present and future. I honour them for their custodianship of the
land on which we gather tonight. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
have long spoken out for equality on both the national and international stage.
And in terms of gender equality, they are leading the way with the National
Congress of Australia’s First Peoples which has both a male and female
co-chair and mandated gender equality at all levels.

Thank you Commissioner Eddie Cubillo for inviting me to speak tonight.
It’s great to have you leading the work of the Commission here in the NT.
And I would like to particularly welcome Minister Malarndirri McCarthy Minister
for Women’s Policy, and Senator Trish McCrossin, Senator for the Northern

I am so pleased to be here with you to celebrate 100 years of the
International Women’s day.

This week I have been travelling across Australia from Sydney, to Canberra,
Alice Springs, Perth and tonight Darwin to mark the 100th year of
International Women’s Day.

There have been hundreds of events around Australia held this week, to
commemorate the 100th year of International Women’s Day -
including many events held here in the Territory.

This has been matched by widespread coverage across the media, whether it be
debates on pay equity, quotas for women on boards or violence against women. It
has been wonderful to see the energy and momentum of the celebrations, as well
to see gender equality front and centre on the national agenda.

The first Australian International Women’s Day rally took place in
Sydney on March 25, 1928. Back then, women called for: equal pay for equal work;
an 8 hour day for shop workers; and a basic wage for the unemployed. These
don’t seem like radical demands but even today there are many working
women who cannot lay claim to them. This is not to say that that the situation
for women has not improved over the past 100 years - it has - and it is
worth spending some time to reflect on these developments.

100 years ago Australian women finally won the right to vote in all State and
Commonwealth elections, although, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women
had to wait another 57 years for the same right.

But even with the right to
vote, women were not represented in Australia’s parliaments until 1921.
And it was not until 1943 that women were elected to our federal parliament for
the first time.

Well into the 1960’s Australian women in the
public service were forced to resign from their jobs as permanent officers if
they got married. It was the same in many private companies.

It was only in 1965 that Australian women won the right to drink in a public
bar. On a Wednesday afternoon in March that year, two women, Merle Thornton and
Rosalie Bognor, entered the public bar of the Regatta Hotel in Brisbane and
ordered two beers. When they were refused their beers and asked to leave, they
promptly chained themselves to the footrail of the bar.

This was part of the Women’s Liberation movement which started in the
1960’s. The aim of the movement was not to “have it all” as
some contemporaries would have us believe, it was – among other things
– to transform the power relations between men and women which lay
at the foundation of our society.

During the 1980s we saw the demands of women’s movements for
women’s rights codified in Australia’s laws. In 1984, the Sex
Discrimination Act
was enacted. It gave effect to the Committee of
Eliminating Discrimination against Women and prohibited discrimination on the
grounds of sex, marital status, pregnancy or potential pregnancy, family
responsibilities and prohibited sexual harassment.

In the early 1990s we started to see women and men working together to
address gender equality. Young ‘DIY feminists’ took the concept of
men and women as equals as a given and applied it in both their professional and
personal lives. Rejecting the notion of women as victims, many of these women
did not identify as ‘feminists’ even though they advocated for their
own rights. This is where we are today.

When I think about my own life. I was
fortunate to go to university, and when my children were born I was able to work
as a partner in a large law firm three days a week. Now I am a federal
Commissioner and a mum with two young children. I never let myself forget that
this would not have been possible but for a strong women’s movement and a
strong gender equality law. I also never let myself forget that there are still
many women who don’t have the benefit of many of these opportunities.

But there is still much to do. When we look back in a 100 year’s time
we will say, ‘Yes, 2011, I remember – that was a year of great
celebration – but it was also the year we resolved to finish the
unfinished business of gender equality.’

So today I want to highlight
three areas where there is still much to do in terms of achieving gender
equality in Australia - pay equity, women’s leadership and violence
against women.

Pay equity: 100 Years after women first marched in the streets demanding
equal pay and four decades after the first federal pay case, the gender gap
still exists in Australian workplaces. Even more alarming is that, over the last
four years the gender gap in pay has actually widened to 17 per
cent[1]. In the ASX200 companies among
the key management personnel, the pay gap increases to

The pay gap is compounded by the fact that most workplaces operate with a
view that people who are paid more, matter more. The very existence of the pay
gap further marginalises women. Not only are women paid less but they are
perceived to be less valuable.

The opportunity for progress has come in the form of the Australian Services
Union’s test case in Fair Work Australia, which covers female-dominated
community sector workers. If this application succeeds it will be a major
advance for the women who carry out this important work. And it will have a
flow-on impact. There is concern about how any increase will be funded. But I
think whether the community sector work is undervalued and how any increase
should be funded are 2 separate questions.

Pay inequality exists because we allow it to. A concerted effort by business,
government and the community is needed to close this gap. I have recommended
that a National Pay Equity Strategy be put in place to comprehensively address
this issue. We are still awaiting a government response to the House of
Representative Making it Fair: Pay Equity Inquiry.

I want to say a few words about women’s leadership which has been a hot
topic over the last year. The reality is women are under-represented at
decision-making levels in every sector of public life in Australia.

As you will know we started 2010 with the top 200 boardrooms languishing with
only 8.4% of female directors. From 2002 to 2010 we increased the number of
women on boards by only 0.2%[3]. And
it took the top statisticians in the country to confirm there had been any
movement at all.

As Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, a noted gender consultant, says:

“There is massive corporate mis-adaptation to today’s talent
realities and the subsequent inability to retain and develop women as well as
men. I call this “gender asbestos”. It’s hidden in the walls,
cultures and mindsets of many organisations. But ridding the structure of these
cultural toxins will require more than pointing accusingly at the mess. It
requires a detailed plan for how to move forward and a compelling, attractive
portrait of the result. Stop asking ‘What’s wrong with women that
they’re not making it to the top? Start asking “What’s wrong
with workplaces if they can’t retain and promote the majority of educated

The good news is that change is happening. In the past year there has been an
almost 600% uplift in the number of women appointed to ASX boards so that we now
have over 11% of board directorships on ASX200 companies held by
women[4], largely due to reforms to
the ASX Corporate Governance Principles.

You will also have observed over the last week, the significant discussion
about the issue of quotas. This debate has long polarised Australians, and there
seems to be strong cultural resistance to it by both men and women.

I see quotas as a means of uncovering women’s merit. They are a
temporary special measure and as such are permissible under the federal
anti-discrimination laws. The CEDAW Committee has called on Australia to
consider adopting such measures where necessary, and they may well become
necessary. I am not talking about introducing quotas next week, next month, or
next year, but I am saying that if we don’t meet the targets set in the
public and private sectors by 2015, then we do need to put in place measures
that will accelerate change. Legislative quotas should be part of our armoury
for realising this goal.

You may also be aware that this week Minister Kate Ellis MP announced that
there would a significant strengthening of the Equal Opportunity for Women in
Workplace Agency and its Act, and that more funding would be made available,
$11.2 million, to carry out these reforms.

These are reforms that I have called for in my Gender Equality Blueprint. I
support them because not only are they good for gender equality –
they’re good for business.

There is no nation, organisation or industry that can afford the leakage of
women’s skills and talents that is currently occurring in Australia. The
gender inequality we see at the moment is disadvantaging us all.

The final area where we have not seen sufficient progress is family and
domestic violence. It is still one of the biggest obstacles to the achievement
of gender equality in Australia.

I often ask people to name countries where they consider violence against
women to be a problem. More often than not they reel off a list of other
countries, but fail to recognize the high prevalence rates in their own country,

Violence against women continues to be endemic and widespread in Australia.
In 2005, the ABS estimated that one in three Australian women had experienced
violence since the age of 15.[5] You
do the maths - that’s over 3 million
women[6]. Over forty per cent of these
women experienced violence at the hands of a current or former
partner[7]. That is over 1.2 million
women[8]. It doesn’t end there.
Each year, this violence is witnessed by over 180,000

The statistics become even more confronting when we look at specific groups
of women:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 45 times more likely than
    non-Indigenous women to be victims of domestic violence.6 And the homicide rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are
    between 9 and 23 times higher at different times in the life cycle than they are
    for non-Indigenous women.7 
  • Women with disabilities are ‘assaulted, raped and abused at least
    twice as often as women without

So you see domestic violence is not just a white person’s
problem, a poor person’s problem or always someone else’s problem.
It is not determined by how much money you have, where you come from, or how old
you are. What we also know is that women from different racial backgrounds,
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, migrant and refugee women and women
with disability may face an even more difficult time.

For example, Zena found it hard when she started her life in Australia as a
migrant with a new husband. She spoke limited English and had no friends to help
her. Her husband was the one communicating with the outside world. He took care
of housing, applying for Centrelink payments and Medicare. He chose their
friends. She is quoted as saying, ‘My husband always told me that if I
went to anyone, they would take my children away’.

No single government or entity can solve this issue. It will take all of us
- government, NGOs, education and business to make a difference. Business has
been missing from this conversation. We need also to start talking about
domestic violence as a workplace issue.

I say this because in essence, what affects employees also affects

Almost two thirds of women who experience domestic and family
violence are in paid work, so there is no question that the issue of violence
affects many in our workplaces[11].

Women who experience it are more likely to have a disrupted work history, to
have to change jobs and work in casual and part time work, than women with no
experience of violence[12].

Recently, I was struck by a Four Corners program on men’s behavioural
change programs. The program followed three men that had voluntarily agreed to
undertake a 28 week program to deal with their violence. For two of them, the
event that triggered their inclusion in the program was not the fact that they
were violent at home and that their wives lived in fear, but rather that they
were counselled at work and told that if their abusive behaviour toward their
co-workers did not change they would be fired from the workplace.

But there are things that can be done. Over the last six months a number of
organisations both public and private sector have developed policies to support
staff living with violence – entitlements to domestic violence leave in
enterprise agreements, access flexible working conditions, the ability to change
extension numbers, and personal safety information training as part of

Addressing this issue has become an urgent priority for me. How is it that
in 2011 on the 100th anniversary of IWD, we still don’t have an
answer to this shameful problem?

Have we become so numb to the statistics that we forget that behind each
number is a human tragedy? Have we stopped to think that this could be our
mother, our sister, our aunt, our daughter or us?

Over the last few months I have visited 40 different domestic violence and
sexual assault services all across this country. I’ve met community
sector workers, police, lawyers, judges, advocates and many others who have
devoted much of their lives to helping these women.

I want to take a moment here to acknowledge the incredible work and
dedication of the people who work in such services. They fill me with
admiration. The commitment and dedication of workers in this sector is
overwhelming – the compassion and personal sacrifice immense. Many of
these services are underfunded - they deliver so much with so little.

There is a critical need to increase funding to both existing services, and
to provide additional, culturally appropriate services in areas where they are
not available.

Here in the Northern Territory there have been some strong initiatives and in
particular I want to mention the safe places initiative established jointly by
the Federal/ Northern Territory Government’s.  Currently there are 9
safe places for men and 13 safe places for women in remote communities.

Since they commenced in 2009 there have been more than 1000 intakes - what
that means is more than 1000 incidences of potential harm have been prevented.
I am planning to visit the safe places at Maningrida, to see for myself the work
being done.

Safe places need to be backed by a range of support services including a
police presence in the community. There is also a clear need for more mental
health services, to help families deal with the high levels of grief, trauma and
stress related to incidents of domestic and family violence.

And there are other innovative examples happening in other states. In
October last year, I visited the Frankston Family Violence Centre which provides
family violence counselling, legal advice, police and forensic services, child
protection, sexual assault services and behavioural change programs. The
services are wrapped around the woman and her children.

On the evening before I arrived, a 10 year old girl had rung the crisis care
number as her mother was being sexually assaulted. The woman and her children
were transported to the centre at 2 a.m. By 10.30 a.m. the next day the woman
had had all her locks changed, counselling for her and her children, an
apprehended violence order underway, a plan of action and was safely ensconced
back in her home. This immediate response relied on the links between the
different services.

The Australian Government has just released the National Plan to Reduce
Violence against Women and their Children. It has been endorsed by all states
and territories, including the NT.

The national plan is a significant step forward for Australia. Violence
against women is a national problem which requires a national and local
response. The plan which focuses strongly on primary prevention, building
respectful relationships and working to increase gender equality is a great
first step. But this is just the beginning. You can have the best plan in the
world but if it is not effectively implemented then change will not happen. The
National Plan must be implemented effectively, independently monitored and
evaluated and importantly adequately funded.

In closing, I want to remember and acknowledge the work of a fellow
commissioner from the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, Hamida Barmaki. I
learnt last month that she died in a suicide bombing.  It was the birthday
of her second daughter (who was turning 14) and the whole family (Hamida, her
husband and four children) went out to lunch to celebrate. None of them came

As a Human Rights Commissioner she spoke out about the injustices perpetrated
upon women and children across her own country.  As a Professor at Kabul
University she taught many young people about the importance of the rule of law,
about democracy and the international human rights system.  She worked
tirelessly to create a world where all women and men would be treated equally
and with dignity.

One of the women she taught wrote movingly about Hamida’s death
recalling a saying by Albert Pine: “What we do for ourselves dies with us.
What we do for others, and the world, remains and is immortal.”

On this International Women’s Day she stands as an inspiration to all
of us.

Finally to each and every one of you, thank you for all the ways you have
contributed to women’s equality both in Australia and across the world.
For all the people you have supported, for all the moments when you found the
courage to speak up, when doing nothing might have seemed like an easier option.

Let us build on the struggles of those who have come before us to create a
world where:

  • women are equal partners with men in all aspects of economic, political and
    social life
  • women are able to work and have a family life
  • women do not live with poverty because they have chosen to care; and
  • we are free to live our lives without discrimination, harassment and

Together we can create a more equal and just Australia.
Let’s make it happen.

Thank you.

[1] ABS, Cat. 6302, Average Weekly
Earnings, cited in Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace, Gender
Workplace Statistics at a Glance
[2] EOWA, Pay, Power and
Position: Beyond the 2008 EOWA Australian Census of Women in Leadership
(2009), p. 6. At (viewed 26 October 2009), cited in AHRC (2009) Gender Equality Blueprint, AHRC, 19.
[4] As at February 2011:…
[5] Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006), p 7. At (viewed 5 March 2010). Note: The ABS defines physical violence to include
“any incident involving the occurrence, attempt or threat of physical
[6] Australian
Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue),
Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006), unpublished.
[7] ABS, Personal Safety,
Australia, 2005
(Reissue), Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006), p
[8] Australian Bureau of
Statistics (ABS), Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), Catalogue
No. 4906.0 (2006), unpublished.
[9] Access Economics (2004) The
cost of domestic violence to the Australian Economy: Part 1, Cth of Australia,
[10] WWDA (2007) It’s Not OK: It’s Violence, WWDA, 30.
[11] Australian Bureau of Statistics,
Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006), p 35.
[12]S Franzway, C Zufferey and D
Chung, (2010) ‘Domestic Violence and Multidimenational Factors:
Investigating the impact of domestic violence on women’s employment,
health and housing’, Our Work Our Lives National Conference,
Darwin, 12-13 August 2010.