Why Australia has a long way to go when it comes to gender equality

Kate Jenkins, the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, has driven Australia’s sex discrimination agenda since 2016. A long way from her orchard upbringing, she embarked on a career in corporate law.

She admits to always having a drive for justice; it is this drive that now sees her tackling the big issue of sex discrimination in Australia. And here’s a spoiler: it’s not only about equality for women in the workplace. Kate offers her insights on what her job entails, the challenges she has been facing head on and why Australia shouldn’t rest on its laurels as it relates to gender equality and diversity.

You’ve been your role since 2016 – what are some of the issues that you are grappling with in your role currently?

I began this role at a time when there had been great progress for Australian women, especially in laws prohibiting discrimination. There was also a heightened awareness of the benefits of gender equality, particularly in the corporate sector. Leaders were, for the first time, actively prioritising diversity as a business imperative.

Despite all this, we are still a long way from gender equality. As a nation, we are still attached to some deeply-ingrained gender stereotypes at home and at work, which are socialised from birth. Helping to shift these stereotypes continues to be a key challenge in my role.

Right now, we are in an environment where there’s unprecedented backlash against initiatives aimed at supporting women. From social media death threats against university students who set up cupcake stalls to highlight the gender pay gap, to mainstream commentators suggesting the resignation of the woman chair of AMP is proof that women on boards has been an abject failure. The resistance to change feels louder than ever.

At the same time, both traditional and social media can have a positive impact on gender equality. The #MeToo movement has highlighted the prevalence, harm and silence around sexual harassment and has shocked many leaders into action. Other campaigns like Kirstin Ferguson’s twelve month #CelebratingWomen campaign on twitter, can play an important role in recognising the achievements of everyday women.

However, progress towards gender equality is in danger of plateauing. There will be complacency if we believe those who argue, despite the facts, that gender equality has been achieved. And also if we believe that laws alone are sufficient to create equality.

In recent times the growing awareness of the gendered nature of family and domestic violence, sexual violence and sexual harassment, has mobilised action. This action is welcomed. Now is the time to move from a desire to protect women from harm to a more intentional focus on genuinely advancing their equality.

What are the key priorities for your term and how do you intend to create change?

My focus is to address sex discrimination and promote gender equality across three priority areas: 1) prevention of violence against women and girls; 2) women’s economic security, and; 3) empowerment and diversity in leadership. From these three items alone and the related data below, it is clear there is need for change:

  • Since the age of 15, one in five women have experienced sexual violence and one in six women have experienced physical violence by a partner
  • The current national gender pay gap is 15.3%
  • Women continue to spend more time on unpaid domestic and care work than men
  • When employed, women are more likely to work in part-time or casual roles than men
  • Women are underrepresented on boards, in management positions and in our parliaments
  • Women retire with approximately half the retirement savings of men.

The widening gender gap has a detrimental impact on women’s lifetime personal and economic security, and prevents them from accessing opportunities on an equal footing to men.

We must face the facts: we cannot try to solve this issue using the same approach we have applied for the last 20 years. My work is informed by the framework for advancing gender equality developed by Our Watch, VicHealth and ANROWS, entitled Change the Story. This framework draws on the success we’ve had in Australia in shifting the harm of other significant public health challenges: like smoking, use of seatbelts and speeding. The framework recognises that we need to disrupt the systemic and attitudinal barriers that impede equality.

The framework says that we need to introduce multiple mutually-reinforcing initiatives in high impact settings for change, where we live, work, play and learn. This is why I have chosen to focus my efforts on the high impact settings of workplaces, education and sport. Under this framework, everyone has a role to play if we want to achieve gender equality.

Recently there’s been a lot of attention on ‘gender identity’, and we have seen the term ‘gender neutral’ emerge. What is gender neutrality and how can we understand the current conversation?

It is important that people do not mistake the term “gender neutrality” for “gender blind”.

The language of gender neutrality is most constructively used to highlight that not everyone fits neatly into a neat category in most aspects of life, including gender. It can be especially unhelpful if we assume that everyone is the same when it comes to their gender.

In 2013, the Sex Discrimination Act was amended to introduce provisions prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex (SOGII) status.

In 2014, the then Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson conducted national consultations on SOGII rights, resulting in the 2015 report, Resilient Individuals. The report found that – despite progress being made in recent years – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people (LGBTI) continue to face a range of significant challenges in Australia including: poor community understanding and visibility of the distinct issues that affect people on the basis of SOGII status, particularly in relation to gender identity and intersex status.

The amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act have resulted in broader conversations about how services can be more inclusive of people who identify as trans or gender diverse or intersex, including creating more appropriate rest rooms, and amending application forms that have historically required people to identify as male or female.

All employers should consider whether their policies and practices comply with the law and are fully inclusive of all people.

Why have you chosen to focus on intersectionality and what do you mean by a “gender lens”?

At the end of 2017 I released a report called “Unleashing the power of Gender Equality” outlining my key priorities, including emerging areas of focus. I have identified that – as well as my ongoing work in workplaces, education and sport – there were some emerging areas of concern to gender equality that demand more attention. The emerging areas are the experience of remote rural and regional women and girls, the impact of technology on gender equality and the importance of recognising the intersecting forms of disadvantage experienced by many women.

A key focus of my work is the need to apply an intersectional lens to all policy making. That is, we need to recognise the diversity of women’s experiences and the impact on their lives. Some women face multiple intersecting barriers to equality, and these differences need to be accounted for when we think about legislative and policy reforms and appropriate service delivery.

A critical part of policy development is to learn from data and experience, but too frequently, data is collected without recognising the disparate impact on women or members of the LGBTI community. We shouldn’t be afraid to have a gender lens on all these situations, if we really want to have meaningful change. For example, we know that while family and domestic violence impacts both men and women, it disproportionately affects women and their children. Our university sexual harassment and sexual assault survey told us that LGBTI students were at a significantly higher risk of sexual assault than men or women.

Governments look to apply a gender lens to economic and social reforms, to assess the impact on men and women. Similarly, businesses look at how workplace policies and practices affect their male and female employees differently.

We know that policies, programs and the provision of services often have a different impact on women and men and these differences need to be accounted for.

High-quality data is vital in driving effective policy reform and we need a strong evidence base to enable us to monitor progress towards gender equality over time, in order to identify successful initiatives as well as any barriers to progress for women.

Of the 8 powerful truths described in our recent article on the topic of diversity and inclusion, to you which one most needs emphasising right now?

Right now there is welcome attention on the unacceptably high rates of sexual harassment in the workplace. The Australian Human Rights Commission is currently in the field with our fourth national survey on sexual harassment in the workplace. For the first time, it will collect industry specific data on the experience of sexual harassment and reporting. The results should provide useful data for employers. I believe there is a real opportunity for employers to influence change and make sexual harassment a thing of the past.

However, I am concerned the initial response to #MeToo has been for employers to review their codes of conduct and complaints procedures. In reality, employers have had codes of conduct and complaint procedures for a very long time, since the 90s for many large employers. My concern is that a focus on policies and procedures misses the opportunity to prevent sexual harassment rather than just improve the employer responses. For that reason, I believe the 8th truth is relevant for the challenge of sexual harassment in the workplace: “Perform a culture reset, not a tick-the-box program.”

Kate Jenkins priorities are set out in her 2017 report “Unleashing the Power of Gender Equality

Human Rights Commissioner, Edward Santow now leads the Commission’s work on SOGII rights.

For more information contact Payal Tilvawala.


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