Gender Blender: Pru Goward's Battle for Balance

Saturday, October 1, 2005 - 08:12

As Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward has the opportunity and responsibility to shape the way both business and individuals tackle gender issues - at home and in the office. Kate Kerrison talks to her about where the passion for equality came from.

"How can you not be influenced by the songs of your time. I was 18 years old when the women's movement began and was at the first meeting at Adelaide University . Your whole life is affected by it," Goward says.

"I grew up in the environment where equality was seen as a given. I went to a girls school, and believed I could achieve whatever I wanted. I was brought up in a strong Anglican family. You can't be brought up in that environment and not have a desire to care for those who are less fortunate.

"When I got to university and was mixing with boys I was shocked to realise that there was a view that maybe you couldn't do everything because you were a girl."

But Goward has another passion. As an economic rationalist she is concerned not just with women's rights but with the broader landscape.

"I remember at university in the '70s everyone was concerned with equality. But I can always remember that I wanted to make sure that in gaining equality how do we make sure we don't make the cake smaller?" she says.

"I guess I have always been concerned with efficiency and prosperity and being logical. The best thing to solve poverty is a job."

In 1997, the Prime Minister, John Howard, appointed Goward head of the now defunct Office of the Status of Women (which has been reborn as the Office for Women, a division of the Department of Family and Community Services). The appointment caused ripples in feminist circles, not the least because Goward, who had co-penned the PM's biography alongside her husband David Barnett, was seen as a friend of Howard, and a political appointment.

Goward says that intellectually this was the most challenging role of her career.

She had never been in full-time management, never had a budget or people reporting directly to her.

"It was challenging getting used to the public service culture and the level of accountability. Coming from journalism, where I used to talk to ministers on a first name basis all the time, it changed completely and the formality came back into it. It was an amazing culture shift.

"All of a sudden I had 40 staff - I could not imagine a greater learning curve."

She says that part of the challenge when she took on the role with "the office" was to change the philosophy. "Not only did I have to improve the standard of recommendations coming out of the office, I needed to achieve cultural change.

"Previously the role of the Office had been to provide advice to the Government on 'is this fair to women'. I changed it somewhat to look at the impact on women's lives overall; linking outcomes for women with economic outcomes.

"My best intellectual achievement has been to link equity with broader economic outcomes. We had the first economic modeler in [the Department of the] Prime Minister and Cabinet - I knew everything we did had to be justifiable."

Goward sat in on interviews right down to junior levels in order to ensure the right cultural fit.

"In some cases, if I asked 'Why are you here?' and they said 'Because I am passionate about women's rights', that did not necessarily make the candidate right for the job. It meant they may not always have tested things with rigour. By hiring people who had a mindset of wanting to test things and then decide on the facts, it made a huge difference."

Goward and her team launched a discussion paper in June titled Striking the Balance: Women, men, work and family, exploring men's and women's choices for balancing competing work and family responsibilities.

It provoked a significant reaction, both favourable and negative, and much discussion on talkback and tabloid television.

Goward says she is pleased people are talking about it but has been surprised by the level of offence some people have taken.

"The emphasis has been put on housework, but it is not really the time it takes to do the housework that drives people's decisions on their work arrangements. It is who looks after the children or parents.

"If you feel that your children or your parents are not well cared for, then it will drive you to make decisions about your work arrangements.

"I am not sure how long it will take to change things. I am hoping employers will think more about these issues now that this discussion paper is out there."

Goward, who has been described as an anti-feminist, says change is going to be a long process. Obviously, from an economic perspective, women need to work and people need to stay in the work force longer; what I am talking about is whether we can do it nicely."

Despite recent opinion to the contrary, Goward says she believes Australia is still moving forwards in terms of equality - just the issues are getting more difficult.

"It was never going to be difficult to give women a right to education; it was a function of putting the processes in place and ensuring the system could cope with the numbers. It was never going to be difficult to bring women into the work force.

"What was always going to be hardest was deciding who picks up the pieces once this happens; where the time was going to come from to do unpaid work like caring for children and parents and managing a household.

"These are difficult issues and the rate of progress has slowed as a result. You would expect this because unpaid care is always much harder to address."

Unfortunately, Goward says, one of the toughest areas to strike a balance is for women working as executives and in the professions.

"We have done really well at providing part-time and flexible unskilled work positions for women in Australia . What we have been terrible at is providing part-time and flexible work positions for skilled and professional women, and those in management roles."

In terms of her own work/life balance, Goward says that over the past four years, her family would say she has not had the right balance between work and home.

"This job involves so much travel, we have not had enough balance. There are times when I haven't picked up on things at home and there has been a crisis. But if you look at the long term there have been times when I have not taken a particular job because [it] did not suit my family and my children."

How does our Federal Sex Discrimination Commission rate our CEOs?

Goward says foreign-born chief executives working in Australia are "streets ahead" of our locally-bred CEOs when it comes to equality in the workplace.

"It is slightly scary how blokey it is in Australia . You would think that chief executives were economically rational people.

"It surprises me that when it comes to gender issues they can go back to quite traditional conservative views."

She says the "alcohol culture" in Australia "makes it hard for women to mix in the appropriate circles - like the golf club - who has time for that?

"Networking is a very important part of Australian corporate life. Where do you find the time to network?"

She says Australian businesses need to find a way to allow women with responsibilities outside their paid work to participate, maybe by having more family- based networking events.

"And while there are many meetings called for 5pm or 6pm there are not many called at lunchtime; why is that?", she asks.

"There is an argument in some professions that clients expect you to be available 24 hours. But I don't buy that. Men play golf. Clients sleep. If there is an emergency you can allocate it on a rotation basis."

Striking the balance

In June, Pru Goward and her team launched a discussion paper titled Striking the Balance: Women, men, work and family, exploring men's and women's choices for balancing competing work and family responsibilities.

The paper was designed to tease out various aspects of the work and family debate by looking at choices people make between the "public" realm of the paid workforce and the "private" realm of the home.

It focuses on the particular issues faced by men and women in balancing their responsibilities, on gender relations, and on the legal, policy and attitudinal frameworks that both facilitate and constrain the choices open to men and women.

Goward says the paper is an attempt to anticipate the inevitability of change and to encourage awareness and early policy intervention, which will lessen social and economic shock.

"The costs of choosing to do nothing are great; the benefits of change are greater," she says.

The paper poses key questions in the work and family debate, such as:

  • Do women's and men's different paid and unpaid work obligations affect their economic outcomes, health, relationships and life changes?
  • What are barriers to changing attitudes towards a more equal division of paid work and family responsibilities?
  • What should the role be for the government, employers and families in promoting appropriate divisions of paid and unpaid work by Australian families?

Striking the Balance: Women, men, work and family - Discussion Paper

Pru Goward's CV

Pru Goward was appointed Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner for a five-year term from 30 July 2001.

She was head of the Commonwealth Government's Office of the Status of Women from 1997 to 1999. Before that, she had been a national affairs journalist and political commentator with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for 19 years.

Goward completed an Arts Economics degree with Honours from the University of Adelaide while teaching high school in Adelaide during the 1970s.

Over the past 10 years Goward has also run her own media management company, been a freelance newspaper and magazine columnist and a part-time lecturer in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Canberra . She is also a published author.

As Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Goward has a broad educational role to highlight the rights of individuals, as well as accentuate the responsibility of all members of the community to respect the rights of others and to work cooperatively in developing a fair and cohesive society.