Skip to main content

Women at Work... (2007)

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

Women at Work...
come and find out the naked truth

National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW) Cocktail Party

Speech given by
Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination Commissioner
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission


I want to start by acknowledging that we are gathered on the traditional land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and pay my respect to their elders past and present.

To acknowledge Indigenous Australians and their role as custodians of this great land is perhaps more important now than ever before. Right now, we are at a cross-road – we need to find the right way forward to grapple with our past history and to achieve equality for Indigenous peoples across our nation. I acknowledge that I have a role in that journey, and so do we all.

So, it is with great pleasure that, just a few weeks into the job. I am with you in a room full of such fantastic women, all here because you also have a commitment to making a difference to the future health of our country.

This evening, we are here to discuss the truth about working life.

I am sure many of you already have a pretty good idea about the gap between rhetoric and reality. Tonight presents us with a wonderful opportunity to connect, to share our experiences and to build a picture, and a future game plan for change in these heady days before the federal election.

My position on the question of where women are up to is quite simple really – the naked truth is that when it comes to supporting women in the workplace the emperor well and truly has no clothes and it is about time we tapped him on the shoulder and told him so!

We have had decades of social, demographic and legislative change that has meant that young Australian women enthusiastically pursue opportunities their predecessors could hardly imagine. Yet if we look at a case study I’m very familiar with, it is clear that while expectations have changed and formal mechanisms for achieving equality have been put in place, we have a long, long way to go.

Consider this. 68.8 per cent of our law graduates are women, yet just one year out, their median salaries are down $1,600 compared to their male counterparts. Lack of senior role models, proper mentoring and quality part time work, child bearing overlapping 100% with putting in the hours to pursue partnership – means that this talented group of young women continue to face incredible odds in terms of career progression.

The facts speak for themselves. In New South Wales firms [21+ partners] women represent only 20 per cent of principals, while in the Federal Court of Australia, women only make up 13 per cent of the bench.

And it’s not just happening in Australia. I was astounded to read the latest survey of America’s best law firms for women. The survey which listed the 50 best law firms for women to work at included at least 6 law firms where the number of female partners was less than 10 percent. And across the firms women accounted for just 16% of equity partnerships. This is in an environment where for at least the last 15 years women have numbered over 50% of graduates from law school.

We have a problem that time alone will not fix.

The real crunch for these women, as with women in other industries, comes with the birth of a child, when the 24/7 business model no longer works. It’s at this point that a woman must make impossible trades off between work and family, and often carry the guilt of not spending enough time at home or in the workplace. As Anne Summers explained to me recently “Babies are the new glass ceiling!”

An inability to properly balance work and family has an impact beyond the lives of individual women and their families. Workforce participation of mothers in Australia is very low compared with our sisters overseas. The OECD’s data on maternal employment shows Australia is in the bottom three for those with children under 5. This is a poor return on the massive investment we as a nation spend on education. And our workforce certainly suffers when it loses the talents and skills of women. We have to ask whether we would even have the current skills shortage if we had put more effort into retaining women in the workforce rather than expecting them to opt out indefinitely because they decide to have a child or care for a loved one. And in case you think that gender stereotypes are long gone let me recount a story ......

I want to pay credit where credit is due – some industries do very well in providing flexible, family-friendly working arrangements. A number of the major banks, professional services firms, government departments seem to be forging ahead in this area. It is a testament to women and men who have campaigned for these changes over many years that we have come as far as we have. These changes have principally happened because women have made them happen and because women continue to drive them.

Gender equality is unfinished business.

We are yet to see full scale change for the majority of women in the workforce, particularly those at the lower end of the labour market. We have made no progress on the gender pay gap in 15 years, paid maternity leave is only available to a third of women, and many of us face poverty in retirement. Baby boomer women in particular are going to do it tough – half of all women aged between 45-59 have $8 000 or less in superannuation.

Some would say women in Australia are doing well – look at the rate of part time work for women, for example – 45 per cent of women workers work part time. This would be great if all of that work had decent pay and conditions, and if women didn’t suffer in terms of training, skills development and career progression as a result. It is theoretically a good way for many women to balance work and family life. I know from having been the beneficiary of such an arrangement for over 11 years. However the recently released Australian Work and Life Index shows women who work part-time are typically the most time-poor as they attempt to fulfil expectations on both the work and family front. 73 per cent of all women workers with children often or always feel rushed for time. Overall, caring responsibilities have a stronger negative effect on work-life outcomes for women than for men.

It is blindingly obvious that in addition to better support from employers and government, we also need attitudinal change in order to progress gender equality. As a society we have barely made an impact in terms of widespread attitudinal change in the key areas that affect women. Why is it that in 2007 those competing for our votes only consider work and family as a soft issue, a “women’s issue”?

Yes - It obviously is a crucial issue for women but it goes beyond that.

It is time we started seeing this issue mainstreamed as something that applies to men, most of whom also have family responsibilities. Without getting men on board to push for change in this area – and men in senior roles are well placed to do this – we won’t see this issue get the policy attention it deserves. Until men start to take up what family-friendly policies they already have, and until they start feeling entitled to push for more of them, family-friendly workplaces will continue to be seen as “employers being nice to women” and it is women who will remain the ones who try to have it all by doing it all at work and at home. We need men to mainstream flexible work, to take parental leave, to purchase additional leave, to take career breaks. When family friendly policies are accessed by men to the same extent as women we will know we are on the road to success.

We need an approach that looks at the whole life cycle, that recognises that people may move in and out of paid work as their caring responsibilities change. And Australia’s ageing population is adding real impetus to the arguments for change. With people retiring later in life, we will increasingly be working and providing care to family and loved ones at the same time. In other words, combining working and caring is a challenge we will all share, whatever the face of our family.

As I settle into the job of Sex Discrimination Commissioner, I know I’ve got an important role to play as a strong and independent voice for women. But I also intend to get men on board. Until we change the face of ‘success’ from being a ‘never at home man’, to ‘well-balanced men and women pulling together’ - we will never get the cultural change we need - either at work or on the home front. And from my own experience I genuinely believe that’s what most women – and men – want!

When I took this position, I promised myself that I wouldn’t make assumptions about what the issues are So, I’m about to start on my first project – travelling around the country on my national listening tour. I will be travelling to every state and territory, in order to hear first hand from women – and men from all walks of life. I want people to tell me what they really want - and how they think I can help them to get it. And I am determined to meet and hear the voices of people who are not always heard – from Indigenous communities in the most remote parts of Australia and migrant workers in rural areas, through to the dynamic business leaders who are just getting on the with the job.

The naked truth for me is that I’ve got the opportunity to make a real difference to gender equality in the lives of Australian women and men but I’ve only got 5 years to do it.

So I plan to get cracking!

Tonight I am thrilled to be amongst you and am looking forward to getting some wise and winning tips from you and my fellow panellists.

Thank you.

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner