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Towards a gender equal Australia

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

Big Ideas under the Dome Lecture

State Library of Victoria


Thank you Christine and members of the Board of the State Library of Victoria for inviting me to speak this evening and for your very warm welcome. It is a great pleasure to be here in a place of learning – a place where new ideas can be aired and debated.

I too would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on traditional lands and pay my respects to elders – past, present and future.

I have been Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission for the last seven years. It is a job that takes me from 200 metres under the sea in a submarine, to the United Nations in New York, to spending time with young women survivors of acid attack in Dhakka, to camping out with Aboriginal women in the Kimberly in Western Australia, to the abattoirs and boardrooms of Australia, to the White House, NATO, the Pentagon, the World Bank and everywhere between.

That is the tremendous privilege of this role – whether I am working to support business people, refugee women, defence force personnel, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, aboriginal women, women with disability or women in low paid jobs – every day I meet inspiring individuals – individuals committed to using whatever influence they have to create a more equal world.

Next week on 25 November, we will mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a day that heralds 16 days of global activism to eradicate violence against women and their children. As part of my activism, I have will begin every speech over the next 16 days with a story of violence against women.

And I will do that tonight.

Did you know there are now more women living in an intimate relationship characterised by violence than malnourished people in the world?

Yes, 980 million – almost 1 billion women (World Bank) - And in Australia around 1.4 million women today have lived in an intimate relationship characterised by violence.

More than one woman is murdered every week in Australia by a current or former partner – 75 per year – the lead story on TV last night in Sydney was a woman allegedly beaten to death yesterday in her front yard by her husband. One in three women over the age of 15 has experienced physical or sexual violence at some stage in their lives.

But small actions can have a powerful impact. Two years ago now, I delivered the Vincent Fairfax orations around Australia where I chose to speak about domestic violence. One of the women attending, Margot, rang me the next day. She told me that following my speech she called her staff together (several hundred); she has responsibility for many staff being a senior manager for a large bank.

She said - I told my staff that today I wanted to talk about something different – domestic violence, the prevalence data, its overlap into the workplace and what we can do. She started by recounting her own story – a story she’d never told before. The story of growing up in a violent household, of wiping the blood off her mother’s face, of taking her to hospital - of the shame and silence. She concluded by saying to her staff “Now I want you to do one thing. I want you to tell everybody in the bank my story and maybe in that way I can make it easier for others to tell theirs.” That bank is now a leader in supporting employees living with violence.

I have had a busy last few weeks. Three weeks ago I was in Korea, on a floating island in the middle of the Han River to be precise, addressing the World Federation of Stock Exchanges.  In that room were 85 men and 5 women representing the CEOs of all the world’s securities exchanges. Between them they are responsible for 98% of traded assets across the world. I took them through the research showing clearly that gender diversity, particularly at the senior level is correlated with better performance. We talked about the social norms constraining both women and men in all our nations and agreed that Exchanges as key economic players in countries could have a multiplier impact. Imagine if every Exchange in the World used their influence in a manner similar to the Australian Securities Exchange, to assist in building strong and sustainable publicly listed companies – companies with strong gender diversity. This would be transformative.

And just 2 days ago, I returned from visiting our armed forces in the Middle East, and working with NATO in Europe. Once again the challenge was to engage men - military leaders both in our own armed forces but also in NATO on the issue of gender equality – to help them understand that the treatment of women is linked directly to capability. In NATO case as for many others it’s a work in progress. For example out of the 15 Sec Generals of NATO in 75 years there has never been a woman - out of the 56 heads of member states, never a woman. An interesting contrast is the CIA where 46% of the people are women. Maybe part of that picture is the success of Carrie in Homeland and the visibility of women in senior roles? It’s hard to be what you can’t see!

These recent work assignments have once again confirmed for me something that I have become more and more convinced of over my 7 years as Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

And that is, that if we are to deliver equality for women we have to focus on men. I now also understand that to move men from interest to action, we need to make the case for change personal - we must engage both their head and their heart.

Why men? Well in nearly every nation, institution or organisation from those in Australia, the UAE to Korea and Spain - men hold the levers of power. When men step-up beside women, not to speak for us - but to take action with us - this will accelerate our path towards a more gender equal future.

Why personal? Well one thing I have learnt is that when we take the case for change from people's heads to their hearts, that's when individuals feel compelled to do something – to take strong action.

So tonight I want to look at how this idea of engaging men and personalising the case for change, can work in two very different contexts – first the military and then the corporate world.

Take a moment, if you will, to imagine a world where every private conversation you ever had is made public. A world where your most intimate secrets are spread far and wide across the Internet.

The fact is we already live in this connected world where sexualised imagery and words are everywhere! We already live in a world where the capability to transmit intimate sexual images is but one click away - and sadly, the transmission is not always with the consent of the other party involved.

This was the case at ADFA, the Australian tri-service military academy several years ago. You may have heard about an incident of sexual misconduct that occurred there in April 2011 - an incident involving consensual sex between a male and female cadet but the non-consensual filming and the ensuing broadcasting of the coupling live via Skype to men in a room nearby.

After the incident broke on Australian television, and as the young female cadet anonymously told her story, the community outrage was palpable. Everyone had a view. Was this just young people behaving badly or was it something more? Was it an example of the sexualisation and marginalisation of women within a military culture?

It was into this world that I unexpectedly found myself drawn when the Minister for Defence asked me to head up a review into the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Force.

The Review was extensive. My team and I have visited well over 60 military bases and installations across Australia and beyond. We spent time under water in submarines and above water on warships. We travelled in tanks and armoured vehicles - flew in Black Hawk helicopters and C130s.

And we visited offshore military bases including forward operating bases beyond the wire in Oruzgan Province in Afghanistan, as well as elsewhere across the Middle East. We have spoken directly to thousands of Defence Force members.

As I travelled across Australia and beyond, a great many people told me stories – stories about how the ADF had served them very well. That was the experience of by far the vast majority.

But others told me deeply distressing stories - stories that had never been told before.

That is when it occurred to me that, while it was important for me to document these stories – it was even more important that those who had the power to change the system - powerful men - heard first hand these personal narratives - that they would both hear and feel the case for change.

So I flew in women from all across Australia, many with their mothers, so that the Chiefs could hear and feel what extreme exclusion means; to know what it’s like to be on exercise for 2 months when no-one speaks to you; to feel what it is like to be sexually assaulted by your instructor, the very person you go to for advice; to understand what it’s like to face your perpetrator every day at work even though you reported his assault to your superiors; to learn what it means to have your career ruined and your peers ostracise you because you had the courage to make a complaint.

I remember 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. Where to begin? And then that courageous young woman saying “Sir, I’m so nervous” and the Chief replying, “Believe me, I’m scared too.”

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

The Chiefs heard the pain of mothers – mothers who had encouraged their daughters into the Service – mothers who had believed fervently that the enemy lay outside the military not within. As one mother said “I gave you the person I love most in the world and this is how you’ve treated her?”

And at the end to hear the Chief say “If I could stand in your shoes and take away your pain every day, I would choose to do that. What happened to you should never have happened. I am so deeply sorry. I will do everything I can to make sure this never happens again.”

These sessions were the defining moments of the Review.

When I look back – this is the work that reinforced for me that when you work with men to engage both their head and heart even in the most traditional and conservative organisations, change happens. It is these principles that I am now sharing with NATO nations.

But here’s the thing - as the Chief of Army Lieutenant David Morrison said in a speech just last week - "I have come to understand that the terrible things that happen in warzones – murder, rape, assaults, the stripping away of dignity, the absence of hope - they are just as much present in our own communities, in our own families, as they are in other more seemingly troubled countries. It's just that they happen behind closed doors, away from the lens of a war correspondent, ignored by neighbours or even family members, unspoken but just as life shattering."

He went on to say that:

“By every credible measure, women are denied opportunities that are accorded to men as a birth right of their sex. At home they face levels of domestic violence that imperil their very being. This is the case in so called first-world nations and in the developing world; it is a feature of secular and non-secular societies. Women face barriers, sometimes tangible, often subliminal, that constrain their lives and their contributions to the development of our world.”

“We need men of authority and conscience to play their part and we most certainly need women, too long denied a strong enough voice, to be given opportunities to lead – in all endeavors, in all parts of our polity and society. We all need to come to grips with our culture and how much it counts.”

Lt. General David Morrison makes two important points. Firstly, that the issue of gender inequality is cultural – it’s systemic, difficult to touch and pervasive. Secondly, he makes the point that when powerful, decent men step up beside women and take action together, momentum grows – change happens.

The fact is that the attitudes I observed in the military, are held much more widely in Australian society, in families, in sporting clubs and indeed in the corporate world.

I came into my role firmly believing that it was women working together that would drive change - that would create a more equal Australia – all I had to do was add my voice. Many initiatives focus solely on engaging and changing women. In fact all too often we look to women to change the practices that maintain the status quo. Such an approach fails to recognise the site of most organisational power.

So about two years ago, I embarked on what has been quite a controversial strategy - known as the Male Champions of Change strategy – a strategy that once again focuses on men.

How did this begin?

I picked up the phone and rang a dozen of Australia’s most powerful and influential men – men who lead Australia’s iconic companies like Telstra, Qantas, Commonwealth Bank and Woolworths – men who lead global organisations like Citibank and IBM – men who hold the most senior roles in Government – Secretary of the PM & C and the Treasury – and I made a personal plea. Will you use your power and influence, your collective voice and wisdom to create change for women? 

Over time, we have grown to more than 25 men, who are deeply committed to a significant and sustainable increase in the representation of women in leadership.

I remember the first conversation I had. This particular CEO had twins – a boy and a girl. I explained to him that in Australia today women hold only 3% of CEO positions of the top 200 companies and only 17% of board directorships. That in every sector in Australia the basic rule is that the higher up you go the less women you see. That these results exist despite women representing more than 60% of university graduates and 50.8% of Australia's population. And finally I told him that while women were excluded from power - economic, political and social - they would be marginalised all across Australia.

Whilst we've been talking about the numbers for decades, what shifted for this CEO was the understanding that without intervention by decent powerful men, this story would become his daughter's story. His daughter would not have the same opportunities as his son – all because she was a girl. Not only did he understand the case for change with his head he started to understand it with his heart. What father wouldn't want his daughter to have an equal chance at a life free from man-made barriers.

As one of the male champions explains “Lets not pretend that there aren't already established norms that advantage men. Men invented the system. Men largely run the system. Men need to change the system." And that's what the Male champions of change strategy is all about - men stepping up beside women to change the system.

With that in mind, I remember our first get together 24 A type personalities and me – some having travelled thousands of miles to attend. The men came together to take ownership and commit to the difficult decisions that needed to be taken. As one man said “This issue is not beyond our intellectual capacity to solve. Excuses are just that!”

The discussions are serious, they are led by men, and action is taken.

I do not have time tonight to talk to you about all the actions and outcomes that have resulted from the male champions of change strategy. Suffice to say, one of their greatest contributions has been to change the discourse on gender equality and women’s leadership in Australia – by helping others understand that these issues are not women’s issues – they are leadership issues – that the achievement of gender equality cannot sit on the shoulders of women alone.  
In the last 12 months, despite being the busiest men in our country, they have spoken at over 150 major events in Australia, Washington, New York, Tokyo, London and Brazil to name but a few – persuading others that they must get on board.

Some are doing things that only CEOs can do such as "all roles flex" initiative - changing the starting point of work so that flexibility is the starting point rather than the 24/7 ideal worker model. They have adopted the panel pledge to ensure they do not automatically accept invitations to speak at events where there are few women. And their supplier multiplier initiative will ensure that tens of billions of dollars of annual spend is directed to those partners and suppliers who also care about gender equality.  

In the early days, it would have been easy to dismiss the group as simply another “boys club”. A few people did, especially given there was clearly a reputational and relationship-building opportunity on offer through participation. It took us some time to come to grips with the underlying issues, but once we did, the imperative for a focus on action became clear. We agreed that every member had to play their part and that we would not tolerate free-riders.

The Male Champions recognize that change starts with them. Every single one of them admits to being imperfect as a role model on gender equality. On occasion their actions and words can still unconsciously and inadvertently come across as impolitic or out-dated in a world of gender-nuanced norms and language. But they are committed to learning from their mistakes. This is what strong leadership for gender equality looks like. Listening first, learning through collaborating with others and then taking strong action.

Increasingly, the Male Champions are seeking to engage in societal issues. Understanding that it is personal narratives that create change. Just yesterday I engaged two courageous women - Rosie Batty and Kristy McKellar - both proud Victorians, to share with the champions their stories of surviving domestic violence.

The men heard from Rosie and Kristy about the “pieces that are taken from you that can never be reclaimed” such as the “joy of pregnancy and becoming a mother, the joy of parenting and watching your son grow up”.

The men started to understand at a profoundly human level what it is like for many women - robbed of dignity, living in fear in the very place they should be safe – in their own home.

And over the next few months as they become more comfortable talking about violence against women, you will see them step up their advocacy in this area.

Women lie at the heart of creating a more gender equal world but to make progress we must amplify their voice. As Rosie Batty said when she spoke to the men yesterday “Prior to Luke’s death no-one wanted to hear my story of living with violence. Now everyone does.”

As Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, it saddens me that when women living with violence speak, the system doesn’t listen. If someone had listened to Rosie’s story earlier would she have lost her son?

But it is also equally clear, that women cannot pursue this agenda alone. Men taking the message of gender equality to other men, that is what will change the picture of gender equality in Australia.  

While the Male champions will change corporate environments, and the military cultural reform is progressing, none of this will matter if we don't change the informal social structures that sit around us and exist within our families.

On occasion, when presented with the enormity of creating a more gender equal world, it can be easy to lose faith – to lose faith in the possibility of change.

It is in the small moments that change happens. Just like yesterday, when Kristy McKellar, a courageous domestic violence advocate told the Male Champions, “You listening to our stories gives us back meaning and dignity. It represents the idea that there is hope for change.” Or when Rosie Batty told them “Advocating for a world where women and children can live free from violence gives me a reason to get out of bed each morning.” These are the moments that matter.

We have the beginnings of change, a path to a more equal future, but it starts with us.

When people ask me what will be my greatest achievement as Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner, it won’t be the military or the male champions of change it will be raising my son to believe that equality is the only path.

Thank you.

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner