Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins: Gender inequality at work is “not just a chief executive issue”

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins with Mills Oakley chief executive John Nerurker. Source: Supplied.

Gender inequality in the workplace is “not just a chief executive issue” and every person within an organisation has a role to play in combating sex discrimination at work, says Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.

Speaking this morning at a Raising the Bar breakfast event hosted by law firm Mills Oakley in Melbourne, Jenkins called on Australian workplaces to take action to stamp out sex discrimination and gender inequality in their businesses, saying Australia has failed to progress in line with the rest of the world.

Jenkins said that Australia was “by no means there” when it came to gender equality, noting the country is ranked 46th on the World Economic Forum gender gap index.

Read more: Victorian government launches its first gender equality strategy: What this means for business

“In Australia women will retire with half the retirement savings of men, and are two-and-a-half times more likely to live in poverty. In the last two decades, the gender pay gap has varied between 15 and 19%,” Jenkins said.

“Of the ASX top 200 companies, just nine of the chief executives are women, and just 10 of the board chairs are women. We still don’t have many women in corporate leadership, and politics is just as poor.”

From recent work done with organisations and surveys carried out, Jenkins discovered that when employees were asked if they believe there is a gender inequality issue in their workplace, 73% of women said there was, but just 46% of men said the same thing.

Jenkins believes this indicates a “very quiet resistance” within workplaces towards proactive change towards gender equality, and that men often think initiatives to solve discrimination and advance women are viewed as “over the top” and discriminating against men.

“Compared to 25 years ago, we now know the benefits of gender equality, it’s better for business. Not only is it illegal to discriminate, but equality is more profitable, invites better talent, and brings further innovation,” Jenkins says.

Although they have done “good work”, current laws will not fix the problem, says Jenkins, calling for further intervention through a “public health model” approach.

“We’ve had great success with this model with the examples of smoking, speeding, or seatbelt use, and it’s time we have an approach that recognises that there are a whole lot of forces behind why we’re not getting change,” she says.

“The system is designed around someone making a complaint, the company knowing about it, dealing with it, and then declaring it fixed. It’s clear that this response of relying on the bravery of one individual to change the whole system will never work.”

“I’m not on board with the discussion around how changing gender equality is about persistence, and that we’re in for the long haul; this should have happened in my generation. The first iPhone came out 10 years ago, so we know change can happen quickly.”

To achieve real change, Jenkins invites businesses and organisations to take three steps towards making a difference.

“Firstly, I encourage you all to listen and learn about the topic, and you’ll find things were occurring in front of your face the whole time,” Jenkins says.

“Secondly, discuss the issue with your colleagues and employees. Have civilised conversations at home and at work, and I guarantee you will learn something and see things differently.

“Finally, do something different. The reality is we’ve been doing all the same things, women keep having babies and heading off, the workplace gets the next one and she heads off. You need to interrupt this, change is needed.”

SmartCompany attended the Raise the Bar breakfast as a guest of Mills Oakley.

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