To celebrate International Women’s Day, we sat down for an exclusive interview with two of Australia’s leading gender equality advocates and change agents, Elizabeth Broderick AO, former Sex Discrimination Commissioner and founder and convenor of Male Champions of Change, and Julie McKay, Executive Director of the UN Women National Committee (NC) Australia to discuss the essential role organisations play in driving gender equality and eradicating violence against women.
To achieve gender equality there are three areas that require effort and dedication on both national and global levels. “There are three key levers that will advance gender equality; the first is enhancing women’s economic empowerment, the second is giving women access to leadership opportunities and decision making, and the third is eliminating violence against women,” explains Julie McKay.
“In order to address the imbalance that has existed for so long we need to spend time and effort creating space for women – at the top of our companies, in our parliament, in the leadership roles in our community organisations,” Julie says. This is where organisations can address the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions, through implementing strategies and setting long-term diversity and inclusion targets.
“When I started the Male Champions of Change in 2010, it was because I realised that the closer women come to economic and political power, the greater the forces of exclusion are,” explains Elizabeth Broderick.
Male Champions of Change, a high profile coalition of men of power and influence, aims to achieve change on gender equality issues in organisations and communities by using their individual and collective influence and commitment to ensure the issue of women’s representation in leadership is elevated on the national agenda.
“Employers have a tremendously important role to play. Leaders can take steps to understand their gender balance. Where women aren’t thriving, consider why that’s the case. Call out sexism. Enable men to access flexible work as a fundamental right, not a favour; and never allow a woman’s pregnancy to jeopardise her place at work,” reiterates Elizabeth.
Elizabeth suggests that organisations consider the underlying reasons behind the lack of women applicants in certain industries, among other questions. If businesses are trying to get more women into leadership, but are not consistently seeing gender balance in their recruits, what steps can the organisation take? If an organisation has a program that invests in their highest potential workers, and most are men, what is happening in the selection process? “Most leaders can uncover their own answers when they take the time to listen, learn and then prioritise action,” says Elizabeth.
It is important to address all aspects of gender equality, which will contribute to reducing violence against women over time. One of the key challenges in family violence awareness has been in changing perceptions around violence and the understanding that violence happens everywhere. Dispelling myths surrounding stereotypes of families where violence exists and the areas where violence occurs has been a large focus, and much of this conversation was driven by 2015 Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, whose tireless advocacy and awareness work focused on sharing that family violence can happen to anyone.
“Violence against women is being dragged out of the shadows, from behind closed doors. What people believed was a private matter has now emerged into something that is everyone’s business. We are seeing it move into the public sphere with increased public scrutiny,” says Elizabeth.
“We know that when women have greater economic independence and economic security they are more likely to leave violent relationships; they’re more likely to have options and access to services and support… in countries where women make up more of the leadership roles – where women are more widely accepted as equals and as leaders – violence rates are not necessarily as high,” explains Julie.
One of the areas Elizabeth has been strongly committed to is encouraging workplaces to realise that they have a vital role to play in eliminating violence against women. In November 2014, Elizabeth invited two powerful survivor activists, Rosie Batty and Kristy McKellar, to speak to the Male Champions of Change, a group of 29 of most Australia’s most senior men, about domestic and family violence; she believes that when people listen to learn from powerful advocates, they can’t help but be moved to action.
“I’m pleased to see more and more leaders recognise domestic and family violence as a workplace issue,” explains Elizabeth. In November 2015, the Male Champions of Change wrote to all listed ASX companies in a letter called Playing Our Part, about what they had learned about domestic and family violence and what actions leaders can take to reduce its prevalence and impact.
“I am delighted that Kate Jenkins has been appointed the next Sex Discrimination Commissioner. During her years as Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, Kate has been an outstanding advocate for gender equality. I know that she will have a profound impact on the gender equality agenda in this country,” says Elizabeth.
“I remind myself often that we have made tangible progress in the last decade,” explains Elizabeth. Australia now has a paid parental leave scheme. The representation of women on boards has gone from 8.3 to 21.7%. The ASX Corporate Governance Principles mean companies need to be transparent on how they are addressing diversity and stock exchanges around the world are emulating these. There is an increasing awareness of, and action on, domestic and family violence as a workplace issue. And powerful decent men are now stepping up beside women to advocate for change.
“Women for so long have advocated alone for change, for what is actually a shared economic and societal issue. To make progress, we need every single one of us to advocate for a gender equal world,” says Elizabeth.
Of course, getting men to step up their leadership needed to be done within a feminist framework, but Elizabeth also knew that men had a role to play in creating a more gender equal world. “When I look at the role men have played in shaping the conversation, moving towards a solution that disrupts the system, rather than ‘fixing women’, within their organisation and across the nation, I am inspired.”
For change to continue gathering momentum Elizabeth explains that we need governments, organisations and individuals to work together. “I think all of us can make a difference, in our own sphere of influence. It’s often the everyday connections and decisions that make the difference. I believe strongly that all of us have the potential to be agents for change.”
To celebrate International Women's Day 2017, CommBank's Women in Focus are hosting events around Australia throughout the month of March, find out more and reserve your ticket. We’d love to see you there.
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