In  terms of gender equality, we really must do better

Kate Jenkins

I began my new role as Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner knowing there are three areas that require immediate attention.

We have to address the prevalence of violence against women and girls in this country. It's a disgrace.

We also have to address the lack of diversity at decision-making 
levels. Women are significantly under-represented in management and at board level in the public, private and community sectors and in government.

And without equal pay and better lifetime economic security for women and girls, we will never achieve an equal society. In Australia today, the average, full-time, weekly earnings for women is 17.3 per cent less than for men. This really needs to change.

I was a 1960s baby, raised in a time of huge social change: no fault divorce, contraception, women were permitted to work beyond marriage, equal pay was legislated, and in the 1970s and 80s laws were enshrined to prohibit sex discrimination.

I remember the headlines in the Sun News Pictorial in 1979 as it covered the landmark court case brought by Deborah Wardley against Ansett Airlines and its legendary, patrician founder, Reg Ansett. Deborah Wardley wanted to be a pilot. She had every possible professional, technical, psychological and meritorious reason to support her many, rejected applications. In short, Mr Ansett argued that he wasn't prepared to risk the safety of his passengers by having an emotional, unpredictable woman in the cockpit. The High Court heard his argument and recognised it was time for change. Deborah Wardley won.

As a young teenager, I knew the Deborah Wardley story marked an important milestone. Like many kids around me, I saw a future in which discriminatory attitudes about women as the 'weaker sex' were being replaced by a recognition that men and women were equal.

I never imagined that I would work in a profession which was still in pursuit of gender equality and fairness. I thought we'd be there by now. It wouldn't have occurred to me that we would be so far from equality in 2016 that we would still need a Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

A series of landmark sex discrimination cases followed the Wardley case, exposing inequality in mining, building sites, law firms, universities, government departments, technology companies, department stores and banks. And through these cases we built the necessary legal infrastructure to protect our rights to a workplace and a community free from discrimination.

But in recent times, landmark court cases have been overtaken by media exposés of scandalous sex discrimination in workplaces, in the community and online, all happening despite our established legal protections.

Think of the so called 'Skype sex scandal' in the Australian Defence Force Academy. My predecessor Liz Broderick began working with the ADF to change its culture, and this is one of the most significant tasks I will continue to drive forward as Sex Discrimination Commissioner. Think about the trainee surgeons, who for many years reported, without success, pervasive and serious problems with bullying and sexual harassment. Sydney vascular surgeon, Dr Gabrielle McMullin, controversially blew the whistle on this in her International Women's Day speech in 2015.

It's just over a century since women in this country were given the right to vote and to own property. In that same century, we have invented electric cars, rocket ships and space-shuttles; mobile phones and the internet; penicillin and a cure for smallpox. We've identified the double helix, transplanted hearts and created clones. We have walked on the Moon and left calling cards on Mars. But in terms of gender equality, we really must do better.

Our nation, theoretically, has already accepted and supports the concept of gender equality. We've fought and won the legal, political and industrial battles to prove it. We've thrashed out policy; debated legislation; enshrined laws; established real expectations and built solid systems for compliance, complaint and enforcement.

So, what do we need to keep doing, and what do we need to do differently?

Modern workplaces and households need to change to match the needs of our community, where both men and women want an active role in parenting as well as decent work. To achieve that, we need to simultaneously support working parents, promote women's workforce participation, and ensure women's economic security.

We need equal pay. We need access to adequate paid parental leave and flexible, affordable, accessible child care. We need better sharing of unpaid caring responsibilities and workforce participation. We need access to valuable and flexible work for all. We need less discrimination against working parents. We need to remove barriers to career progression for women. And we need zero tolerance for sexual harassment and sexism.

Now is the time to think boldly and innovatively about how we can create widespread awareness and long-lasting attitudinal change, and ensure this change occurs at a faster rate.

I look forward to a day when men and women are accepted into all walks of life and work — from parenting to rocket science — on the basis of who they are and what they do, and not their gender.

KATE JENKINS is Australia's newly appointed Sex Discrimination 
Commissioner. This is an edited extract of a speech delivered at the National Press Club on 20 April 2016.

© 2016 Kate Jenkins
(2016) 41(2) AltLJ 80
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