A collective voice to address gender gap | Sunday Observer

A collective voice to address gender gap

Australia’s former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, arrived in Colombo last week, as part of a three nation tour to advocate a novel strategy, ‘Male Champions of Change’, that ensures gender equality in society through powerful men taking the lead.

She says, “In most nations, men largely occupy the seats of power. Relying exclusively on women to lead change on gender equality is therefore illogical. We need decent, powerful men to step up beside women to create a more gender equal world.”

She was in Pakistan and India to share the experiences of her successful efforts in Australia, before arriving in Colombo, last Monday, for a short two day stay here where she met powerful men in all strata, including the military and the police.

The following is an exclusive interview with Broderick who served as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner for eight years before taking up her current role.

Q. What was your mission in Sri Lanka ?

A. To come and connect with leaders from different sectors, with the military, police and private sector to understand about women at work.

Strong education of women is something that is common to both our countries but that’s not necessarily transitioning into women representation in paid work, especially, if you look at powerful positions. Women are underrepresented at leadership level.

I really wanted to come and see what Sri Lanka’s experience was about. What strategies they were implementing, and to talk to leaders in these nations about what we were doing in Australia to bring about change and ensure gender equality.

Q. Do you think Sri Lankan women are better off than many of their counterparts in South Asia ?

A. I think in many ways Sri Lanka is a progressive nation for women. But there are still some of the same limitations that I have seen in other South Asian nations. There is still a strong belief that to be a good mother, a daughter and a wife is very much about women’s role in the family and house caring. There are some strong social norms, which make it difficult for women to both work and care. The other thing is that violence against women is still an issue in all our nations but it’s an issue here in Sri Lanka and particularly, the safety on public transport.

Also, sometimes there are cultures in the organizations which don’t allow women to thrive equally as men, while this is absolutely a progressive nation, there are still pockets which will need to be strengthened, if women are to thrive equally in public life..

Q. You said you met the women rights champions here in Colombo. What were their key concerns …?

A. The key concerns of local gender equality champions were mainly of the social norms, the expectations of her family. They were doing both, the paid work and unpaid work at home… caring and domestic work… so that was an issue. The lack of formal child care was also an issue. So many women spoke to me about the experiences they had on public transport. It’s not safe and not only that, they had changed their behaviour as a result. They would not go out unnecessarily after dark.

This was limiting their ability to be in paid work where it involves shifts around the clock. They spoke to me about the fact that they don’t feel as confident because they don’t think their voices are being heard as much as the men’s. They said men think women have equality but they don’t see certain things in the woman’s perspective.

Q. Did you meet people who supported your cause?

A. I did meet some men who were very progressive, I met some CEOs of major companies here, who believed having women in the workplace is really important to increase the performance of the organization and profitability.

I spoke to the police and the military…at senior levels . We had a good conversation about the place of women in such environments and I left with a feeling that this was something they would focus on.

Q. Did you get the impression that they are willing to bring about the changes that you represent, in Sri Lanka ?

A. Yes, and I left with a feeling that they realized this may require differential treatment of men and women but the organizations would be most suited for the future if they had both sexes contributing as equal partners. And this was something they would focus on in the future.

Q. What exactly was your responsibility as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner and do you think Sri Lanka too can benefit from a similar statutory officer?

A. The Sex Discrimination Act is a key piece of our Gender Equality law. This office is part of our Human Rights Commission… I think having a senior statutory officer who has a mandate to promote gender equality in all aspects of Australian society is really important.

The Statutory Officer is not part of government or private sector. It is an independent person who advises and advocates for greater gender equality in the nation. It’s quite a powerful position and one that needs to be used wisely as well.

Q. At one point there was speculation that the position of Sex Discrimination Officer in Australia may not be filled after your departure.

A. There is now a new Commissioner. He comes from a strong legal background, now the position is definitely going.

Q. Do you think issues related to gender discrimination are different from country to country ? Can Sri Lanka replicate the Aussie experiences in addressing its domestic issues?

A. There are similarities as well as differences. In all our nations, violence against women is a problem. We can definitely learn from each other on that. In all our nations women are underrepresented in positions of power. We can share strategies that can help to change that.

One of the things that we can talk about is, what laws are important to promote gender equality. You have a strong maternity leave scheme and 25 % quota at local government. These are very progressive measures. Australia can learn from these experiences.

Having strong women commissions is an experience Sri Lanka can learn from Australia.

Q. We are currently in the process of drafting a new Constitution for the country. Do you think Sri Lanka has enough legal protection for gender equality, or do you think there is still a need for more laws to be incorporated?

A. There needs to be strong laws and they need to evolve continuously. That’s an area you are more advanced in than Australia. You have constitutional protection for Women’s rights or gender equality, but we don’t. We have a strong piece of law. But like any law it could be overturned by Parliament.

At the same time, I think it is important to review industrial relations laws. The work is changing, people want flexibility to do both, work and look after their families.

Q. Can we address the issue of Gender Pay gap through laws?

A. I don’t think we can. We introduced our Gender Pay law which says equal pay is a legal right, in 1975. But we still live in a nation where the pay gap is about 18%. So, the law itself is not enough, you need a law for sure, but it happens the law alone will not deliver equal pay for women.

The companies and organizations need to implement the law and always be vigilant, the pay gap is really a complex issue, it comes about because women’s work is given less value than the men’s, it comes about because women are more likely to ask for family friendly work conditions and trade off money, they are more likely to be promoted more slowly than men. All these things contribute to the gender pay gap. And, unless you keep on reviewing these laws every year, it can start to grow out again. I know there is a gender pay gap here in Sri Lanka as well.

Q. Coming back to the ‘Male Champions of Change’, which is what brought you here, you had a round table discussion with the Police and the Military top brass. Did you get a satisfactory response from the heads of these ‘macho institutions’?

A. They were interested to talk about gender diversity in their organizations. We talked about it from a capability perspective, because what we know from the research is, when you bring women into a male dominated environment, like the police and the military, the culture changes, the group dynamics change and the organization lifts. Everyone does better, so it’s a higher performing organization. They were really interested to talk about some of our strategies. Both the police and the military had strong gender data they were very happy to share. So we had an interesting meeting.

Q. What exactly is the ‘Male Champions of Change’ ?

A. Two years into being appointed as Sex Discrimination Commissioner, I started to realize that just to rely on women to fix the issue of gender inequality was really an illogical approach. The fact is, women don’t hold the levers of power, if we want to create change, we need powerful men taking the message of gender equality to other men.

That is not to say women’s collective action is not important, but by itself it probably might not be enough. I rang the most powerful men in Australia, heads of our major companies, and we started with a small group of six. The first man I rang had twins, a boy and a girl. The idea that his daughter will never have the same opportunities as her twin brother, was so appalling for him, so he signed up straight away.

I asked those men to use their power and influence, and their collective voice to create change for women in our nation.

Today, we have expanded the group from six to 160. They represent the nation’s most powerful men from every sector. We have the Head of Government, the Chief of Army, the Police Commissioner and twenty most powerful men in Sport. All of them coming together to design different strategy to take those strategies back into their organizations.

Most importantly, their job is not to speak for women and not to save women, but really to step up as equal partners in change.

Q. Will it be possible to have such change in Sri Lanka?

A. We started talking to some of the male leaders, to see if they would be interested in a strategy like that. We did have some really good conversations to think about elements that might be interesting to the leaders of Sri Lanka.

Q. There was a top level international seminar in Colombo recently, it was organized by INTERPOL. None of the participants in the seven nation event, a decision makers round table, were women. Women officers were seen arranging table-decor and placing name boards at the venue.

A. It is an interesting example for gender stereotypes that exist, that women are about caring and domestic work and men are about powerful work. The powerful men who have signed up with the Male Champions of Change strategy at least speak in 1,500 events a year. They are often given a keynote address.

These male leaders can decide to take a panel pledge, to ensure that there is a female speaker at whatever the event they are being invited to speak at. They would not confirm their speech until they see the final agenda of the event.

They believe women’s voices need to be heard and the conversation improves when you have both, men and women. It’s a small and simple step but it had quite a profound impact. In Sri Lanka those I met during my brief stay thought it was an interesting idea.

Q. What is your most treasured memory of this visit?

A. My most treasured memory would be the people that I interacted with and the growing commitment that I saw to step up on gender equality, in all the places that I visited. I had beautiful interactions and saw a lot of enthusiasm and excitement. The untapped potential of women in the island is enormous. I think that’s what I will take away from Sri Lanka. I would like to come back and keep the dialogue going.

Pic: Tilak Perera