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Gender inequality is still alive in Australian workplaces and law firms are in the perfect place to change things, says Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.

Elizabeth Broderick thanks her law degree and years at Blake Dawson Waldron for what she sees as an opportunity of a lifetime.

Training and practice taught her to listen, she says, and it is top-notch listening skills she believes make good lawyers – and they also set her up for her role as Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

Broderick, 53, was appointed to the role in 2007 for a five-year term. The appointment was extended for two years and she is now in discussion with the Federal Government about the possibility of another extension. There is still a lot to do, she says, from her office in Pitt Street in Sydney’s central business district.

In many ways, Broderick landed the role at a dream time, with Australia having its first female Prime Minister during her term plus a female head of state, female NSW governor, and the nation’s first paid parental leave scheme. But she is the first to admit she inherited a depressing set of figures.

In 2008, after a national “listening tour”, Broderick reported that women earned 80 per cent of what men earned for the same job; just two women were chairing an S&P/ASX 200 company; superannuation payouts for women were about half those of men at retirement; one in three women reported experiencing physical violence in their lifetime; and one in five sexual assault.

Broderick says some progress has been made and points to the national paid parental leave scheme, the doubling of women on boards and breakthroughs in the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Force.

“However, domestic violence continues unabated, as does sexual harassment, and the gender pay gap is pretty much the same,” she says flatly.

“There is still a lot to do and I have requested a one-year extension until September 2015. I need time to do more on the military work and the Male Champions of Change (24 male business leaders who have committed to accelerate the advancement of women in their workplaces).

“After this role I will continue with this type of work in the area of human rights, whether that be in a similar role or in a slightly different sector.”

Broderick created the Male Champions of Change in 2010 after discussions with key female business leaders led the women to realise a shift in power won’t happen without men leading it.

“We decided we have to think about this another way,” she says. “We accepted that if we want to shift things, we have to start with men.”

Simon Rothery, from Goldman Sachs, Telstra’s David Thodey, Mike Smith from ANZ, and Giam Swiegers from Deloitte were among those who came on board.

“These men are men standing up and recognising that without intervention, these issues will not solve themselves,” Broderick says.

“Gender equality is everyone’s issue – both men and women. While the responsibility sits squarely on the shoulders of women, we won’t make significant progress because men hold the levers of power. Taking the message of gender equality to men is what will shift things.

While the responsibility sits squarely on the shoulders of women, we don’t make significant progress because men hold the levers of power. Taking the message of gender equality to men is what will shift things.


“The model isn’t actually about men. It’s a strategy about power and how to move to a more shared model of power. None of the Male Champions are from law firms and maybe where we need to go is to bring law firms in. It’s  something for us to think about.”

In late July Broderick launched a new report into pregnancy, parental leave and return to work discrimination for which she travelled to every capital city and many regional areas talking to women and men.

“What I can tell you from the data we have is that one in two women have experienced discrimination either when they tell their boss they are pregnant, they go on maternity leave or they try to come back to work,” she says.

“On occasion, it has been deeply sad. I have sat across the table from women who are very disempowered, maybe on a factory floor or a cashier right through to the most senior executives and medical specialists in major corporates. Their stories are not dissimilar.

“Once they told the managers they were pregnant, the response was, ‘Your choice, the job or the baby’. Others told me when they pick up the phone to inquire about a job one of the first questions they are asked is, ‘Are you a woman of child-bearing age?’ This is in 2013/14. It is just not right.”

She says, however, that a key part of the report is the figures and stories of men who have taken parental leave.

“We are the only country in the world with data about men and what we know is that 27 per cent of those men who took parental leave – even four weeks or less – have experienced discrimination on their return to work,” she says.

“They had their rosters changed, were put on the daddy track, were not given training or promotional opportunities. We are talking about a small number of men but the findings are concerning.

“One thing this enquiry helped me realise is that when you look at the views that individuals hold, it wasn’t that all the discriminatory and bigoted views were coming from male managers. Often they were from women. As Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, I found that deeply depressing.”

Broderick says her legal training (a combined degree in computer science and law at the University of New South Wales) and her years at Hunt and Hunt and then Blake Dawson (now Ashurst), set her up for the role.

“I am so glad I studied and practised law,” she says. “It’s a fabulous degree and can take you anywhere. There’s no one course that a law degree takes you on. That’s the wonderful opportunity it provides.

“I never imagined when I was a law student that I would be working with NATO, or as an expert on defence culture, or in the Kimberley camping out with Aboriginal women, or in the abattoirs with men on the slaughter line, or in Bangladesh with survivors of acid attack.

“I honestly don’t think I would be as influential as an advocate without my law degree and the way of thinking law provides. “From studying and practising law, I learned the power of the individual’s story to create systemic change and, as an extension of that, the importance of listening deeply to people’s stories.

“That’s been a distinguishing thing I have been able to bring. You are taught at law school that if you are a good lawyer, you have to listen.”

Another skill being a partner in a large law firm taught her, says the 2001-02 Telstra NSW Business Women of the Year, is what she calls “influencing skills”.

“If you want to create change, particularly social change, you need to have excellent influencing skills,” she says.

“To me, influencing is about finding common ground. We often focus on what divides us. What I like to do is focus on the things we have in common, which are often more than you might expect. That gives a strong foundation for change, whether it be in the military, in a pregnancy review, or talking to people about their superannuation.”

I honestly don’t think I would be as influential as an advocate without my law degree and the way of thinking that law provides.”


Broderick’s career started at with a summer clerkship in the mid-1980s, then a year’s work in the litigation team. She left to travel to Europe with girlfriends and ended up working in London for the Law Society of England and Wales’ investigations team, “chasing errant lawyers who borrowed from the trust accounts of their clients”.

After two years she came back to Sydney and made a big decision many people tried to talk her out of. Preinternet, she was appointed as what was advertised as a “computer lawyer” at what was then Dawson Waldron, and from there she built a career.

“They really had no idea what the job was, which is always the best type of job to get because you can make it what you want,” she says with trademark optimism.

“For me it was about looking at the integration of technology and law. Technology was really starting to come into law firms and I thought it would present a wave of opportunity.”

She went on to set up the first legal technology group in Australia, then championed the value of flexible work arrangements, becoming the first part-time partner and creating a workplace where more than 20 per cent of staff moved to flexible working arrangements.

“Something I have always loved is being involved in change, whether that’s disruptive change or orderly change,” she says.

Broderick nominates one of the most satisfying aspects of her current appointment as working in the Australian Defence Force as chair of the review into the treatment of women.

“For me, what shifted in that review was when I understood that I needed to connect the head and the heart of the most powerful men in the organisation to the cultural change agenda,” she says.

“I travelled to 60 military bases, went 200 metres under the ocean in submarines, went in Black Hawks, frigates, warships and even to Afghanistan.

“I heard things from women that they would never tell their chain of command because they would be fearful that if they spoke out on any of these issues they would be victimised.

Often, it was the first time they had ever disclosed sexual assault or extreme exclusion.

“What was even more important was that the men who had power to create change in the system actually heard directly from these women. I worked with every chief and I flew in courageous woman from all over Australia. I created a safe environment where power was levelled and women could speak, helped by their support person. Many of them brought their mothers, which was a stroke of genius.

“Just to see the reaction and to hear the impact their stories had on the chiefs was incredible. It showed what is possible when you engage the head and the heart. The energy shifted in that week.”

More recently, Broderick believes high-profile convictions for indecent assault against entertainer Rolf Harris, sexual assault charges against Hey Dad! actor Robert Hughes, and the sexual harassment case by Kristy Fraser-Kirk against David Jones have brought momentum.

“In terms of empowering women to stand up and speak out, they have been very positive,” she says. “After the Kristy Fraser-Kirk case we saw an increase in reporting of sexual harassment. It helps people understand they are not alone.”

When it comes to law firms and gender equality, Broderick says the evidence isn’t positive. The Law Society of NSW 2013 report Advancement of Women in the Profession found that salaries for female solicitors are lower than for men – even from the first year of work when women are paid $5300 less than men annually.

“It’s clear that the model has never worked for women and the evidence for that is just in the small number of women who reach senior levels,” she says.

“Part of that is unconscious bias. The other part of it is around the deeply held stereotypes we have about the ideal worker who has been deemed to be always available, 24/7, with no visible caring responsibilities and, as a result of that, ideally male.

“You have to ask, if the business model is not one that has ever worked for women and increasingly it works less and less for men, why isn’t there more change occurring in the industry? From where I sit, law firms, unlike most other organisations, control their business model. Most law firms are private entities so if they wanted to change they could do so very, very quickly.”

What would her advice be for the profession? “It’s not about squeezing women into a male model,” she says. “It’s not about pouring women in and stirring. The fact is that women are coming through in really significant numbers but they are not retained in the industry, which shows the model isn’t working.

“It’s not about giving women more mentoring, more training. It’s about changing the fundamentals of the model and I think it’s about redefining what success looks like. In law firms there is one model of success and that is the 24/7 ideal worker model.

“It’s about recognising that gender diversity at the most senior levels delivers optimum outcomes.”

Despite the challenges, Broderick remains positive about work and life.

She grew up in Sydney’s Caringbah with her identical twin, Jane, and a younger sister, Carolyn. Their mother worked as a physiotherapist and their father ran a nuclear medicine practice, which the girls helped out at from when they were four.

Her mother died in 2003 and her sisters and father now live within a few blocks of each other in Sydney.

She is married to a former banker, Hunter Southwick, and they have two teenagers, Tom, who is completing his Higher School Certificate this year, and Lucy, who is in Year 11.

It’s a busy life and even Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner faces challenges juggling work and family.

She travels about eight weeks of the year and laughs when she recalls working on new gender equity policies for NATO in Brussels when she received a text from her son.

“I have learned to keep it real,” she says. “I have to pinch myself and ask, ‘How did I get to this place?’ A few months ago I was there in Brussels and I remember my son texting me as I was drafting some recommendations. He was asking what’s for dinner.”

Photography: Laura Friezer