Frankly Speaking With Elizabeth Broderick

Elizabeth Broderick and Jackie Frank.
Elizabeth Broderick and Jackie Frank.

Elizabeth Broderick and Jackie Frank.

Jackie: A lot of our readers are young women who see feminism as a dirty word or something that doesn't matter anymore. You've often talked about the idea of "late onset" feminism. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Elizabeth: I was probably like a lot of your readers. I had gone to an all-girls school, then university and really hadn't experienced any form of sexism. It wasn't until I had my first child - and my husband's career continued to develop while mine, I saw, could go to a very different place without some kind of intervention - that I started to realise maybe it isn't equal after all. That's what I mean when I talk about "late onset" feminism.

Jackie: Do we need to come up with a new catchphrase?
Elizabeth: I suppose we have to ask first whether the label is important. When you look at what the feminist ideals are, they are hardly revolutionary: being able to live free from violence; being paid equally with men; being able to work and care and really choose how to spend your life; having choice over your own body and so on. If you believe you are in every way equal to men, that is what feminism is.

Jackie: In terms of progress, how do you think Australia compares?
Elizabeth: There's so much to be positive about. We are leading the world in women's educational attainment; there is no job we are excluded from, including in all sectors of the military now, [as well as] head of state and Prime Minister.

But it's also important to understand we still have what I call "gender asbestos" - indirect forms of discrimination. It's built into the practices, the walls, the floors and cultures of organisations. You can't touch it, but it is there, and that's the type of environment we have to change.

Jackie: You brought up the example of a female PM, yet after Julia Gillard's tenure, a survey found [her experience] had turned women off ...
Elizabeth: I'm not surprised because when you look at the treatment - and Julia Gillard is one expample - of women at leadership levels, there is no question it's a harder road. I want my daughter to look up and say, "You know what? Not only can I do it, but I want to do it. I want to have that role because it's a role where I'll be recognised for who I am, not how I look or how I dress."

Jackie: Do you think some women feel that we are not at that high level because we don't want to be?
Elizabeth: People often say to me, "Oh well, women aren't as ambitious as men." I don't know any research which speaks to that. I think many more women want a balanced existence and the way work is at present often means you can't have that.

Jackie: What are some examples of sexism you encountered as a lawyer? You recently spoke about the subject ...
Elizabeth: I launched a major sexual harassment campaign, and it was the first time I had told my own story around sexual harassment. Every woman has one. I was a junior lawyer trying to make my way. I was invited to a small function of the firm's top clients and so excited to be included because I was the most junior in the room. One of the firm's most important clients was there, and afterwards, he proceeded to ring me every few days. He wanted me to go out to lunch or dinner and I was faced with a choice: I could say no and risk the firm losing one of their largest clients, or I could go along.

It wasn't really a choice. Of course, I had to go along, which I did, and got the usual story: "My wife doesn't understand me... blah, blah, blah." Then he continued to ring at work. I did what most women do - spoke to my girlfriends and devised a scheme that every time he rang, he would be diverted to one of them, who would tell him I wasn't available. We did that for a week and the calls started to stop.

In my situation, because it was a client harassing me, it wasn't even sexual harassment under the law. I felt I couldn't use any complaints mechanism. Because he was friends with other people in the firm, you know, you were silenced ...

Jackie: Did you feel shame?
Elizabeth: Yeah, I did. But also, I started not to love the job I had loved. I didn't want to come to work because I feared what would happen and how it would affect me.

Jackie: Gender stereotypes are changing, but working mothers still shoulder the burden of guilt. Do you feel guilt?
Elizabeth: I'm sure I have periods of it. Having said that, I declare myself a guilt-free zone. I have to remind myself I'm a guilt-free zone!

Jackie: That's the talk in your head?
Elizabeth: Yes, [but] when we talk about work/life balance, it comes as a result of a thousand decisions you make every day. What I do is look at it over a longer period. For example, is my life in balance over this three months? Not over this week or two weeks. I also know I'm a better mother because I work. And I'm a better worker because I'm a mother.

Jackie: What's the division of labour in your house?
Elizabeth: My husband is very active in the household. He runs it, basically, which is great. I couldn't do what I do without a husband who also feels running the household is part of his job, and believes fundamentally in equality.

Jackie: Was there a discussion?
Elizabeth: No, we just played to our strengths. He enjoys it - he's great at it.

Jackie: With all the emphasis on the corporate world - always talking about women, boards and the glass ceiling - do you ever feel we've been dropped into a male game? One we can never win? Yes, it's important for women to have positions of power, but aren't there also risks in equating success with being on a board, running a company or succeeding in the male domain?
Elizabeth: You're absolutely right. We've been dropped into a male mould. It's almost like someone has handed us this concept called "work", which is very male. But you know what? Work is a human construct. If it is not working for us - and I would suggest it has never really worked for women - that's something we need to change.

It magnifies one model of success and that's the "ideal worker" model. In that model, motherhood or parenthood can be devalued. We need to reclaim the importance of being a parent and all the unpaid work that women and carers do at home.

Jackie: We have gender commentators like Arianna Huffington saying we should not regard career as the sole measure of success, then women like Sheryl Sandberg saying "lean in" - cling to the corporate ladder. What do we do with all of this?
Elizabeth: I suppose we work out as individual women how we measure success. At the end of the day, when you're reflecting back on your life, are you going to be happy with the choices you made?

Jackie: You've talked about the importance of getting men onboard. One of your initiatives was the scheme Male Champions Of Change. Can you tell us how that came about?
Elizabeth: Well, I thought if we are to get men to step up, let's start by trying to get the most powerful men in the country onboard. I basically picked up the phone and rang 23 of them: men like Alan Joyce from Qantas; men from Telstra, Woolworths, CBA, ANZ, and men who hold the most senior roles in government.

Jackie: Were they resistant?
Elizabeth: None really resisted, but I found I did have to make the case for change. I told them about the areas of inequality and where I saw the possibility for change if decent, powerful men stepped up beside women and really started to move forward together. I also talked to them about what they wanted for their daughters.
And I remember, the first man I spoke to had twins - a boy and a girl ...

Jackie: Can you say who it was?
Elizabeth: It was Glen Boreham [the then] head of IBM, a fabulous man. He began to understand that his daughter would never have the same opportunities as her twin brother if good men didn't start to intervene in this issue as well.

Jackie: So what do these powerful men actually do?
Elizabeth: A whole range of things. First, they speak at hundreds of events every year on women's leadership and why other men should care about this issue. I think they wrote to around 150,000 men making the case for change. They also look down their supply chain - they want to work with suppliers who care about gender equality, just like them, so that has the potential for a real multiplier effect. They also [introduce] flexible work. Telstra is a great example. They have actually declared that every role in their organisation will be advertised as available on a flexible work arrangement.

Jackie: Some women have criticised the idea of the Male Champions Of Change scheme. You know, "Here we go again. Men running the agenda." What do you say to that?
Elizabeth: It is quite a controversial strategy and women say to me, "Oh, are you asking men to save us again?" No, actually it's got nothing to do with men saving us. We are quite able to save ourselves.

Jackie: So, we don't need to be saved ...
Elizabeth: No, what we need to do is recognise where power sits in this country, and that is clearly in the hands of men. So if we want to move to a model where power is shared, we need to work with those who hold it.

Jackie: What are some of the other big issues for women?
Elizabeth: One is the pervasiveness of domestic violence in this country. About 1.2 million women currently live in an intimate relationship characterised by physical violence.

Jackie: 1.2 million?
Elizabeth: Yes, and when I ask people, "Where do you think violence against women is a problem?" they tell me it's Afghanistan, Pakistan or Papua New Guinea. Yes, it is there, but hardly anyone ever says it's right here in our own country. Take [Sydney's ANZ] Stadium, fill it with women 15 times over, and that's what we're dealing with.

Jackie: What keeps you awake at night?
Elizabeth: I sometimes get overwhelmed by the extent of issues I see here and across the world. Some of the most confronting work I've done was with the Acid Survivors Foundation in Bangladesh, which works with young women who were subject to acid attacks, usually due to "romantic" reasons, like having rejected a marriage proposal. I met a young woman who had deep scarring all over her face, at 15 years of age. She said, "He has taken away my outside beauty, but I still feel beautiful inside." I thought, I will never again say, "Am I fat? Am I thin? Do I look good today or not?" It reinforces that power comes from who you are, not how you look.

Jackie: Your term is due to end in September. What's next?
Elizabeth: I don't know, but I do know politics is not next for me. I want to follow issues, not politics. I don't think I would go back to practising law.

Jackie: What's the one thing you want to say to women today?
Elizabeth: Gender equality is your birthright. Don't settle for anything less. So step up, be bold and that way, you're going to change the world.

Hear Elizabeth Broderick and other inspiring women speakers at our inaugural marie claire @work Success Summit on October 21 in Sydney. Buy your ticket here.

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