Opinion article

Elizabeth Broderick: A reflection on eight years as Sex Discrimination Commissioner

Elizabeth Broderick reflects on eight years as Sex Discrimination Commissioner discussing the role's challenges and why progress in women in leadership has been slow.

From the Pentagon to Penrith, Geneva to Gerroa, it’s been a remarkable privilege to hear and share stories with countless talented, committed and inspiring women and men. Carers, leaders, warriors and children, it is your stories, your lives and your generosity that has made my eight years as Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, unforgettable.


Under the fancy title, is a woman with vulnerabilities and caring responsibilities like so many others. But these aren’t weaknesses. In fact, the contrary.

They have allowed me to connect with people. To celebrate their triumphs and empathise with suffering, and to try my best to find a practical and meaningful response to human hardship.

This is where my job has been the most challenging; where the resilience of others has given me the energy and inspiration to create a strong foundation for future reform.

So many have voices that have resonated with me. Let me share some remarkable stories, from some remarkable women, that I’ve had the privilege of meeting during my term.

There’s June and Emily, two strong Aboriginal women from the Kimberley. Fitzroy Crossing is devastated by 10 suicides in as many months. They can’t wait for government to step up, so they take action and organise a women’s bush camp, to try and find a path out of alcohol misuse and the tragic events that follow.

Catherine, severely abused by her husband, walks almost 60 kilometres to the nearest violence shelter sleeping on the river banks, in the freezing cold, to obtain what most of us take for granted – our freedom.

There’s Maria, working hard in the construction industry. Many of us might take for granted the capacity to have a career and a family in the 21st century. When Maria announces her pregnancy at work, her manager’s response is from the 19th century “your choice Maria, the job or the baby?”

There are so many other individual stories that I could share, but they tend to lead me to the same question: Why is progress so slow?

One reason for this, is that to achieve a critical mass of women in senior positions, most organisations must experience a significant cultural evolution. Much of the formal or overt discrimination against women has been removed in Australia, but the indirect discrimination that remains is corrosive and difficult to combat.

It takes a form that I call “gender asbestos” – attitudes, beliefs and unconscious bias that is built into the walls, floors, ceilings, structures and practices of organisations.  It is often invisible and therefore more difficult to change.

Over the eight years I have been in the role I have become more and more convinced of two things.

Firstly, that to deliver equality for women we actually have to focus on men.  And secondly, that we must make the case for change personal.

Why men?

In my view, one reason many initiatives fail to progress gender equality is that they focus solely on engaging and changing women — from the way women network to the way women lead. Too many organisations look to women alone to change the organisational practices that maintain the status quo. Such an approach fails to recognise the site of most organisational power.  The fact is that in most businesses men control both the human and financial resources.

Placing the onus on women to fix the problem of women's under-representation means that failures are laid at the door of women, rather than identified as systemic deficiencies.

If I had to choose one thing to change, it would be for caring responsibilities to be shared equally between men and women, because there is more that unites us, than divides us.

Women, I encourage you to take on this as a mantra; if equality is my birthright, why should I accept anything less.

Elizabeth Broderick will be speaking at CEDA events around the country, click here for more information.

About the authors

Elizabeth Broderick AO

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Elizabeth Broderick was appointed for a five year term as Sex Discrimination Commissioner in September 2007. The term has been extended to September 2015. She was also the Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination from September 2007 until July 2011.

During Elizabeth's term, she has been committed to improving gender equality through her advocacy in preventing violence against women and sexual harassment, improving lifetime economic security for women, balancing paid work and unpaid caring responsibilities, promoting women’s representation in leadership and strengthening gender equality laws and agencies.