Meet Elizabeth Broderick, the woman who can walk into any boardroom and strike a deal.
Late last year, as a way of participating in a campaign of activism, Elizabeth Broderick decided that for 16 days she would start all her speeches, regardless of their subject, with a discussion of gender-based violence.
She did it at a financial education conference, surprising a few of the financiers in the room, and she does it again when I walk into her airy office, high above the CBD.
The 'ideal' worker is available 24/7, has no visible caring responsibilities and by extension is usually male.
She's an excellent speaker, intensely personable, and she launches straight into a story about a woman she met recently at a refuge in Queensland.
The woman had five children and her partner earned $1200 a week - and kept $1150 for himself. The woman was left with $50 to feed and clothe herself and her kids, an instance of economic abuse that, to Broderick, was every bit as incapacitating as the physical kind. "That's why economic independence for women matters," she says, leaning forward.
Nearly 3 1/2 years into her five-year tenure as the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Broderick hardly looks like a radical. In a charcoal-grey skirt suit with pale pink lipstick and her hair raked into a ponytail, she looks like someone who was head girl at her high school - which, of course, she was, at Meriden Anglican school for girls in Strathfield. Before she took this job, she wasn't screaming down the patriarchy or burying herself in feminist texts. She was a partner and head of legal technology at a law firm, Blake Dawson Waldron.
She is 50 years old, happily married to Hunter Southwick, who works in finance, and has two children, Tom, 14, and Lucy, 13. She has a warm and engaging manner and is known for the genuine interest she shows in people. All of which makes her a canny choice for this job.
She can walk into any boardroom and the men - they are mostly men; we're getting to that - are immediately comfortable, recognising her as someone they can deal with. She smuggles in her agenda almost by stealth. It's no coincidence that her most obvious success has been at the big end of town: from 2009 to 2010, she facilitated a nearly 600 per cent increase in the number of women appointed to ASX 200 boards.
As she quickly points out, the numbers are still tiny - just 10.7 per cent of board members are female. But at least it's increasing. Between 2002 and 2009, the numbers went up only 0.2 per cent.
The way Broderick achieved this result is telling. She originally thought her job was all about women agitating for change. But after a while she thought, "You know what? This isn't going to change until you get men taking the message of gender equality out to other men. I can bang on as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner but to have another CEO ring [his network of contacts] and talk about it is going to be much more influential."
She first went out hard publicly, talking about introducing quotas - "the Q word" - for women on boards. This got media attention. Then she approached 12 powerful men she knew had a strong commitment to gender equality. Among her "male champions of change" are Michael Luscombe, managing director and CEO of Woolworths; Stephen Roberts, CEO of Citigroup; and Allan Joyce, CEO of Qantas. She asked if they would drive the promotion of women in their own organisations, then go into the business community advocating more change.
She never mentioned the Q word again.
Working with men has been a hallmark of Broderick's tenure so far. It was headline news in 2008 when she publicly sympathised with the pressure on them to work hard and be the breadwinner. She agitated - with limited success - for men to be included in the federal government's paid parental leave scheme and sees men as crucial to further change. "Men's and women's lives are so intertwined," she says. "How can you separate them out?" Says long-time feminist campaigner Eva Cox: "I think she actually understands, much better than many people, that if we're going to make changes for women, we've got to make changes with men."
Broderick is positive, overall, about how women in Sydney are faring. Since the Sex Discrimination Act became law in 1984, "we've made really significant advances", she says. Still, March 8 marks the centenary of International Women's Day, when women began agitating for, among other things, equal pay. "A hundred years later, not only is the pay gap not narrowing, it's actually widening again," she says. "It's out at 16.9 per cent if you look at the national average."
In her capacity as commissioner, Broderick intervened in an equal-pay case being brought by the Australian Services Union and she has been integral to the many other gender-related debates of the past year. She proposed a model for the paid parental leave scheme (some aspects were taken up, she's still campaigning for others). And she was a very public commentator on last year's high-profile David Jones sexual harassment case, when CEO Mark McInnes resigned after confessing to inappropriate behaviour towards 27-year-old Kristy Fraser-Kirk, who worked in marketing. Broderick thinks the case is a significant warning to men. "It's had a really strong educative value, there's no question about that."
Yes, she was uneasy about the media frenzy surrounding Fraser-Kirk. To Broderick, it was a repeat of how so many harassment cases play out, with attention swiftly moving from the man's alleged misconduct to the woman's credibility. Those who dismissed Fraser-Kirk as a gold-digger over her $37-million claim were participating in that process, she says. "The money she asked for was a matter between herself and her legal representative. We need to focus on the alleged behaviour and whether such a thing could happen where we work."
Many people thought this intense media scrutiny of Fraser-Kirk would deter other women from coming forwards but Broderick says it had the opposite effect. "Ordinarily, 20 per cent of the complaints that come in under the Sex Discrimination Act relate to sexual harassment. If I look at the six months from June to December [last year], 50 per cent of them relate to sexual harassment." In June and July, she says, it spiked at 90 per cent, which she links directly to the case.
Of course, having a female prime minister, premier and governor-general has sent a clear message that women can achieve at the highest levels. Yet, perversely, Broderick believes it's also had a negative effect in that it's made some people think "gender equality, tick, we've done that".
She thinks two of the biggest obstacles holding women back now, at least in economic terms, are cultural. The first, which she deals with herself by declaring a "guilt-free zone", is the belief that a good mother spends all her time with her children. This keeps women out of the workforce and is, in her opinion, simply wrong. "We know it's so much more nuanced than that." The second is particularly ingrained in Sydney, where long hours are the norm and people pride themselves on how hard they work. "The 'ideal' worker is available 24/7, has no visible caring responsibilities and by extension is usually male," she says. It's an assumption that makes it hard for women with children to compete.
Even before taking this job, Broderick railed against this. She pioneered part-time work at Blake's and for 12 years worked three or 3 1/2 days a week while remaining a partner. It was a revolutionary change in law-firm culture: the idea that you might not be available night and day yet still get good work done. This, and her creation of a database allowing people to access low-cost legal advice, was the main reason she was named the Telstra NSW Business Woman of the Year for 2001/2002.
Still, like every other working mother on the planet, she does occasionally feel guilty, both about work and about the kids. One of the things she most worried about when taking this job was the effect on her family of going full-time so she's made a concerted effort to maintain a work/life balance.
"If I can't manage it, then what sort of credibility do I have when I'm going out there and preaching about it?" She declines invitations if they mean missing dinner with the children and tries not to email at night (she doesn't always succeed). She took her kids along on the listening tour with which she began the job and in 2008 she and Lucy camped out with 200 Aboriginal women in the Kimberley.
Once again, she thinks working mothers need men to help out. Until they, too, work part-time to look after the kids or leave at 3pm to do the school run, women will always be left behind. It's why she's committed to improving the provisions for men in the paid parental leave scheme. "They're the future of attitudinal changes in workplaces."
Growing up in Caringbah in the 1960s, Broderick had an unusually progressive family. Her mother, Margot, never called herself a feminist but was obviously a woman with views. Believing that competition could destroy relationships, she made sure Broderick and her identical twin, now Jane Latimer, had different clothes and even went to different schools. One of the twins' tricks was to swap schools for a day; their friends twigged but teachers never did. "She always used to send me when she had a big science test," says Latimer, now an associate professor of medicine at the University of Sydney.
Margot worked part-time as a physiotherapist and helped her husband, Frank, establish his nuclear medicine practice. They both did the housework and Broderick remembers that it was a shock when she discovered, quite late, that not all the world was like this. When she was at university, one of her father's patients asked if she had any brothers. "I said, 'No, I don't but I've got two sisters.' She looked and me and said, 'Oh, your poor father, no one to carry on the family name!' It was just incomprehensible to me."
Her parents instilled in their children an ethic of community responsibility. "Dad always said you can be in paid employment four days a week but one day a week you need to be employed in something that's giving back to the community," says Latimer.
Broderick didn't make women her focus until she had kids and felt the full brunt of discrimination - late-onset feminism, she likes to call it. "I realised because I'd had a baby, my life would now go on a different track to my husband's." She decided to do something about that.
According to her friend Sam Mostyn, the director of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at the University of Sydney, Broderick is driven by ideas. Not in an esoteric way but because she can see real benefit in them. Around the time she won the Telstra award, Broderick wrote herself a note outlining her goals. Mostly these were personal, regarding her commitment to family and friends, but they also included a vision of Australia as a country with improved work/life balance. To not achieve this, she says, is to waste Australia's best selling point: the beauty of our land and climate. Giving people the leisure time needed to enjoy it, while still working productively, could be a huge factor in attracting talented workers to our shores and propelling the nation forwards.
Her twin says that Broderick is not hugely ambitious for herself. But she is ambitious about what Australian women can achieve. Which explains why Broderick was prepared to take a 50 per cent pay cut to become Sex Discrimination Commissioner and spearhead that fight.
Broderick is, says her sister Jane Latimer, a terrible housekeeper. She and Southwick have also never owned a television, which she knows sounds weird but it's something they never got around to. Broderick loves The Mentalist, though, and borrows her son's iPad to watch back-to-back episodes. Like many, she read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom over summer: "But I've decided crime novels are what I really like."
Liz, as everyone calls her, lives a few minutes' walk from her younger sister, Carolyn Broderick, a sports medicine physician, and Latimer in the north-west of Sydney. They share childcare and are so close that Southwick jokes about having two wives, says Latimer. The day of our interview is Elizabeth's 21st wedding anniversary. "We decided we love each other more than we've ever done," she says, girlishly.
Broderick's mother died in 2003, when she was still at Blake's. She says it confirmed her desire to help women and made her hanker for a national platform to direct more systemic change. She is very close to her dad, who writes speeches for her and sometimes drops off food to his daughter on weekends. One of the things Sam Mostyn admires about Broderick is her "intense and wonderful sense of family and friends".
Her skill at relationships has been crucial to her success in this job, adds Stephen Roberts, one of her "male champions of change". "Liz is a real person. She speaks of her family, she speaks of her own challenges and she's been able to really garner support through those skills." It's been particularly effective combined with the respect she already commanded in the business world before taking on this role. "In terms of people who make a difference, she is certainly one of them."
Who is Australia's most inspiring woman?
Eva Cox thinks Broderick has done a "terrific" job so far. "She's been very consultative, very open, very aware of the fact that she was learning. Very few people are critical of her. She's warm, she's easy to talk to, she's competent and she's aware of what's going on."
Broderick adores her job but her instinctive connection to people also makes it difficult. The stories of abuse and neglect she regularly hears cut deep. The problems she is charged with addressing are so wide-ranging, so thoroughly dug in, it would be easy to feel helpless. Instead, former head girl that she is, Broderick made a list.
Being a successful Sex Discrimination Commissioner is all about prioritising and after her listening tour she drew up a five-point plan. In an ideal world, this would be skewed heavily towards domestic violence and women in poverty - and these things do, of course, feature. But realistically, Broderick will not eradicate them. So as well as increasing the number of women in positions of power, she has overseen a strengthening of sexual harassment law. These are things she can do. They are easily measured.
But it's the other issues - the unsexy ones that are so very hard to measure - that are closest to her heart. Getting more women onto boards is, in the end, about educated, articulate woman. "I see my role more as standing up for women who have no voice," she says. Then, as usual, she reaches for a story. This one is about a 72-year-old woman who came into a domestic violence counselling service in the southern suburbs of Sydney. When the counsellor asked why she had come now, after living in a violent relationship for 40 years, she said it was because, over Christmas, her daughter and granddaughter came to stay.
"Her husband went out to the pub and came home and started to beat her up," Broderick continues. "Her daughter, who was about 45, did what she had always done and hid under the bed in the spare room. Her granddaughter looked in from the adjoining room. After it finished, the granddaughter came and said, 'Look, Nan, it doesn't have to be like this. Here, I learnt last week at school' - she'd done a Respectful Relationships program - 'that we can ring this number and you and I are going to go in and see someone about it.' "
So yes, there are hard stories. "But," she says with a smile, "they're also hugely uplifting."
International Women's Day
Five ways to get involved in the centenary celebrations
1. The Next Hundred Years
Academic and feminist Eva Cox speaks about the future for women at this lecture presented by the History Council of NSW and Macquarie University. 6.30pm-8.30pm, March 8. $30. Museum of Sydney, cnr Bridge and Phillip streets, city. Phone: 8239 2211. historycouncilnsw.org.au.
2. Fighters, Feminists and Philanthropists: Celebrating 100 Years of IWD
A selection of panellists, including historian Jill Roe, will give talks followed by discussions at this celebration of women's activism. 1.30pm-5.30pm, March 8. Free. Dixon Room, State Library of NSW, Macquarie Street, city. historycouncilnsw.org.au.
3. Crafternoon Tea
At this afternoon tea, the women of Reverse Garbage, a reuse co-op, will host a workshop where participants can design and create objects from recycled materials. 2pm-4.30pm, March 8. Free. 8/142 Addison Road, Marrickville. Phone: 9569 3132. reversegarbage.org.au.
4. Live, Laugh and Learn International Women's Day 2011 Brunch
This free brunch will feature a seminar with psychologist Dr Helen Correia, who will speak on well-being and the elusive work-life balance. 9.30am-11.30am, March 9. Free. Bankstown Council Chambers, cnr Chapel Road and The Mall, Bankstown. Phone: 9707 9637. internationalwomensday.org.au.
5. International Women's Day March
Over 1000 Sydneysiders are expected to attend the annual march, which starts at Town Hall and finishes with bands and speakers at First Fleet Park. Noon, March 12. Town Hall Square, between the Town Hall and St Andrew's Cathedral, city.
Six prominent Sydney women on what's still to be done and where their younger sisters are going wrong.
Chair, Sydney Writers' Festival
What are the key issues for women? "Affordable childcare, the appalling salaries offered in careers where women dominate - childcare, teaching, nursing, aged care - and the lack of opportunity to integrate career progression with family-flexible work practices. It seems you can have one or the other but not both at the same time!"
What mistakes do you see young women making? "I think raunch culture is the most dispiriting phenomenon of recent times. We older feminists wanted our younger sisters to have the right to choose - alas, we assumed when they did, they would display good taste and good judgment."
CEO, Carnival Australia
What are the key issues for women? "There should be no need to have to say this in 2011 but equal pay in the workplace remains at the forefront of gender-equality issues. Constant vigilance is needed to ensure women are paid the same as male work colleagues in similar roles. Too often this isn't the case, in spite of equal pay for equal work being a matter of basic fairness."
What mistakes do you see young women making? "I'm not sure young women are making glaring errors and even if they were, I don't believe mistakes are always bad. We've all made them and hopefully learnt from the experience. But if there is a mistake for young women to avoid, it is failing to ask for advice when it's most needed. Help is usually there for the asking."
What are the key issues for women? "Female candidates need to select executive or board roles that are truly consistent with their areas of interest, skills and experience. Women need to beware of being rushed into opportunities without giving themselves time to consider whether the position really suits their aspirations, interests and skills. Also, women need to understand the challenges they may face mid-career, be resilient and ask for support where required."
What mistakes do you see young women making? "Too many young women underestimate their own skills and ability. Many young women can be unnecessarily or consistently deferential, rather than backing their own judgment or prosecuting their own argument. And many perhaps do not explicitly think through what really motivates or interests them and direct their focus accordingly."
Managing director, Random House Australia and New Zealand
What are the key issues for women? "As someone running a company that employs a lot of women, I see a high level of exhaustion among working mothers. They work damn hard - at work and at home - and juggling everything is difficult."
What mistakes do you see young women making? "I worry about the level of binge-drinking among young women - and I mean the mid-teens. And I wonder how what appears now on Facebook might come back to haunt them. On a brighter note, I'm encouraged by hearing anecdotally how many brilliant young women are planning to study or are studying engineering. They will change the world."
ELIZABETH ANN MACGREGOR
Director, Museum of Contemporary Art
What are the key issues for women? "First of all, it's about time we saw some progress on the issue of women on boards. The lack of progress really is a disgrace, especially in the light of evidence that having more women on boards is good for the bottom line as well as giving women a fair go. Role models are critical and we simply don't have enough. The second issue is the extraordinary focus that the media continues to have on a woman's appearance and personal life rather than her ability to do the job. It's archaic."
What mistakes do you see young women making? "Expecting too much too quickly. But that's a generational issue rather than a gender one. Younger women sometimes lack a sense of history and don't realise that a lot of things that they take for granted were not easily won. It's for this reason that I do wonder about the wisdom of young women sharing photographs of excessive partying on Facebook. Sadly, double standards still apply."
Director General, NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water
What are the key issues for women? "Working together to tackle major issues ... and balancing the competing pressures of work and taking care of family, whether it is a young family or as a carer for elderly parents."
What mistakes do you see young women making? "I particularly worry about unhealthy lifestyles that may not seem problematic now but will affect their health and well-being in the future: smoking, binge-drinking and stilettos. Being healthy and active while you are young makes for a much more enjoyable future."
Styling Penny McCarthy Hair and make-up Liz Jones
Elizabeth Broderick wears Piazza Sempione dress from Riada and Marni necklace.