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What should the new sex discrimination commissioner do? Make ‘women’s issues’ everyone’s issues

Newly appointed federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins with Attorney-General George Brandis. AAP/Mick Tsikas

What should the new sex discrimination commissioner do? Make ‘women’s issues’ everyone’s issues

Newly appointed federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins with Attorney-General George Brandis. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Kate Jenkins’ involvement in this week’s Schools Out for Midsumma – an event supporting LGBTI young people – makes me feel happily hopeful about her new appointment as Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner.

Yes, I’m sure she’s done oodles of other important things, but I particularly like that in a world where our federal government treats the LGTBI population like second-class citizens, Jenkins was able to deliver institutional support in her previous role as Victoria’s equal opportunity and human rights commissioner. That’s important, that’s good optics and that’s progressive.

Rather than writing a hagiography here – not my style and only hours in, it’s all a bit premature – I’m interested in the issue of a policy agenda. About what I’d push to the top of her to-do list once she’s settled in.

Sure, LGBTI issues interest me greatly. Ditto violence against women. Pay equity. Women on boards. In politics. But let’s not overlook that these issues are already on the commision’s agenda, and that good works have already been done in these areas by the previous sex discrimination commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick.

Today, my hope lies in the mainstream. That gender equality can become everyone’s interest and everyone’s obligation.

Achieving equality in a developed and supposedly fair-go country like Australia is difficult. First, there’s not universal agreement – not among women and certainly not among men – that there’s anything awry here. Second, there remain vocal detractors – occupying positions of influence – who are keen to catastrophise about all the social ills that will befall us if power gets distributed more fairly.

For equality to be achieved, there first needs to be a mainstream acknowledgement of the problem. This acknowledgement can’t just come from the go-to feminist commentators or special interest groups with very full barrows to push, but has to come from our political institutions and, ultimately has to come from men.

Men.

The degree to which men should be speaking about gender, about discrimination, about violence, is a hot topic. Just ask David Morrison.

There is, however, a limit to the successes feminism can have if the issue of equality continues to be framed as just a women’s issue, and one that only women can and should be passionate about.

Like it or not, men are making the lion’s share of the decisions in this country. Be they in the federal parliament, or in corporations, they’re sitting on a disproportionate number of thrones here.

For equality to happen, those with the power need to give up a little of it. And this seemingly simple idea is at the heart of most equity stoushes.

So in acknowledging that there exists some institutional problems in this country, rather than just holding our breath and wishing things would hurry the hell up and change already, the men within these institutions need to be encouraged to take a leadership-for-equality role.

I’m not saying anything new here, of course: the desperate need for men to care about gender equality as much as (some) women do beyond just a lip-service, “nice guy” kind of way is well established. Their interest, their empathy however, needs to translate into advocacy, into change, in capitulation.

If Jenkins can make in-roads into getting gender discrimination viewed as a social issue – in the broadest sense – and not marginalised as a women’s-only, or feminist concern, hey, maybe I’ll get a step closer to writing that hagiography.