What Matters to Australian Women and Men?

My Listening Tour was about finding out where we are at in our pursuit of gender equality and where we should focus our efforts in the future. I travelled to every state and territory and I personally met over 1000 Australians from all walks of life. Many more had their say on our blog, and many thousands more followed our journey on the internet.

I can report – without reservation – that in 2008, gender inequality remains an everyday lived experience for women and men in Australia. Moreover, people told me loud and clear – gender equality matters.

Following the Listening Tour, I will focus on five key areas that I have identified as important to achieving gender equality.

Achieving greater balance between paid work and family responsibilities for men and women

Across Australia, women and men shared with me the daily grind of balancing work and family. Women continue to do the double shift of paid and unpaid work, while workplace cultures often mean that men can’t access flexible work arrangements, even when they are available. From corporate boardrooms to factories, fathers are feeling the pressure of being the primary breadwinner – and many told me they want to do it differently.

Many businesses are introducing innovative strategies to make family friendly and flexible work more than just empty slogans. Leadership is also needed at the highest levels to drive deep cultural change to make flexible work the norm, not the exception.

No longer can our workplaces afford to only value what is known as the ideal worker – who is male, without visible caring responsibilities and able to exceed full time work hours. This model has never worked well for women and increasingly not for men either.

Support for legislated paid leave for parents is widespread – as far as many are concerned, it is a national embarrassment that Australia lags so far behind our international counterparts. There is no question that paid maternity leave is a basic human right.

I will continue to advocate for a government funded paid leave scheme for parents that is world class – one that delivers for families, employers and government.
Image: Thomas Hawk

Increasing the number of women in leadership positions, including supporting Indigenous women’s leadership

Women’s voices continue to be under represented in leadership and decision making roles across the community, government and business. Increasing women’s representation at the most senior levels is a top priority for achieving gender equality.

While we often hear of the absence of women on boards, it is equally important that we support and resource the efforts of the many women who are working at the grassroots to improve the lives of their communities – women found everywhere across our nation.

During my Tour, I met Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who are driving immense social change within their communities – often in the face of extremely limited resources. They are leading efforts to make their communities safer, healthier and stronger. These women must be supported as leaders in Australia – regionally and on the international stage. There is much to be learned and shared with women across the world.

I am eager to build bridges between the corporate world and Indigenous Australians, particularly through fostering relationships between women leaders in these two spheres of Australian life.

Driving down the incidence of sexual harassment

It is clear from my Listening Tour that there is a need to put sexual harassment back on the radar. Sexual harassment remains embedded in workplaces across Australia. Many women fear repercussions if they complain, describing it as ‘career death’.

Often, employers were reluctant to talk about sexual harassment, and those who did told us they were often unclear about the best way to respond. Sexual harassment comes at a high cost – both to individuals and business. We can no longer afford that cost.

I have commissioned a national survey to track trends in the nature and extent of sexual harassment in Australia. I will use this research to develop an education strategy, aimed at employees and employers, to reduce the incidence and impact of sexual harassment.

It is my goal that in five years time, every employee in Australia will know their rights about sexual harassment and feel confident to make a complaint. I want to see that every employer – small or large – understands their responsibilities and is taking active steps to prevent and eradicate sexual harassment.

Reducing the gender gap in retirement savings

Half of all women aged 45-59 have $8000 or less in retirement savings – compared to $31,000 for men. This is an injustice which, if left unaddressed, will only grow as a major social and economic problem.

On my Listening Tour, many older women shared their anxieties about living in poverty in their later years struggling to make ends meet, often after a life spent caring for others. Unless action is taken, many more will share this same fate.

Addressing women’s low levels of superannuation and retirement savings includes looking at innovative ways to recognise and value unpaid work, the large majority of which is done by women.

This is a very complex area of public policy. I will be working with a range of experts – academic, government, policy, finance and superannuation – to investigate these factors. People who spend a lifetime providing care deserve better than poverty in their old age.

Strengthening laws to address sex discrimination and promote gender equality

Strong legal protection from sex discrimination and sexual harassment is at the foundation of gender equality. In 2008, it is time to look at ways to improve protection afforded by law.

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee is currently undertaking a review of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth). This is an historic opportunity for us to evaluate whether the legislation has effectively delivered on its objectives.

It is clear that protection from discrimination on the grounds of family responsibilities needs to be broadened. Currently, it only covers individuals if they are sacked because of family responsibilities, and provides even less coverage for men. We need to secure a first-rate system of legal protection from sex discrimination and sexual harassment for Australia.

The pursuit of gender equality in Australia is a shared vision. Governments, women’s organisations, community groups, researchers, business, unions, and many others each play a crucial role. I look forward to working in collaboration with all of them to make this vision a reality.

This is an edited extract from a speech given by federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick on 22 July 2008, as she launched the report from her Listening Tour of Australia. A full transcript of the speech and report are available at www.humanrights.gov.au.

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