INTERVIEW: Elizabeth Broderick

Newly-appointed sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick tells Business Spectator's Madeleine Heffernan why she wants to push for paid parental leave and her plans to be a more vocal than her predecessors.

Newly-appointed sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick tells Business Spectator's Madeleine Heffernan why she wants to push for paid parental leave and her plans to be a more vocal than her predecessors.

Madeleine Heffernan: Firstly, congratulations.

Elizabeth Broderick: We’ve got gender back on the nation’s agenda for a few days which is terrific.

MH: What are your goals for your time in the role?

EB: The priority areas that I listed when I launched the action plan recently, but it’s as much how I do it as what I do, because I really believe we are what we do, not what we say. For me it’s: do I listen? Do I model some of the work and family balance that I’m talking about as a sex discrimination commissioner? Do I use the technology strategically? Do I build bridges between disparate groups? I suppose if I can answer those questions with a yes, that’s what success would look like for me.
MH: What are those priorities areas?

EB: There are five priority areas. First is balancing work and family, and that involves paid maternity and paternity leave and mainstreaming flexible work arrangements. Second is driving down the incidence of sexual harassment in Australia. Three, bridging the gender gap in retirement savings, the fact is that women still have substantially less retirement savings than men. Number four, strengthening the laws to address sex discrimination and gender equality, and the government has announced a senate inquiry into that. The final one is around women and leadership. Women continue to be under-represented in leadership roles

MH: How would you rate Australian business on a global scale for gender equality, particularly at a management level?

EB: Well, look at the stats that EOWA (Equality for Women in the Workplace Agency) puts out. Take boards for example. Women represent 8.7 per cent of board members, up from 8.3 per cent over a couple of years. I’d have to say that’s a glacial pace for change. We’re not doing terribly well around women on boards, with the exception of government boards. If you look at women at senior levels of business, I think it’s around 12 per cent of executive management level, so we’re not doing terribly well there either. So I’m not optimistic about this idea of a trickle up effect, or that time’s going to fix this, I just don’t think that’s the case.

MH: What are your ideas for increasing senior representation of women in business?

EB: Just recently I spoke with 200 women from the financial services industry and in terms of issues around women and leadership I think there a number of things. There’s a lack of role models doing it differently and there’s two aspects to this. One, there’s a lack of senior female role models. You can’t be what you can’t see. It’s hard to look above and see someone who’s doing a job that you would like to do or working in a way that works for you.

But also there’s a lack of male role models who are working differently. By that I mean, working in flexible work arrangements at a really senior level, for example. I do think one of the key problems is the limited availability of part-time work at the most senior level. There’s a lot of flexibility for lower-paid, lower-skilled workers, casual work, hospitality, retail, whatever, but if we’re looking at those senior roles, they are being done one way and it’s really 24/7.

It’s almost what I call the "ideal worker” model. The "ideal worker” is often someone who’s male, who has no visible caring responsibilities and is available 24/7. I don’t think it works for many women, it will work for some and increasingly it’s not working for men.

The other thing is addressing some of the systemic areas of sex discrimination that are holding women back, such as work place cultures. Often these are not terribly inclusive of women, and women have talked to me about this as I’ve travelled around. The fact is they feel they’re not developed in the same way that their male colleagues are. This is in terms of the amount of training that they have access to, how they’re passed over for promotion because of their caring responsibilities or their gender. There’s a disparity between the policies that are in place in a lot of organisations and the actual practise and the culture. We might have a policy that says you can take this much maternity leave, but there’s a culture that says "yeah, look do it, but you’re not a serious player”.

MH: Do you believe that paid maternity leave is likely to happen any time soon?

EB: I’m hopeful, I’m forever optimistic. I think we have now got a good starting point. One of the things I’ve done with Sharan Burrows from the ACTU and Heather Ridout from the Australian Industry Group is come together to say "there’s some basic principles that unions, business, statutory appointee, all agree on". Number one is we need a scheme, number two is that it needs to allow mothers to recover from the childbirth and bond with their babies, but it also needs to work for business. Because this is actually about ensuring that women are connected with the labour market.

I think that we’ve got some agreement, there’s a broad agreement that a good starting point is around 14 weeks paid maternity leave. You may have been following that this is before the Productivity Commission, and one of the great things about that is that there’s been a whole plethora of innovative schemes put to the Commission. For example we’ve seen suggestions that we start with 14 weeks paid maternity leave and then two weeks paid paternity leave. I very much think that we need to be including men in all of this. If we’re serious about gender equality, it’s about men and women coming together to create a fairer and more equal Australia.

MH: In regards to childcare, there was research recently that said the association between childcare costs and maternal employment is weak and economically insignificant and that decreasing the cost of childcare has only marginal positive effects of labour supply. What are your thoughts on the importance of childcare for encouraging women’s participation in the work force?

EB: I think that ensuring women have access to high quality cost effective childcare, is one piece of a matrix that’s necessary to support parents.

I briefly saw that report; I haven’t been able to have a look at it in a huge amount of detail. But one thing I would say is that as we travelled around Australia I met women who were actually paying to go to work. It was costing them $20 a day to go to work. But they still continued to do that because paid work was an important part of who they were, and they need that to keep attached to the labour market, to be seen not to be losing their skills.

So I do think, yes at the end of the day the finances in a family all have to tally up, there’s no question of that. But childcare is an important part. Another thing to consider is that a lot of women would use informal care. I mean, grandparents are the largest providers of informal care in our society today, and a lot of the women I met and a lot of the men I spoke to talked about how they used informal care. So it’s not the total picture but it’s an important part of it.

MH: You spoke before about breaching the retirement gap. Is one of the options on the table cutting contribution tax for women’s super?

EB: I think every option is on the table, what I’m hoping to do is bring together the key players and stakeholders in this area and for me it’s about putting the human face to it. That human face is women who have given a life to caring for others, living in poverty in their final years. So the aim is to put the human face to the situation, to scope the problem out, and identify what the issues are.

We pretty much know the cause of it, women being in and out of the paid workforce. Many women I met were not invited to join the superannuation fund. I just met someone who said that first she had to leave the workforce because of a Commonwealth marriage ban, which only ended in 1967. It's not ancient history.

So what we’re seeing is the years of systemic discrimination coming to a situation where from this generation of baby boomers many women are facing a future in poverty. So what are the options? There are no easy solutions, I think we can safely say that. They’re all quite complex. Financial literacy only goes part of the way I think. We need some systemic intervention.

MH: Presumably another reason women have lower retirement savings is because they earn less. Is pay parity between men and women a mirage?

EB: No, I think it exists and there are figures there to show that it exists. We’re talking about equal pay for work of equal value here. The fact is that women are often congregated in sectors that are largely feminised and they’re the lower paid sectors. The caring sectors, for example, aged care, child care, hospitality.

MH: So do you think the difference between men and women’s pay is related to the sectors that they work in, rather than overt cases of sexual discrimination?

EB: It’s a complex issue. It’ll relate to the sectors they work in and it’ll relate to undervaluing of women’s work generally. Another thing is women are more likely to work part time and they’re more likely to trade off pay for family friendly work conditions. So it’s all those things together. One thing I think though is that since the introduction of the sex discrimination act, 25 years ago, I think a lot of the overt sex discrimination is reducing, it’s not gone by any means, but it’s reducing. It’s all those more systemic, harder to deal with because they’re not as visible, issues.

MH: Like being looked over for promotion?

EB: Yes, those type of things. Exactly. And sexual harassment plays into that as well.

MH: How do you define sexual harassment?

EB: Unwanted, unwelcome – that’s a really important word, unwelcome – conduct of a sexual nature which intimidates or offends.

MH: Do we have any figures on how prevalent sexual harassment is?

EB: Yes, that’s one of the things I recently announced, that I have commissioned a national telephone survey to identify the incidents of sexual harassment and the nature of it. But we have some figures from 2003 which were benchmarking figures and 28 per cent of women have been sexually harassed in the work place and 7 per cent of men. So what I'm doing now is asking, "are we getting better or worse at this?” and we will have that data over the next few months to really allow us to identify that and to also start to cut the data by industry and have a lot more information.

MH: You’ve also been consulting about the issue of age discrimination. How does that issue overlap with your sexual discrimination research?

EB: One of the main issues there is around removing obstacles in the work place to older workers, or more mature workers, continuing to have some attachment to the workplace. I think it overlaps in that area of flexible work as a potential solution. Flexible employment works for mums with children, it works for dads with children, it works for people with caring responsibilities for older people in our society, but it also works for older workers. And for people with disabilities who may not be able to work at the same pace as others because of their disability. There’s a lot of cross over there.

MH: I’m presuming that you have a great deal of contacts from your time in business, how will you be exploiting that potential?

EB: That’s one of the fantastic things for me coming into this role, I’ve realised that sometimes business is left out of these conversations, say around our social change. If I look at gender equality and age discrimination, two areas I’m responsible for, it’s about government, the community and business particularly, coming together to solve these issues. We can’t leave business out. When you look at the places people congregate, after school the workplace really plays an important part in most people’s lives. So for me, having really strong connections across corporate Australia and bringing those contacts together with leaders in the community sector with government is really important. It’s together we’re going to find solutions to a lot of these issues because they are very complex.

One of the things I announced recently is that one of the first things I would do in terms of women and leadership is to bring together some of the corporate women leaders together with some of the indigenous women leaders, to really share skills share knowledge and create a critical mass of female leaders in this country. That’s something that I’m already working with government on.

MH: It sounds like you’ve already been busy. It has been said that you only hear from sexual discrimination commissioners when they’ve been appointed and when they depart. Do you think that’s a fair call?

EB: No, I don’t think that, mainly because part of my brief is around public education. It’s around advocacy. Those things I take very seriously, they’re very important. It’s not about me individually finding the solutions. It’s about starting public conversations, engaging with the business community, government and unions, to work to solve some of these issues. Unless I’m out there talking about the issues that matter and some of the possible solutions, I don’t see how I can be successful in bringing about the change.

MH: Do you have any plans to enter politics afterwards?

EB: (laughs) No not at this stage!

MH: Thank you very much for your time and good luck.

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