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Work and Family Balance in 2008 – Community voices

Sex Discrimination

‘Work and Family Balance in 2008 – Community

NEEOPA Meeting, 13 February 2008

Speech by Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner and
Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination.

It is a great pleasure to be invited to meet with such a highly skilled and
dynamic group of people, especially on this momentous day for our nation, where
this morning I sat with my colleagues at the Commission watching the Australian
Parliament issue an apology to the Stolen Generations. I want to begin my talk
today by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we are
meeting, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, as well as acknowledging the
resilience and the spirit of Indigenous people across the country.

Today I have been asked to talk about work and family and in particular to
share with you some of what I have been hearing around the country on my
national Listening Tour.

I’ll start by giving you a bit of background to the Tour and then offer
my initial reflections, given that my team and I are just over half way through
the Tour and still gathering stories from the community and analysing the themes
that are emerging.

When I got the phone call last year telling me I was going to be appointed as
the new Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age
Discrimination, I knew this was the opportunity to make a difference on the
issues that are very close to my heart. I was – and remain –
excited about the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Soon after I started in the role I was asked what my agenda and priorities
would be. Of course I came with my own ideas, assumptions and experience. One
way to go about it would have been to sit up in Piccadilly Tower with my team
and draw up a game plan for the next five years. That would have been the easy

Another way to go about it was to get out into the community and hear what
the issues are – what do the women and men of Australia see as the
pressing issues in 2008? And what ideas do they have for change?

And so, in November last year my Listening Tour kicked off in South
Australia. Let me tell you that it has been an incredible experience so far. I
have met with many diverse groups of people – women from Chinese
backgrounds, working in factories, male abattoir workers, African Australians,
carers, and women and men working in the financial services industry just to
name a few.

I have also met with a range of government stakeholders to look at ways we
can work across all levels of government to address the issues raised in my

Another exciting aspect of this project is the virtual Listening Tour. I have
started a Listening Tour blog online, which I believe is the first of its kind
for a federal government agency. The purpose of the blog is to allow people to
contribute their experiences and ideas on-line as well as building a virtual
community around the issues of gender equality. Participation is at the heart of
human rights and for this reason we want to provide as many ways as possible for
people to connect with us. We have had over 5,300 page views in the 3 months
since we went live.

I encourage all of you to have a look at my Tour Diary and the blogs that
members of the public have been contributing to. I’d also like you add a
contribution, because while we have had about 60 people telling their stories, I
want to read many more by the end of the Tour.

Of course this is new territory and it is early days yet. It is my hope that
this blog is the start of an online conversation, and that we continue to
explore new and innovative ways of community engagement offered to us by

What is surprising me the most about the Listening Tour are the common
experiences I am hearing from community, business, government and academics

I came into the position with three broad themes – economic
independence for women, work and family balance over the lifecycle and freedom
from discrimination, harassment and violence.

On the Listening Tour I have been asking people about their experiences and
ideas relating to these themes. I would like to share a few of these in the area
of work and family balance today, although of course this issue actually runs
across each of my themes.

One of the key questions I have been asking people is how do we create a
society which allows women and men to balance their work and caring
responsibilities? While caring for young children in particular is a big
balancing act, this question is not only about looking after kids. With the
rapid ageing of the Australian population, we are facing up to the fact that
most of us are all likely be caring for parents and elderly relatives at some
point too.

Despite being told that we are living in an era of choice and freedom, when a
baby comes along, or when we are faced with another caring responsibility, most
of us feel quite differently. Rigid and outdated policies and social
expectations create an environment of constrained choices for women. On my
Listening Tour, I have met countless women who tell me the all-too-common story
of being forced into the ‘financial decision’ of who works and who
does the caring in a relationship.

And I have heard about the ‘pressure cooker’ that is the
experience of women balancing work and family commitments. For women on low
incomes, single women, women who don’t have family to assist with their
caring responsibilities, women who are doing the double shift of working full
time and carrying the load of unpaid work, women who don’t have access to
family friendly workplace policies - for all these women, the daily
preoccupation of managing the household, child care, school holidays, and before
and after school care is piling up – and add to this a job. For women on
low incomes and single mothers in particular, financial as well as time poverty
is a daily challenge. Really, it is no revelation that balancing work and family
has been a strong resonating theme of my Tour so far.

And there are a few specific issues on this theme I would like to share with
you today.

Paid maternity leave is a recurring theme. Coming from a place where I had
access to paid maternity leave I was astonished to find that only 1 in 3
Australian mums have access to paid maternity leave.

During the course of my Listening Tour, paid maternity leave has been raised
again and again. For example, one woman in Tasmania told me she was unwell
during pregnancy and so had used up all her leave – she had to go back to
work days after the birth.

Women everywhere are telling me loud and clear that this basic entitlement
would make a world of difference. It would do so by maintaining women’s
workplace attachment, offering some economic security, and providing the
necessary time for recovery from child birth and the establishment of

As one of two remaining OECD countries without this very basic workplace
right, I certainly see this as non-negotiable for my term as Sex Discrimination

Another issue that has been raised by men during the Listening Tour is the
pressure they feel to be the primary breadwinner.

Whether this pressure comes from financial necessity, social expectations or
workplace culture, the resulting story is the same. We have a common scenario of
the ‘always at work’ dad, with women continuing to carry most of the
unpaid work in the family. Men are telling me that they want to do it
differently and we need structures and policies to support this.

What we need to address this imbalance is the widespread take up of flexible
work practices by both women and men. And I’m not talking about
flexibility where a 5 day a week job is crammed into 3 days a week – as
one person on the Listening Tour described it. Or where it is expected that
because you have been given a Blackberry you will be answering emails around the
clock. I am talking about genuine job redesign and innovation. This requires a
significant shift in our collective thinking around what success looks like in
the workplace.

As you know, many workplaces are now offering flexibility as a way to recruit
and retain staff and they should be applauded for this. But the questions we
need to ask are how widely are these policies being taken up, at what levels and
what is the gender breakdown? I am particularly concerned with how many senior
men we see in any sector working part time or in flexible work arrangements.

Until we have the top male CEOs in this nation leading by example, and
modelling flexibility at the highest levels, we will continue to send the
message that the ideal worker is one who is:

  1. male;
  2. ever present and working a 50 hour week minimum; and
  3. completely devoid of any care responsibilities.

I’ve often said that even the Prime Minister’s job
should be able to be done flexibly. People have laughed but really, I am keen to
hear what you think about that?

Another reoccurring theme is the issue of sexual harassment – which is
actually part of my last theme – but it is an issue that indirectly
impacts on women’s ability to balance work and family because it stops
women from being able to participate in the workforce from a position of

Women I speak to, across all sectors and levels, have told me that sexual
harassment is alive and well. Women – and men – have also told me of
the level of confusion about what constitutes appropriate behaviour in the
workplace, particularly in relation to new technologies.

In industries where there is a high level of social activity associated with
the work, this line is even more blurry.

It has been disheartening to hear young women say that they have experienced
sexual harassment but didn’t know they had any rights and that just
leaving the job is the safest option. Or hearing from older women that reporting
sexual harassment is ‘career suicide’. Or hearing their fears that
after reporting harassment they will be forever known as a bit
‘unhinged’. When describing an incident of sexual harassment one
woman said, ‘I would not only have been a victim of the incident; I
would have become victim of repercussions of bringing the incident to

The issues I have mentioned just now give you some idea of what has been
raised with me during my Tour. The next question you are all thinking is what I
plan to do about them. My Listening Tour ends in April and this is when I will
be sitting down with all the information I have collected and making a decision
about my priorities for the next four and a half years. However, I would like to
let you in on a couple of things I have in mind for my term.

With a fresh political landscape, many women’s advocates and
organisations are eager to see progress on key gender equality issues. One
project I am very keen to promote is establishing some benchmarks to measure our
progress towards gender equality. I see this is an important tool, for the
community, government and independent bodies such as HREOC, in being able to
track how we are travelling on the key indicators of equality.

How are we progressing on the gender pay gap? How are we going on
women’s workforce participation? How are we going on the division of paid
and unpaid work? What about violence against women?

Of course we can seek out the statistics on these and many other areas but
there is no comprehensive set of indicators for us to measure our progress

It is crucial for EEO/diversity practitioners – as it is for policy
makers and the rest of the Australian community – to be informed by
evidence. Having gender equality benchmarks not only provides us with an
indication of where we are at as a nation, but it also gives us an idea of how
well our policies and programs are working and tells us where we need to focus
our efforts in the future.

Importantly, they are a mechanism for accountability.

Given what I am hearing from the community, I will also be continuing the
work of my predecessor in pushing for paid maternity leave. I am encouraged by
the priority that the new federal government is giving to their election promise
of referring the matter to the Productivity Commission for investigation,
including what I hope will be fully costed models that take into account the
various savings that can be made in other welfare payments and child care

Another area where I would like to make some inroads is engaging with men on
the equality agenda. We have done very well in getting women on board, and much
of this can be attributed to the dedicated work of women’s groups who have
fought tirelessly for equality.

What I know from my travels around the country is that men need to be part of
this story too.

Legislation can be easy to introduce, as can policies and programs.
Attitudinal change is the difficult part, and this is where we really need the
voices of men, particularly those who are role models, to share their vision for

Once we reach a tipping point in our social consciousness, policy makers will
have no choice but to get with the program!

These are just a few of the ideas I have been thinking about while I have
been travelling around the country, and I’m sure I’ll be considering
many more in the next couple of months when I visit the Northern Territory,
Western Australia and Queensland.

Thanks so much for the invitation to speak today. I’m happy to
elaborate on any of the issues I’ve raised, and am keen to get your input
on setting the agenda for my term as Commissioner.

Thank you.