Soon after being appointed as Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick set out a blueprint to progress women’s equality.
In the years since, many of those goals have become real. Making her farewell address at the National Press Club on September 2, Ms Broderick quickly ran through a list of the prime achievements.
How far we’ve come
"Australia now has a national paid parental leave scheme. We also have two weeks of dad and partner pay."
That was one of Ms Broderick’s leading objectives soon after taking up the Sex Discrimination Commissioner post. And she said the scheme that was introduced by the federal government in 2011 is meeting the objectives that were set out.
Changes proposed in the latest federal budget would change it, meaning 80,000 new mothers employed in the private-sector would no longer have full access to $11,500 in public payments.
“Any move to pare back the support that you need at a time when you’re welcoming a new baby into a family; or to pare back women’s ability to come into paid work, will mean we just reinforce some of the gender gaps that currently exist for women in this nation. And that’s the risk of taking the scheme potentially backwards,” she said.
Another key achievement highlighted by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner is the acceptance of true flexible working. This initiative simply redefines all of an organisation’s working roles from full-time to flexible status. “Under law, we now have the right to request flexible work,” said Ms Broderick.
Telstra was the first major Australian company to introduce this approach to flexible working, which has also been taken up by ANZ, ASX and others.
And though at ASX 200 companies such as these women may only represent about 20 per cent of directorships, Ms Broderick said that is double the number of eight years ago.
One force calling for further change in women’s representation at this level is the Male Champions of Change, set up by the Commissioner during her tenure and described as a “disruptive initiative”. The champions are leading businessmen who “elevate” the issue of women’s representation.
There are almost 30 champions including Goldman Sachs chief executive officer for Australia and New Zealand, Simon Rothery; Qantas Airways chief Alan Joyce; and ANZ CEO Shayne Elliott.
Ms Broderick also nominated a stronger Sex Discrimination Act, employers’ acknowledgement of domestic violence as a workplace issue, and stronger data about sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination and to formulate policy, as noteworthy achievements of the past eight years.
Problems that persist
Ms Broderick did not shy away from pointing out key areas where women’s mistreatment and inequality remain clear.
Despite organisations’ efforts to implement policies and standards against harassment, she said a study in 2012 found “one in four women have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the past five years”.
Even more commonly, in 2014 the Australian Human Rights Commission found that one in two women experience pregnancy discrimination when they tell their manager that a child is on the way, try to go on parental leave or seek to come back to work in a flexible arrangement.
“That’s where our focus should be because we won’t hear about that. Only 9 per cent of women ever speak out about that. That’s because at the time you’re welcoming a baby into the family, do you have the emotional energy to do anything about it?”
Such career breaks directly contribute to Australia’s gender pay gap. Citing the 2015 ANZ Women’s Report, Ms Broderick said the pay gap for full-time working Australian women over a typical 45-year career equates to about $700,000. “That’s enough to buy an average Australian home. It shouldn’t surprise us therefore that women have just over half the retirement income and savings of men.”
Linked to this, “the majority of unpaid caring work, whether that’s caring for children, or a family member or friend with disability – is undertaken by women”. These responsibilities usually involve a career break and set women back financially.
And despite increases in women’s representation at board level, Ms Broderick said there is continued under-representation of women in leadership positions, in the community, in business, in the board rooms and in parliaments.
“Fewer big Australian companies are run by women than by men named Peter. Indeed, companies run by a ‘Peter’, a ‘Michael’, a ‘David’ or an ‘Andrew’ outnumber those run by women four to one,” Ms Broderick said.
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. The picture I have just painted of continuing inequality is not the ravings of the feminist left but rather the hard facts as described by reputable bodies such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics.”
Photo credit: Helen Melville Photography