Elizabeth Broderick famous speeches as Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission 

Are we there yet?

Why not?

Elizabeth Broderick our former Sex Discrimination Commissioner explains her view in this speech to the CEDA as part of its leadership series in August, 2012.

Elizabeth Broderick.

I think your (CEDA’s) decision to develop a series of lunches to explore the issues of women’s leadership has been such an important decision because it has assisted us in keeping this issue on Australia’s national agenda – and that’s for over three years now. So I want to thank CEDA for keeping this conversation going, because one thing we know – and we just had to look last week at some of the comments that are made not just here in Australia but in the United States (US), that unless we keep pushing forwards, hard-fought gains will start to slip backwards. Equality is never assured and I think we’re reminded of that every single day.

My term was due to finish actually next week, and when I sat down and reflelected on whether or not I would extend my term, I asked myself the question, “What other job takes you from 200 metres under the sea in a submarine, to the United Nations (UN) in New York, to go beyond the wire in the forward operating bases in Uruzgan Province in Afghanistan, to the White House, the World Bank and the Pentagon all in the same month”, and I have to say there’s not many of them so you’ve got me for another two years.

A tremendous privilege of this role is that I meet so many inspiring individuals every day as I travel this country, individuals committed to using whatever in influence they have to create a more equal world. Whether you’re working to progress the rights of refugee and migrant women, whether it’s about sex workers, defence force personnel, women of faith, board directors, women at senior executive level, women with disabilities or Aboriginal women. If you take no other message out of today, it is for each of us to use our spheres of influence however small or large to create change, to build an Australia where equality is absolutely at the foundation.

Today is my chance to answer the question: women’s leadership, are we there yet? Based on the data, it would have to be a pretty short lunch I’d have to say, so you better eat up quickly. The answer is clearly no, we’re not there yet. That’s something that we can all safely agree on today.

Yes we have made some good progress, and when I think three years ago we were well behind where we are now and particularly if you look at the women on board’s agenda, we’ve moved from around 8.2 per cent in 2010 through to 14.5 per cent as at 16 August 2012. So that’s almost double, it’s a significant increase particularly given we’d moved 0.2 per cent in the previous decade.

Is it good enough? And I think the thing that depresses me even in seeing that statistic is the trend line. It shows that in 2011 – and this is looking at women on ASX 200 boards – 28 per cent of all new board appointments were women. In 2012, that has dropped back to 25 per cent. So mathematically, even following a cycle where every board’s position is replenished, at this rate we can never have more than 25 per cent of women on ASX 200 boards if we progress at the same rate. So the message is that we need to step up the changes that Lynn (Kraus, Ernst & Young Managing Partner) talked about, we really need to amp it up and particularly when we look at the progress of women at senior executive level.

Today, I thought, given the work that I’ve been doing a lot over the last few months, I thought I’d spend a few minutes having a look at the question “are we there yet” in relation to women’s leadership in the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

You may be aware that last week I released our report into the treatment of women across the ADF and it was tabled in the Parliament on Wednesday. I was told last week: “Commissioner, you’re the greatest threat to Australia’s national and military security ever”. I felt like saying “move over Julian Assange, here I come”. Fortunately, the CDF – the Chief of the Defence Force (General David Hurley) – doesn’t think so because he accepted all the recommendations in the report, as did the Government and the Opposition.

It has been over the last 12 months an enormous privilege to engage with a distinct nature of an organisation like the ADF. Because it demands commitment and personal risk well beyond the things that any of us in this room are called on to do every day. It’s a workplace in which the reality of posting cycles, of operations and deployment, together with a highly developed career structure and constant public scrutiny make this experience unique.

So for me it was such a rare thing to gain an insight into the day-to-day life of defence force members, to hear in their own words their ferocious commitment to service, their determination to perform at their best for the security and wellbeing of the nation. Those of you who follow some of the issue in defence may well know that our review was sparked by the improper sexualised treatment of ADF women, particularly the Skype incident, which occurred in the Australian Defence Force Academy. But our review had a much broader imperative: we had to examine the underlying structures and cultures that contributed to this form of marginalisation while also looking at the failure of the ADF to keep place and pace with workforces across Australia.

The things that we saw there have many similarities to the constraints and the barriers that we see across civilian organisations, the barriers that impede women’s progression up into leadership levels. But during our review, I visited around 40 military bases across Australia including naval, air force and army bases, training colleges, and recruit schools. I observed exercises and demonstrations, spent time underwater in submarines and above in frigates. I’ve been in helicopters, C-130 tanks and armoured vehicles, and visited six bases in deployed environments including Afghanistan, and spoken with thousands of members of the ADF. Meanwhile, we also surveyed over 6000 ADF person- nel and today we have the first comparative prevalent data between women in the ADF relating to sexual harassment and women in Australian workplaces.

Really, the big story there – although everyone likes to focus on the ADF – is that the prevalent data is the same. One in four women will be, or have been, sexually harassed in the ADF in the last five years and one in five women across Australia have also been sexually harassed in their workplace in the last five years.

Our access to talk to people and hear their experience in the ADF was extensive, and we have so many stories – many of them positive, some ambivalent, some highly distressing. But as I said, while the ADF might seem like an unlikely comparison, it is one of the nation’s largest employers and it faces challenges that I’m sure you’ll nd distinctly familiar.

So let me give you a few facts in relation to the ADF:

• Fact 1: The ADF has only achieved a two per cent increase in the recruitment of women over the last two decades. That is at a time when over a million new women – as new market entrants – have come into the Australian workforce. Women represent only five per cent of officers at the most senior level.

• Fact 2: The ADF is also comprised of 80 per cent of men who speak
English at home. Yet men who speak English at home represent less than 4 40 per cent of the Australian population. So like many organisations, they
haven’t capitalised on Australia’s demographic shift.

  • Fact 3: Many people leave for reasons that are within the control of the ADF, including lack of flexible work arrangements. And that turnover has a cost. It costs between $580,000 and $680,000 when someone leaves the ADF.
  • Fact 4: Modern warfare requires new and different abilities. A lot of the jobs that we see in male-dominated industries including mining and construction, are not jobs that require only manual skills or physical strength – they require technological skills, complex problem-solving and many other diverse skills that are found equally in both men and women.
  • Final fact: Sexual harassment and abuse exists in our defence force today. It ruins lives, it divides teams and it damages operational effectiveness.So these are some of the facts that really create the compelling case for change.
  • In our report we made a number of recommendations. I’m not going to go into them today, but I just wanted to single out two things that I think have similarity to what we talk about when we talk about the case for change for women’s leadership and what we have to do better.One of the aspects I’d like to talk about is how we can make the case for change personal. There’s so much data and I see the research come across my desk every day. If people engaged in the data, why wouldn’t we be seeing more women at leadership level? And I think it’s insufficient to have cognitive engagement; we need to engage both the head and the heart as leaders if we are going to really have a steep change in this area. So I wanted to talk about making the case for change personal, and I want to spend a couple of minutes about targets – the introduction of temporary special measures – because at the end of the day, that’s probably been one of the most successful interventions that’s happened in corporate life in Australia regarding women’s leadership. That’s the ASX corporate governance reform.As you well know, the ADF is one of the most reviewed organisations in Australia; it’s been the subject of multiple reviews and relentless media scrutiny. So just delivering a compelling report was never going to be enough. Over the year it became obvious to me that unless we could make the case for change personal, the level of engagement would not be sufficient to drive a really signicant reform agenda that we’ve delivered. But how could we do this?

By its nature, the ADF is a workplace that involves inherent risks. The fact is, experiencing sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, should never be one of those risks.

Throughout the review, not only did we speak to people in focus groups but we spoke to them individually and we spoke to them confidentially. We heard many stories, as I said, many were positive, but I have to say we also heard stories that were deeply distressing. Personal narratives are powerful, particularly when they’re heard by change-makers within organisations. They can be a catalyst for change. While the stories were important for me to hear and my team to hear for the review so that we could understand what needed to change, they were even more important to engage the hearts and minds of the leadership of the ADF. I had to make the case for change personal, and if I could do that it meant that when the review was completed, there would be a higher level of engagement.

So one of the strategies that we adopted was to involve the most senior level across the organisation, what they call the chiefs of the services. We were aided by magnificent women with compelling stories. And I arranged for each of the chiefs of the service – the Chief of Air Force, the Chief of Army, the Chief of Navy – to spend time standing in the shoes of the most vulnerable. Really, to look into the eyes of the individual who love the ADF as much as they did, but for whom service had come at an unacceptable personal cost.

So I flew women in from all over Australia, many with their mothers, so that the Chiefs could hear – not from me but from these individuals who love the ADF – what extreme exclusion feels like, what it’s like to be on exercise for two months when no one speaks to you. What it feels like to be sexually assaulted by your instructor; how you react when your next in your chain of command, the very person you go to for advice, violates you. The Chiefs listened deeply, they heard the pain of mothers – mothers who’d encouraged their daughters into the service, mothers who had believed that the enemy lay outside the ADF not within – and these sessions were some of the most defining moments of the review.

When I look back on the work that we did over the last 14 months, I have to say that this is some of the work that I’m most proud of. The work that reinforced that when you engage the head and the heart, that’s when transformational change in organisations happens.

So yes, our terms of reference do require us to go back in and look at the implementation of our recommendations within 12 months. But it has been so heartening to observe the progress that’s been made following initiation of new forms of engagement throughout the review.

I just now want to say a few words about targets because I actually think targets and metrics are so important to stepping up our engagement around women in leadership. I mean, we all know you can’t be what you can’t see, so just as it’s critical to increase the number of women in any organisation, it’s also critical to increase them in leadership positions.

To go back to the ADF as an example, women are severely under-represented in all leadership positions across the ADF. The trickle-up strategy will not work – this is a strategy by which women will just naturally filter to the top and that will address the stark imbalance. So what we did in the ADF – and I think it’s something that the male champions of change have done really well – and that is the use of metrics, the use of a target.

That’s a highly contentious issue in a military environment, particularly among women. Women are highly resistant to any form of initiative being directed solely at them because they view identical not differential treatment as the pathway to delivering equality. Part of a reason for that is that when you are treated preferentially, the chance is that there will be a backlash that inevitably trails that treatment. We heard statements such as “Well the biggest mistake you could ever make would be to give special treatment to women”. Look, identical treatment works if a level playing field exists. The fact is, men and women are different, smart organisations are recognising that and applying that information and knowledge back into the business processes and systems that exist in the organisation. There’s no question, and the research is absolutely clear on this, identical treatment will lead to greater inequality where existing policies and practices are assumed to be neutral, but are actually deeply rooted in a male norm. So these are the areas in the ADF where we actually recommended that a target be inserted.

Targets do not undermine merit. As one senior ADF leader told me, she said “Quotas and merits are not mutually exclusive ideas; we all need to get over it. The reality is that every woman that goes to a short list at a promotion board has merit anyway”. And as the male champions of change say, they say nothing changes without a metric.

So I want to just finish now by saying a few words about the Male Champions of Change because we’re fortunate today to have two members of that group who are going to talk to us after lunch. You may be aware that about two years ago I established the Male Champions of Change group. It was becoming increasingly clear that if we were to create change for women, particularly in paid work, we would need to work not just with women, but we needed to work with those who had the power, who controlled the resources – financial and human – in workplaces, and that is men. The research is clear: It’s men taking the message of gender equality to other men that will help break what I like to call the ‘cycle of absence’ – namely that we have very few women at senior level.

The Male Champions comprise CEOs, chairpersons, heads of some of Australia’s most in influential organisations. So we now have a group of 24. They include the head of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ian Watt, the Head of Treasury Martin Parkinson, heads of Telstra, Woolworths, Goldman Sachs, the head of the Army, the heads of the Commonwealth Bank, ANZ, Rio Tinto, just to name a few.

These men see gender diversity as both a human rights issue but also a business imperative. They use their collective influence to progress equality at an organisational level, but also to stand up and be key advocates on the issue of women’s leadership across not just Australia but also globally. In fact one of the Male Champions is travelling with me to Washington next week; we have another going to Rio next month and a third going off to New York. So they are very active in this conversation, presenting at conferences and events, and continuing to advocate for gender equality.

Some of you may have seen the research that was released last year, which was an open letter written to every business leader about why women’s leadership was important and they were really reflecting on their own experience in increasing the representation of women.2 I’m pleased to say over 100,000 copies of that letter have been distributed to date. So I don’t take the time, energy and focus of this group lightly. I know their aspirations are high. They are looking for bold and innovative ideas to make progress and this year they’re ramping up their efforts.

This year, the group of 24 have divided into three self-directed action groups
with eight in each group, each with the intention of supporting each other to drive change not just within their organisations but across Australia. They are
meeting more regularly and they’ve decided this year to explore three streams:

  • The first stream is the role of the leader: Where do leaders who are doing this well actually spend their time?
  • The second one is game changers: What are the off-the-wall ideas that we’ve never tried before, we’ve discarded because we’ve said that’s too crazy an idea? What are those ideas that we could bring back that we could start to put in place a monitored experiment and see whether we can create change?
  • Number three is to look out flexibility and to really find out what it is that can build edibility into the DNA of organisations including in the built environment, and the Diversity Council Australia (DCA) model of edibility is one of the models being used.I’m very excited about it because I think this time next year, sitting up on this stage, we will have 24 men who have run monitored experiments across different organisations about what might be possible. Because if we expect a different result by doing exactly the same thing, that will never happen. What we need is new ideas, new bold and innovative ideas, and I’m hoping that’s what will be delivered one year from now.So all these things said, I don’t view the Male Champions of Change as the only or the most important champions of change in this area, after all – let’s face it – women have been pursuing gender equality for quite some time now. Current effective strategies initiated by women as well as by mixed groups are equally important. But perhaps unsurprisingly, the establishment of the Male Champions was and has been met with some degree of scepticism, some concerns that it might be construed as corporate knights in shining armour galloping paternalistically into territory that women have occupied for years. Now I have no idea of course how the Male Champions view themselves, perhaps some do have a penchant for bravado in their spare time, but as their convenor I’m interested in results, and I see this group as a really significant group in that one of the many strings to our collective bow. As one of the members explained, he said the rules of work have been invented by men for men. This is why I believe that men, particularly those most in influential in their respective industries, must be part of any endeavour to reshape the rules. I want to conclude now by just saying that to cement the future of any workplace – whether it’s the ADF, whether it’s corporate Australia – leaders need to identify and discard those organisational elements that may be holding the organisation back. And it’s often the simplest of changes in both principle and practice that have the potential to make a difference.

Cameron Clyne at the NAB recently observed in our research last year, he said, “when you think about it, having more women in leadership is far more under our control than most other business objectives we set for ourselves. This is not beyond our intellectual capability to solve. Excuses are just that.” So I invite all of you, male and female, to dispense with the excuses. As leaders in your organisation, you can propel momentum, you can make a visible commitment, you can drive the mindset shift from which the benefits will ow, and I know many of you have been doing it for a long time. Certainly, Rosa Kantor, who’s a prominent US academic, she first described the critical mass of women necessary to achieve change in an organisation. She observed that “leaders are more powerful role models when they learn than when they teach”. The Male Champions have found this; the ADF is finding this too. Many women throughout Australia’s business community have known this for years.

So let’s shift the goal posts then, let’s not be satisfied with a modest increase or even Kantor’s critical mass. Let’s model real ambition; not just for the sake of those women who aspire to or occupy seniority, but for the organisations they will lead.


  1. 1  Elizabeth Broderick’s term as Sex Discrimination Commissioner has now been extended to September 2015.
  2. 2  Australian Human Rights Commission 2011, Our experiences in elevating the representation of women in leadership – A letter from business leaders, available at: leaders-2011