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100 Women of Influence winner Elizabeth Broderick on what's next

10 December 2014

Gh Eb Ag Gk Medium

2015 appears to be a year for retirement. Westpac’s Gail Kelly will step down from her CEO role with the bank in February, and after eight years in her job, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick will step  down from her role this coming September. (Pictured: Greg Hywood, Jan Owen, Elizabeth Broderick, Adele Green, Gail Kelly.)

The longest serving Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth was appointed by former Prime Minister John Howard, survived the Rudd government to be reappointed by Julia Gillard and finally Tony Abbott.

“The strategy was to keep the issues above politics,” she explains, “because if you don’t you can be cut off at the knees if there is a change of government.”

It’s an example of what some call being “Brodericked” - a term the judges at this year’s Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awards noted they had heard used to describe Elizabeth’s way with people and the issues that matter to her.

In a unanimous decision, all nine 100 Women of Influence judges voted Elizabeth the overall Women of Influence for the year as well as the winner in her category of Diversity, because quite simply, she is an extraordinary influencer.

Elizabeth’s comment on the night, among others, was that as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, she was just doing her job.

Modesty aside, the judges begged to differ.

According to Robert Wood, one of the judges, "She [Elizabeth] created a whole new agenda around the way we think about women in leadership. Previously, I think it had been seen as a bit of a women's issue.”

Wood cited her Male Champions of Change initiative and her work with the Australian Defence Forces, noting: “Rather than just arguing from one side and being an antagonist, she brought both sides of the debate together and got them working in the same direction. I think it's been incredible.”

Elizabeth Broderick has led from a young age. Voted head girl at the school she only joined in year 10, Meriden Anglican School, the term being Brodericked has history. In a close-knit, small, girls’ school, Elizabeth managed to win over her new classmates in less than two years to take the leader role. A born influencer, and communicator, she has been described variously as strategic and humble: “… able to engage on a personal and professional level with everyone from domestic abuse victims in remote regions to members of the Defence Force, and the men running some of Australia's biggest companies.”

Since her 100 Women of Influence win, Elizabeth’s been in the Middle East with our troops; in Spain advising NATO on cultural reform around women’s role in negotiating peace, and out in Sydney’s Fairfield speaking to representatives from around 130 different communities on Domestic Violence, while also getting an insight into the early marriage/forced marriage issues prevalent in some of those communities.

“There are some really committed non-government organisations out in the Fairfield area working with communities. The Fairfield Women’s Immigration Health Centre invited me to speak. They were telling me they get quite a lot of notifications each month about early marriage/forced marriage. It’s not from parents but from young women who over-hear the discussions about what’s being planned for their possible early marriage. They approach the service wanting support around how to talk to their family and help them understand that they desperately don’t want to be married off and that it’s also not necessary to keep them safe.

“Much of this early marriage/forced marriage - in a perverted sense – comes from a desire on behalf of the parents to keep their young women safe. We need to work to help those sections of the community understand that adolescent girls can be safe in Australia without being married off.”

Elizabeth embarked on 16 days of activism around domestic violence beginning on White Ribbon Day and as part of her commitment to the process has begun every speech, something she does a lot of every single day, with a story about Domestic Violence. She also asked all her Male Champions of Change, the CEOs of major Australian and International companies, to do the same.

They have, she says, been stepping up to the plate: “If powerful men join me, and no matter where or what they are speaking about they begin with something on Domestic Violence, it will take this issue out of the shadows and remove the silence that surrounds it. It also means they have to think about it not just with their heads but with their hearts.”

Recent WGEA findings showed that eight of the 21 organisations run by Male Champions of Change did not make its employee of choice list. Elizabeth notes that some of those companies are international and must abide by global directives which may not always be in line with what the WGEA asks companies to report on.

“I remain close to what all of them are doing and I keep the pressure on them. Between them [the Male Champions of Change] they have given about 150 presentations on women’s leadership across the year nationally and internationally.”

That type of activity, Elizabeth points out, is not reported to WGEA.

Key advocates for the retention of gender reporting which was something the existing government wanted to abolish in its drive to cut red tape, many of the men have stated they are imperfect role models but that they want to lead tangible action to create change and so are prepared to be transparent around all their numbers. Elizabeth emphatically states, “The numbers aren’t always a pretty picture”.

In fact, early next year detailed reports around numbers will be released by each of the organisations in the group and it will create a stir.

As Elizabeth says, “they’re willing to be transparent and to face what that means and work on it and that has a lot going for it.

“We need strong and visible leadership on the issue. Women have done it for decades but now we need men to stand up beside us - not to speak for us, not to save us - but to stand up and take some responsibility for progress.

“If we are going to get that to happen then we need to make it safe for men to speak to ask the questions and then take strong action. Gender goes to the heart of what we think about ourselves and others. In many cases the stuff around gender is so normalised it’s hard to actually see it, identify it, touch it. It’s the gender asbestos built into the walls and floors of the practices of organisations making it very difficult to identify and so rid ourselves of it.”

Recently in the Middle East with the military mainly, Elizabeth went to understand how the recent reforms around gender in the armed services impacted on people in a deployed environment. Stationed at the base the Super Hornet fighter jet pilots use to head into Iraq, Elizabeth was also present when Australia’s first group of Special Forces entered Iraq.

“When I look at these environments, at the treatment of women at the pointy end of defence, it is so professional, so impressive. Stereotypes about gender just fade away. Whether you’re male or female, if you’re the best electronic warfare soldier, bomb disposal specialist or whatever, then you’re on our team,” she explains, having spoken to hundreds of troops at the base while she was there.

On another hot topic, ending sexual violence in conflict, Elizabeth has recently been in Spain working with NATO as a special advisor.

“Next year is the celebration of 15 years of Security Council Resolution 1325,” she explains, “and we’re developing a resource to support changing the attitude of soldiers who, let’s face it, are still largely male, around the choice they make in conflict to be either a protector or a persecutor. I’m writing the Foreword and it will be launched next year at a big event in the UN.”

At the recent 100 Women of Influence awards Elizabeth alluded in her acceptance speech to the future, which after eight years in one role needs contemplation.

Getting clarity means sitting down and she is hoping her next role is somewhere she can have significant influence nationally and globally: “I’m still working it out, but if you hear of anything can you send it my way,” she finishes with a laugh.