The way we work creates inequality

Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins tells Anna Green gender inequality is not a men v women problem.

Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins, who chairs Male Champions of Change, has worked in equal-opportunity law since the 1990s. She says back then we thought anti-discrimination laws would bring the change we sought, but they didn’t.

“We’re hopeless on violence against women; we’re hopeless on women’s economic security – as in women are retiring with half the retirement savings of men – and we’re really poor on getting women into leadership roles,” she says in an interview with ANZ Laos chief executive officer Anna Green.

“What we’ve learnt over time is that as well as setting the rules, there’s really deeply embedded systemic and attitudinal barriers preventing women getting through the ranks and we need to change more than the laws. We need to change how we think and we need to change how workplaces work.”

The problem of workplace inequality stems from deeply embedded views that men are tough, strong and ‘natural’ leaders, while women are nurturing and collaborative. In other words, in Australia generally, we’ve stuck very closely to a perception of traditional gender roles.

“So, even though we think we’ve moved forward, there’s still a really strong view that men are the primary breadwinner and a woman who has a child really should be staying home,” Jenkins says. “There’s a strong assumption that a worker works full-time with no visible caring responsibilities, so work is designed that way.”

This view plays out in the recruitment process as well as in a lack of flexible work options and promotional opportunities for women. Jenkins thinks men have a huge role in advocating for change.

“I don’t think gender inequality is a men-versus-women problem; it’s not a whole lot of mean men setting out to hold down really talented women,” she says. “It is in our society and the benefits will help men as well as women.”

In fact, she’s hearing lots of men expressing the desire to work differently so they can be more engaged in parenting.

“They’re saying, ‘I feel really bound up to this idea that I’ve got to work full-time because society says if I’m a real man, that’s what I am going to do’,” she says. “And it’s men all through the organisation making decisions about promotions and [career] development and if a broader range of men stopped to think differently, asking whether there was a woman who they could give an opportunity to, then that would make all the difference.”