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The State of Gender Equality in Australia on International Women’s Day: What more needs to happen? (2011)

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

The State of Gender Equality in Australia
on International Women’s Day: What more needs to happen?

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

Gender Equity Summit

Australian Human Resources Institute

4 March 2011

I am delighted to be with you to mark the 100th year of International Women’s Day.

Before I begin today I would like to thank Michael West for his generous welcome to country this morning and also pay my deepest respects to the traditional owners of this land - the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and the elders, both past and present.

I would like to congratulate AHRI for incorporating the traditional Welcome to Country ceremony as part of their program today. This is the first time that AHRI have included a Welcome to Country ceremony.

By having a welcome to country and acknowledging the traditional owners, we acknowledge the unique position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the life of our nation. This is reconciliation in action.

I would also like to acknowledge the talented Aboriginal women in the corporate sector. I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with a number of them.

On the 8th of March, 100 years ago, 15,000 women textile workers marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay, voting rights and an end to child labour. Their sweatshop style working conditions were tragically highlighted three years later, when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company’s factory in New York City. The exits were locked from the outside to prevent workers taking breaks or stealing materials. The fire caused the death of 146 mostly young immigrant women and children who were either trapped in the burning building or leapt to their deaths.

That same year more than one million European women and men rallied for women’s rights on the first official International Women’s Day.

Today, 100 years later, International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world.

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

100 years ago Australian women finally won the right to vote in all State and Commonwealth elections, although Indigenous 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 state 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 that lay at the foundation of our society.

In the early 1990s we started to see women and men looking at how each could play a role to bring about 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. Their focus was on individual practices and personal challenges rather than identification with a broader women’s movement. 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 went 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 strong gender equality laws.

Today also gives us an opportunity to identify areas where we have not seen sufficient progress, to reflect on the reasons for this and to decide what we will do.
So today I want to highlight four areas where there is still much to do - pay equity, women’s leadership, sexual harassment 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].

The opportunity for progress has come in the form of the Australian Services Union’s test case in Fair Work Australia, which seeks to address lower pay among 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 community sector work is undervalued and how any increase should be funded are 2 separate questions.

Pay inequality is not limited to female-dominated industries. It is also particularly pronounced in ASX200 companies. Among the key management personnel in these companies, the pay gap is 28.3% - more than 10% higher than the current national average pay gap[2].

The corporate world operates with the view that people who are paid more, matter more. They have greater influence about decisions and are more important. So the very existence of the pay gap further marginalises women and is an added burden. Not only are women paid less but they are perceived to be less valuable.

Recently, a male CEO told me about an initiative in his organisation to examine all salary recommendations through a gender lens. He has formed a high level team which works with business units to identify any gender pay gap. This high level team has the authority to override any manager where the explanation for the pay gap is not compelling - a great example of what can be done.

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 also recommended that a National Pay Equity Strategy be put in place to comprehensively address this issue.

100 years after women marched in the street demanding equal pay, its time to deliver.

Despite Australia having a female Governor-General, a female Prime Minister and several female state and territory premiers and governors, the second area where there has been insufficient progress is in women’s under-representation at decision making levels.

As you will know we started 2010 with the top 200 boardrooms languishing with only 8.4% of female directors. Movement had been glacial over the previous eight years. From 2002 to 2010 we increased the number of women on boards by a mere 0.2%[3].

It took some of the finest statisticians in the land to prove there had been any movement at all. And that was after 5 revisions.

So why should we care whether women are represented on boards and at senior leadership level - because there is a strong correlation between improved corporate performance and greater gender diversity at senior levels.

And the good news is that with your help, and I know many people in this room have been personally involved - 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]. 600% sounds a lot. The actual numbers are quite small (10 women in 2009 versus 59 in 2010[5]) but the strong message is that we’ve turned the corner and we’re on our way.

Have the board standards been lowered to accommodate women? I think you’ll agree not. Women such as Carol Schwartz, Catherine Brenner, Alison Watkins, Belinda Hutchinson, Sam Mostyn, Ilana Atlas, Christine McLoughlin, Yasmin Allen and 50 other talented and impressive women have received new appointments.

Will the changes become entrenched? That is a question I cannot answer but I fear that without significant cultural change we will slip backwards again.

Targets, or dare I say it, quotas may deliver greater gender equity on boards but they may have limited impact on increasing the number of women in executive line management roles from the existing 4%[6]. This is one of the documented failures of the Norwegian quota system. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox a noted gender consultant puts it this way:

“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 companies if they can’t retain and promote the majority of educated [people]?”

There is no question that addressing the issue of women at senior management rather than board level is a more complex issue. Over the years there have been many programs, strategies and interventions to do just this but we just don’t seem to be making progress. The sense I have from travelling around Australia is that there is frustration and anger at the slow pace of change, particularly at the senior management level. I look forward to the panel discussions today to identify what more we must do.

My third topic has galvanised not just boardrooms but the nation over many months – sexual harassment.

For those of you who missed the media hype – it’s not too late. I understand that there are workshops on the lessons learnt from the Mark McInnes and Kirsty Fraser Kirk case.

Ordinarily sexual harassment claims proceed either to the Australian Human Rights Commission for conciliation or a state based equal opportunity commission. If a successful conciliation is not possible, the complaint is terminated and a small number of usually well funded complainants then bring proceedings in the federal court. But this case travelled an unusual route. In this case, the first port of call was the Federal Court, based on alleged breaches of the Trade Practices Act and the employment contract. Not only that, but the individual board directors were personally named in the pleadings.

The claim raised many important issues regarding the extent of a board’s role in operational matters and its liability to employees for representations made. It raised issues about the kind of reporting structures the board should have in place to manage these risks and to protect themselves from allegations of misleading and deceptive conduct and breach of contract?

While the high punitive damages sought in this case became the focus for many, the principal issue that needs to be on the boardroom and management agenda is the high prevalence of sexual harassment in Australia and what boards and management should be doing to prevent it.

Sexual harassment is pervasive in Australian workplaces – this is despite it being prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act for over 25 years. Our prevalence study showed three things – firstly, there is high prevalence – 22% of women have been sexually harassed in the workplace[7]. Secondly, the low number of women making complaints. Of those who experienced sexual harassment only 16% brought any form of formal complaint[8]. And thirdly, there is still much confusion about where work ends and personal life starts – about exactly which interactions constitute sexual harassment.

My message is clear, just because you’re not hearing about sexual harassment doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

There was some suggestion that the Fraser- Kirk case may deter women from bringing complaints in the future. A review of the complaints coming into the Commission for the six months to Dec 2010 shows the exact opposite. The number of sexual harassment complaints has increased significantly as a proportion of all complaints received by the Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act. From July to December 2010 sexual harassment complaints accounted for over 30% of all complaints under the Act. This compares to 20% of all complaints under the Act in 2009.

It is interesting to see in another high profile case against a financial institution filed only recently that punitive damages were once again claimed. This case also settled prior to hearing but I have no doubt that the manner in which these claims are pleaded in the future will change.

The final area of insufficient progress is that of violence against women and particularly domestic violence.

Domestic violence is not just someone else’s problem. It is not determined by how much money you have, where you come from, or how old you are.

Domestic violence - family violence - is violence which occurs in a current or former intimate relationship or family relationship, a relationship characterised by a systemic pattern of power and control.

How big is this problem? In 2005, the Personal Safety Survey showed that one in three women in Australia has experienced violence since the age 15[9]. You do the maths - that’s over 3 million women[10]. Over forty percent of these women experienced violence at the hands of a current or former partner[11]. That is over 1.2 million women[12]. It doesn’t end there. Each year, this violence is witnessed by over 180,000 children[13].

And we know 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.

  • Indigenous women are 45 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be victims of domestic violence[14].
  • Women with disabilities are ‘assaulted, raped and abused at least twice as often as women without disabilities’[15].

Almost every week in Australia, one woman is killed by her current or former partner,[16] often after a history of domestic violence. Victorian research has found that domestic violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness in women aged 15-44 years, being a greater contributor than factors like high blood pressure, smoking or obesity[17]. And it has a financial cost. Domestic violence and sexual assault perpetrated against women cost the nation $13.6 billion per annum[18].

But before I go on, I want to stress that violence is not just an issue for women. It is also very much an issue for men. But there is a difference. Most violence against men occurs in a public place and by a stranger. The violence I’m talking about today – violence that is primarily directed at women - is about violence perpetrated often in one’s own home, the very place that all of us should feel the most safe.

Importantly, I do not wish to typecast all men as abusers. Abusive men represent a minority. It is the majority of men who can help create a culture in which violence against women is unacceptable.

Part of the problem, I think, is that today, as in recent decades, awareness of the incidence of domestic violence is still quite low and people do not understand the patterns and the realities with which the victims have to live. And this is particularly so in Australian workplaces.

So why am I telling you all this?

To convince you that domestic violence is also a workplace issue.

So often I go into business and talk about sexual harassment. We have an engaging and constructive conversation. But when I mention the words domestic violence I am politely told that “domestic violence is a private matter”. That workplaces have no role.

In business, domestic violence is the issue that dare not speak it’s name, where shame hangs heavily.

So let me explain why it is a business issue.

In essence, what affects employees also affects employers.

We know that 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[19].

Domestic violence may result in lower performance and productivity at work, as victims struggle to put on a brave face.

It may result in frequent or prolonged absenteeism, job loss because of trauma or the need to preserve and prioritise their safety[20].

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[21].

A study conducted by Professor Ruth Brandwein at the State University of New York, found that some abusive men use a range of tactics to try to sabotage women’s work efforts.

As part of the study, a woman named Judy recounted how she lost her job as manager of a fast food outlet because of her husband’s jealousy and violence.

She explained “If a guy talked to me, [my husband] would rip doors off hinges – he would go nuts. I left because I didn’t think it was fair to [my employers][22].

Another woman named Joan described her husband hiding her clothes to prevent her from going to work. Joan’s husband would promise to baby-sit, but would not show up or show up early in the morning after a night of drinking.

“I wouldn’t leave the children with him when he was drunk,” she recalled. “So I went through many jobs. I got fired often. I was very embarrassed. It ate away at my self esteem.”

The penalties and disruptions to a woman’s working life, have profound financial consequences, and the economic price that women pay is life long.

The impact for men can be profoundly debilitating too.

Recently, I was struck by a Four Corners program on men’s behavioural change programs. The program followed three men who had voluntarily agreed to undertake a 28 week program to deal with their violence – a courageous act which allowed them to reclaim their humanity. 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 things are changing. Over the last six months a number of organisations both public and private sector have developed policies to support staff living with violence and to support perpetrators to change their behaviour.

Some have included an entitlement to domestic violence leave in their enterprise agreements. Others have created workplace policies to support staff by offering flexible work, special leave, the ability to change extension numbers, a bag of belongings in a safe place, the possibility of working in another office, domestic violence support information supplied with the workplace safety training at induction etc. As I mentioned in the story about the 4 Corners Program, organisations are also recognising that some employees need help to change violent and abusive behaviour. Instead of sweeping it under the carpet they are working to identify appropriate programs and assisting people to attend those programs.

Australia CEO Challenge in Queensland is an organisation breaking new ground by taking the message of domestic violence into workplaces. It would be great to see the emergence of more organisations like this all around Australia.

As Betty Taylor, a noted Australian expert and author in this area says:

“The effects of domestic violence are all-pervasive. Women suffer silently and business continues losing money unawares. Business should address it not just because of the bottom line, but because it will take all sectors of society to eliminate this blight on our nation.”

It is incumbent on all of us to work together to address this issue. The creation of innovative and bold workplace policies is a good starting point.

Addressing the incidence of violence against women has become an urgent priority for me. The experiences of the women I have spoken of today and the many others around Australia dictate that the issue of domestic violence can no longer be put in the “too hard” basket. We need action and we need it now.

Just last month the Australian, State and Territory Governments released a National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. It 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 and resourced then change will not happen. Business must be part of this national conversation.

I’d like to finish by recounting one final story told to me by the head of one of Australia’s largest women’s organisations. It’s a story that gives me great hope that we can create a more equal future. But it requires all of us to treat this issue with the seriousness it deserves.

It is the story of a woman I’ll call Ella. Ella was in her mid 70’s, and had been living in an abusive relationship for around 45 years. Her daughter and grand daughter had come to stay with her and her husband.

One night, Ella’s husband came home from the pub - like he always did. He had been drinking with his mates - like he always did. He walked into the kitchen and - like he always did - proceeded to hit and punch Ella. Ella’s 40 yr old daughter - like she had always done - hid. But Ella’s teenage grand daughter was watching from the next room. And she did something different. When her grandfather finally left she approached Ella and said:

“It doesn’t have to be like this, Grandma”.

For the first time, someone - Ella’s grand daughter - offered her a way out. She arranged to take her Grandmother to the local domestic violence counselling service the next day. And the heartening thing about this story is that finally, after 45 years, someone was asking Ella about her relationship – they had given her permission to speak about her abuse.

On International Women’s Day, stories like Ella’s give me hope. The same hope that has seen us pull together to produce improvements in areas like paid parental leave, pay equity, women’s leadership and sexual harassment. Hope that with education, awareness, advocacy and commitment we can create a world where these women, all women, have a chance at a life free from violence.

Just as everyone has a right to live free from violence, so do we all have a responsibility to reduce violence.

So on this occasion of the 100th anniversary of IWD, I call on the each of you to show leadership by creating - workplaces which are inclusive of women, workplaces where men and women are equal partners, where they are paid equally, workplaces where harassment and violence have no place, workplaces where those who live with violence can be supported and feel safe.

Just like Ella’s grand daughter, we can give dignity back and tell the truth kindly. My quest is to realise a peaceful world, one where your children and mine can thrive irrespective of their gender. Will you join me?

Thank you.


[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Average Weekly Earnings, Cat. 6302, cited in Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, Gender Workplace Statistics at a Glance,

[2] Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (2009) Pay, Power and Position: Beyond the 2008 EOWA Australian Census of Women in Leadership, 6, at
cited in Australian Human Rights Commission (2009) Gender Equality Blueprint, AHRC, 19.
[3] Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (2010) EOWA Australian Census of Women in Leadership
[4] Australian Institute of Company Directors, Statistics, as at February 2011,
[5] Australian Institute of Company Directors, Statistics, as at February 2011,
[6] Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (2010) EOWA Australian Census of Women in Leadership
[7] Australian Human Rights Commission, (2008) Sexual harassment: Serious business: Results of the 2008 Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey.
[8] Australian Human Rights Commission, (2008) Sexual harassment: Serious business: Results of the 2008 Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey.
[9] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2006) Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006), 7, at Note: The ABS defines physical violence to include ‘any incident involving the occurrence, attempt or threat of physical assault.’ Exact figure is 363,000.
[10] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2006), Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006), unpublished.
[11] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2006), Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006), 10.
[12] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2006), Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006), unpublished.
[13] Access Economics (2004) The Cost of Domestic Violence to the Australian Economy: Part 1, Commonwealth of Australia, vi.
[14] Gooda, M (2010) Social Justice - better outcomes for family violence, prevention
[15] Women with Disabilities Australia (2007) It’s Not OK: It’s Violence, Rosny Park, WWDA, 30.
[16]Dearden, J & Jones, W (2008) Homicide in Australia: 2006 – 06 National Homicide Monitoring Program Annual Report, Australian Institute of Criminology, 2.
[17] VicHealth, (2007) VicHealth Partnership to Prevent Domestic Violence,
[18] National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, (2009)The Cost of Violence Against Women and their Children, Commonwealth of Australia, 4.

[19] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2006) Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006), 35, at

[20] Moe, A & Bell, M, (2004) ‘Abject economics: the effects of battering and violence on women’s work and employability; Violence Against Women, 10:1, 30.

[21]Franz way, S, Zufferey C and Chung, D (2010) ‘Domestic Violence and Multidimensional 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.
[22] Brandwein, R and Filiano, (2000) ‘Toward Real Welfare Reform: The Voices of Battered Women’, Affililia, 15:2,224-242.

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner