As a small girl, Kate Jenkins “thought the fight had been fought” for women’s rights.
Jenkins, who will become Australian sex discrimination commissioner on Monday after two and a half years as Victorian equal opportunity and sex discrimination commissioner, says that despite the advent of anti-discrimination legislation in the late 1970s, things haven’t turned out how she and many others expected.
The former commercial lawyer was named as the successor to Elizabeth Broderick in February, filling the role that had been empty since September.
In 1979 Jenkins saw Deborah Wardley win her High Court discrimination case against Ansett, which refused to hire her because she was a woman — yet today among ASX200 CEOs and chairs there are still more men called Peter than women.” … the skill in this role is to be able to work with people and also hold them to account.”
“I took the role for two reasons: the numbers of women experiencing family violence, and the low numbers of women getting through to leadership roles in business. It wasn’t ever the plan that it should still be like that. My motivation was to see if I can help,” she tells The Mandarin.
The tide is turning. Jenkins highlights family violence as one of the key areas she intends to focus on in her new job — an area that’s had “real momentum” recently thanks to strong advocates like Rosie Batty.
Better data has helped, too. “People would say ‘that can’t be right, the gender pay gap can’t be true, family violence can’t be one in three women’,” Jenkins explains.
“We’ve now gotten much better at actually getting the raw data and that’s really important. That has turned a lot of people who thought this was just political correctness.”
Jenkins will start out with three other priority areas.
Economic security for women — problems around superannuation, equal pay and poverty rates among older women — is “still very much a problem”. She also nominates diversity in leadership — a lack of women, but other disadvantaged groups too — and considering what workplaces and households should look like in the future.
Good cop, bad cop
Her experience as Victorian equal opportunity commissioner means Jenkins will bring experience in one of the toughest tasks of such a job — knowing how to balance wielding the carrot and the stick.
This dual role has seen her working to resolve complaints against police members at the same time as collaborating with Victoria Police on an independent review into sex discrimination and sexual harassment, as well as discussing how they deal with people with disabilities.
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“That’s absolutely the skill in this role … to be able to work with people and also hold them to account,” she says. While there are structural aspects that make this divide easier, to a large extent it relies on goodwill.
“If you can build relationships with agencies they will respect what this agency does, there’ll be a recognition that we have a role to play — and that role will be to call them out when things aren’t going how they should be,” Jenkins explains.
Co-operation has been a key part of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission’s success, she thinks. Working with other agencies has helped VEOHRC punch above its weight.
Among the many projects VEOHRC has worked on, this includes working: with the Judicial College of Victoria to create a guide to help judges understand how they can make the justice system more accessible to people with disability; with police to develop an easy English guide to reporting crime — helpful for those with disabilities or English language difficulties; and with police and the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service to find a new way for Aboriginal people to make complaints about racism.
“We’re trying to work out on small resources how we can have a big impact, and the best way of doing that is working with other agencies. It’s worked really well.”
As someone who worked for a long time in private law firm Herbert Smith Freehills on equal opportunity issues — helping organisations improve their practice and deal with problems — shifting to the public sector has allowed her to see the discrimination landscape from a different perspective.” … don’t rely on complaints to tell you what’s going on, you need to respond better.”
Talking to VicHealth about preventive policy approaches has been influential in her thinking, Jenkins reveals. While policy has tended to rely on victims doing a lot of the lifting, public health has provided insights on tackling problems from the base.
“A lot of the prevention work now is saying: don’t rely on complaints to tell you what’s going on, you need to respond better,” she argues.
“You need to have a plan for when things go wrong. You should be looking for other signals where there are systemic and attitudinal barriers to women progressing. A lot of that’s about looking at promotional pathways and looking at points where there might be barriers. Looking at training and education, particularly managers.”
Charter made ‘huge difference’
Given the absence of a Bill of Rights in Australia curbing government overreach, the issue of human rights legislation is hotly debated. While Victoria and the ACT are the only jurisdictions in Australia to possess human rights charters, a parliamentary inquiry in Queensland is due to report mid-year on the prospects for something similar north of the Tweed.
So eight years out from the commencement of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, has it had a noticeable impact to the way government works?
“I think it’s made a huge difference,” Jenkins says. One of the key areas where it operates is in agencies’ dealings with the public.
Local government has “really embraced it”, training staff to incorporate questions about the human rights impacts of their actions into their work.
The state government portfolios where the charter has a day-to-day impact are justice, health and human services and education and training, Jenkins explains. It’s made police think about the freedom of movement and privacy implications of stop and search interventions, as one example.
“They haven’t always got it right, but it’s changed how those organisations work,” she says.
Indeed, the Victorian charter may soon be strengthened, as the state government considers its response to the 2015 review of the charter.
“We’ve been learning as we’ve gone along, and it’s been a really good starting place, but I think it will continue to be improved,” Jenkins suggests.
The Victorian Public Service generally has better outcomes on human rights and equal opportunity than other employers, she thinks. The government’s commitment to include family violence leave in workplace agreements and work by the Victorian Public Service Commission to better document diversity outcomes and complaints will help improve the situation, too.
“I would say the VPS is better, but like the rest of the community there are still issues about diversity in leadership levels, about attracting a diverse workforce, and about improving equality at all those levels in the workforce. I think it has many of the same challenges as exist everywhere else.”