In pursuit of gender equality: taking it to the next level

By Alicia Patterson

Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins (BA (Hons) LLB (Hons) 1992 has said that universities are one of three key areas for driving change to achieve national gender equality.

In a speech to the National Press Club in April, Ms Jenkins discussed the 2015 National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey, which reveals that young Australians hold some of the most concerning attitudes about gender equality.

The survey found a higher level of attitudinal support for violence against women among young people than the older age groups, and that young people were also less likely to support gender equality in decision-making within relationships.

Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins

Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins

The results of the survey show worrying signs that attitudes among young people are going backwards. Because young people develop many of their values and attitudes at university, they are ideal places to start fostering change among Australian youth. Ms Jenkins committed herself to working with Australian universities to enable effective attitudinal change programs.

“Given this is a community-wide issue, we need to focus our energies on primary prevention and direct our strategies at the ‘key settings’ – the places where they will have the greatest and fastest impact.” Her speech also identified workplaces and sport as two other key settings for promoting gender equality. Ms Jenkins, who is on the Board of Directors of the Carlton Football Club, said she is backing programs that promote equality, including equal participation and pay, for women in sport. In workplaces, she is focused on promoting initiatives that support working parents, foster women’s workforce participation, and ensure women’s economic security.

Ms Jenkins was appointed as Sex Discrimination Commissioner (last held by Elizabeth Broderick) for a five-year term. She will work directly with her former lecturer, now Australian Human Rights Commission President, Professor Gillian Triggs.

Ms Jenkins was Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner from 2013, and previously the lead partner of the equal opportunity practice at Herbert Smith Freehills. She was recognised in the Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence in 2015.

Ms Jenkins has clear memories of her time at Melbourne Law School. She lived at Ormond College and studied alongside fellow classmates, Kristen Walker QC and The Hon Richard Marles (Shadow Minister for Immigration). Her lecturers – who included Professor Triggs, Professor Sally Walker, Professor Richard Malkin, and Professor Jenny Morgan – were “great legal brains and leaders of the profession,” she says.

Her favourite subjects were Discrimination Law and Feminist Legal Theory, both taught by Professor Morgan.

In her Press Club speech, Ms Jenkins said she is surprised by the “shocking” lack of progress towards gender equality in Australia. She recalled how, in her teenage years, the idea that men and women are equal was starting to be widely recognised.

Back then, as a female, I was pretty much convinced I could do anything really: from pilot to pastry chef; from farmer to pharmacist. It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me that we would be so far from equality in 2016 that we would still need a Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

While there is still a long way to go, Ms Jenkins remains optimistic.

“In terms of gender equality, I really think we must do better. And I really think we can.”

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 15, June 2016.

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