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It's an honour to be asked by the Murray-Smith family, to follow many distinguished speakers, in remembering the life of Stephen Murray-Smith, as we do this evening.
It strikes me that he and his wife Lita lived a very Melbourne life, even allowing for the happy escapes to Aerith and Bass Strait and the family base being at Mt Eliza.
The Murray-Smiths drank deep from the pleasures of urban life and in turn, because of their smarts and their style, they undeniably boosted the pulse rate of Melbourne in the post-war years.
They must have been grand days.
For a young returned serviceman, one of patrician bearing but egalitarian temperament, to engage with some very different Australians. The newly arrived Jewish émigrés, among them Stephen's future wife Anita, they were all there on the campus of the University of Melbourne. Alive to the possibilities of life, intellectually precocious, challenging themselves and everyone else, and above all intensely political.
Stephen's initial chosen path would be the god that failed. He was an early apostate. Good for him. But he paid a price in being shunned by some who would take decades to arrive at a similar position. No doubt it left its mark, but Stephen would go on to become, in Joanna's memorable phrase, ‘A missionary for the imagination’.
A historian, a literary editor, a great promoter of the talent of others through his editorship of Overland and always a teacher.
Did Stephen, I wonder, consciously think of himself as an educator? He certainly appears to have understood that we learn best from those we love.
Joanna's recollections are of a dad who put her to bed each night by reading the stories of Henry Lawson. Years later, in pursuing her own brilliant career, she realised that among other things, she'd absorbed important detail about structure and pace. Then there was the careful cultivation of an artistic sensibility. Joanna also recalls that the necessary accompaniment for trip, for a trip to the opera, the ballet, or the theatre, was a mini-tutorial by Stephen or Nita on the life of Mozart or some foundational points about the plays of Beckett or Osborne. They were quite consciously helping shape Joanna's aesthetic.
Australian contemporary drama, I think, can be grateful that the Murray-Smiths never favoured the fuzzy and increasingly forlorn idea that Joanna just might pick it up as she went along. Which brings me to my theme tonight, and if Stephen's ghostly presence joins us this evening, I wouldn't be surprised. I suspect he would have robust ideas on the subject of modern education.
Now, as Jill said, I've been working on a book that I've titled Class Act. I've been doing that work for about, really about the last two years.
I had the opportunity, first of all as a federal MP, to spend a lot of time in schools in the Northwest of Sydney, and it was really one of the highlights of the job. I also had a key role to play in shaping public policy on early childhood. And it is gratifying to see that changes that were put in place in 2008, the Early Years Learning Framework, which I spent a lot of time on, and the National Quality Standards, that they are still standing today and indeed have been endorsed by a group as hard-headed and as budget conscious as the Productivity Commission.
In writing Class Act, I had a couple of goals in mind. Primarily, a practical one. I wanted to document the specific approaches that schools are taking to transform themselves. To lift the academic achievement of all students and where teachers follow the mantra of Professor John Hattie, ‘Know thy impact’.
The elaborate song and dance act that teachers might put on in front of their students really counts for naught if they are unaware of what it is that students are learning. So the critical questions to be asked in the classroom, and in effective schools this is what's happening, the critical questions are around student growth and challenge. What's been absorbed? Can you explain this concept to others? How do you get to the next phase of learning? How to go deeper, rather than just do more of the same?
Now, you might have noticed that a few of these questions form part of the public education debate. As in so many areas of public policy, we are stuck in pretty useless binary debates. Whole language versus phonics, public versus private, autonomy versus command and control, and so on. These are all secondary issues. What matters is what's working. How we can replicate success across what is now a very fragmented sector and how we get a system-wide lift.
We need that lift because there really are some red lights flashing. The international data, the PEARLS and PISA tests show that we have a wide gap between our top performers and our lowest achievers, a gap that many of the top-performing countries manage to bridge. Well, actually, they don't allow that gap to emerge, because they intervene early.
Equally worrying, and quite puzzling to many, is the fact that since the start of the century our best students are trending down. Now, there's another statistic that I find the most depressing of all. In surveys conducted among Australia's primary school children, a worrying 45% say they only read if they have to.
You think about that. The keys to the kingdom, the world of intellectual discovery that meant so much to the Stephen Smiths, that is closed to these children because most only begrudgingly pick up a book.
It's why one of the Class Act stories that I love concerns Garran Public School in the ACT, because they did something quite revolutionary. There are no basic readers. There's no basic or standard anything at that school. They teach children to read, wait for it, by putting the best and most emotionally engaging literature in front of them. As a result, Garran is able to get more of its students into the top achievement bands than most others in the country. And at Garran, 80% of students say they read for the love of it. At Garran they also have a policy of only employing teachers who understand functional grammar.
I know you're gasping.
A real class act in education would be if we could have national figures that more closely resembled that of Garran. Now, in order to do that we need to get some fundamentals right.
Only this week, a friend of mine, a highly qualified math teacher, she quit a regional Victorian high school where she's been teaching, mainly because the school has such a lackadaisical attitude towards something as basic as attendance. Year 10 attendance levels can be as low as 60%. Now, this is discussed in a kind of relaxed way in the classroom, ‘Oh, sorry’ in the staff room, but there's no strategy in place to deal with it. To state the obvious, if the kids aren't there, you can't teach them.
There are things you can do to ensure that children attend regularly and they are in place in some of the poorest areas in the country.
Now, fortunately, my friend has not been lost to teaching. She's relocated to another very low SES school here in the city, and it's a place that actually puts a premium on attendance, on achievement, and growth in student and professional practice. But that regional high school that she's quit, more than likely, they've dragged in the PE teacher who's now attempting to teach maths.
Now, I want to stress that I have not come up in my book with a unique, I'm sorry, a piece of unique scholarship, but I have applied my narrative skills to the mountain of reports, the mountain of documentation that's been compiled over the years, all looking at what works and how we can apply those lessons.
You won't be surprised to hear that what I found is that it's a complex story. You can get some quick wins, but lifting academic performance and sustaining that performance is a whole lot more intricate than just getting a bit of a kick in NAPLAN.
Now my starting point is to celebrate success. To acknowledge the quite exceptional efforts that are happening right here in our major cities and in schools where children in some cases are bringing themselves up. Either that or they come from families where there is very little social capital and certainly not much geographic mobility.
The most shameful part of our education story as many of you would know is the extreme social segregation now of our schools and for poor children that means all sorts of things. They don't travel past the State Library every day. They don't get to see the Italian Masters at the NGV. More often than not, you are told of these schools that a lot of suburban kids don't even come to the city. That physical isolation has an effect on how you view the world and how ambitious you're likely to be.
I was at St. Alban's School, St. Alban's Secondary College a few months ago, and through one of their partnerships they had organised a trip to the city for the Year 7 children. And I was told one little boy looked out at the CBD towers as they drove across the West Gate Bridge and said, ‘Sir, is that New York?’ I hope his teacher said, ‘No son, New York has a better transport system’.
So what does a successful school look like? Well with the exception of one school I've written, and that's Garin, I've written five case studies of what we can call turnaround schools. Now these are places where, before major, whole school improvement took place, nothing was going on in the academic department. Children were being looked after. A lot of pastoral care. Teachers felt sorry for these children. They did their best, but not much else.
I'll mention a couple of things that are common to all these schools. Leadership is absolutely critical. Leadership that sets the bar high, sets a plan, finds the resources to back that plan, and follows through with effective implementation with the whole team. And we've got a wonderful asset here in Melbourne, we've got the Bastow Learning Institute in North Melbourne, which is doing really some fine work in this regard.
Schools, as I say, are complex places and the skills required to lead can be learned. The starting point is to recognise that getting promoted to the position of Principal is the first point. That doesn't necessarily equate to you automatically having the leadership skills.
In all the cases that I have documented, you have leaders who push and push. They push themselves, they push their teaching staff, and they push the system. They test the limits of their authority all the time. Not because of some power trip, but because they want to address significant educational deficits.
Now this kind of leadership does mean unsettling the status quo.
When Mark McConvel took over the very troubled Toronto High School on the New South Wales Central Coast, he thought he would take about 12 months to take a good look around before he started his change program. Well that idea went out the window in the first week, just after he called for a look at the learning plans for all subject areas and at the curriculum documents, pretty standard. Well, there was almost a riot among staff, and when McConvel got to the bottom of it and got all his staff behind a closed door he found out just how poorly organised the school was. In some Year 12 subjects, there was no curriculum plan. What was worse, some teachers didn't even seem too embarrassed about this. And by the way, I'm talking about the period of seven or eight years ago, not 20 years ago. Toronto had a dismal academic record but that has changed, and I say in about seven or eight years, now around 40% of those students from Toronto go on to university, about another 30% go on to TAFE.
To start with something even more basic, that of the personal safety of staff and students. I spent time over in Perth. A wonderful school, Roseworth Primary, and a better model of integrated schooling. It's a bit like a Scandinavian model, where the health, the social and the educational needs of children and parents are met. They really have brought it all together. But again, very, very different about a decade ago.
When Geoff Metcalf started there as Principal, no teaching was possible because the place was so violent. Teachers just hunkered down. Either that or they were too afraid to even get out of their cars in the morning. Because standard practice was that local families—my, my, editor kept questioning me when I had this in my initial draft. She said, ‘Are you serious? Local families who are actually coming into the school during the day. Certainly at lunch time and continuing their inter-family feuds in front of children?’—Well, that was tolerated. It wasn't tolerated for long by Geoff Metcalf, who literally put his own safety at risk, at first by staring down the worst of the offenders and then by setting new rules and enforcing them.
Now a huge help, and this is where the resourcing matters, a huge help was a complete redesign of the school with supervised entrances and exits. Roseworth now picks up Safe School awards, but it's taken a lot of years, some critical partnerships, because no schools transform themselves without critical partners, and very purposeful leadership.
In the case of Metcalf, he was driven by a very basic idea. The children deserve a slice of normality. A safe environment where they can be taught and where performance can be lifted.
Now that kind of leadership is always allied to a particular ambition. All of the effective principals I've interviewed have big ambitions for their schools. They all repeat that much quoted line that by trying to overcome the soft bigotry of low expectations, time and time again they still come up against the view in poor schools that ‘well, these kids can't cope with much’.
Maria Karvouni, in this town, heard all of that when she took on the principalship At Charles La Trobe. When she looked at an analysis of how students spent their time, and again, this was only five years ago. When she looked at this analysis for how students spent their time, she found that far more time was spent in PE than in English. Yet most of the students had extremely poor vocabularies and exceptionally poor writing skills. When she, when she queried these priorities she was told, ‘well, this is what suits the kids. It's where they're happy’. It didn't suit Maria Karvouni. She changed the timetable, put a major emphasis on literacy at all levels and got rid of the dumbed-down electives, junked the lot of them. This is another theme that comes through.
She's interested in challenging her students, not in feeling sorry for them. A migrant herself, she remembers the public schools of her day where she was pushed to do better, and that's what she's been doing at Charles La Trobe. You visit today and they'll take you to a philosophy class for Year 9 students where they practice Socratic dialogue. Attendance is up, behaviour is not the problem it was, and the school is no longer bypassed by parents because of the poor reputation of the school.
So leadership, ambition and that brings me to the third element, rich content. Give the kids the good stuff, where else are they going to get it?
In schools that are stretching their students. In secondary schools they're ensuring a broad range of subject offerings and in primary schools they're getting rid of the idea that you give your poorest performers the low calibre readers with the baby vocabularies. Turnaround schools are doing the reverse.
We know that a child's vocabulary is one of the best predictors of success at school. So smart schools are ensuring that young children are exposed to rich literature.
I've interviewed—it's one of my favourite chapters—I've interviewed a University of Canberra academic by the name of Misty Adoniou. Wonderful name, isn't it? I recommend her very lively, and in some cases quite iconoclastic pieces, in the conversation, if you, if you look through the conversation regularly.
Misty is prepared to say out loud what many won't. That too many of our children are falling through the cracks because teachers don't have the tools to help them to develop sophisticated language. So she teaches pre-service teachers functional grammar. And she doesn't do it the old way, you know the noun, verb, predicate. She hit on something again, quite radical, she takes teachers through the wonders of the English language by getting them to read and reflect on great children's literature. Who would've thought it?
One of her favourites is the book by Margaret Wild, Fox, if there are any teachers here. And she takes students through, you know, Margaret Wild’s language line-by-line, talking about the adverbial phrases, why writers use language in the way they do.
She also runs, she's actually run off her feet doing this, she runs seminars across the ACT and increasingly across the country, and she calls this 10 things that every teacher needs to know about the English language. She goes through simple compound, complex sentences, you know, how many tenses in English, what's ellipses, you know. By morning tea, the kind of the, the grammar if you like, what we say the grammar bores, the people who think they know everything, are sounding, you know, a little bit shaky.
The point is not to be a grammar fundamentalist but to give children, guess what, an important framework. And it's poor children who don't get to hear rich language and they surely deserve the same repertoire of language as children from affluent homes.
The final feature I'll mention from the schools I see as successful is that they have a lot of respect for the people at the heart of the system, the students. Now, I know everyone says this, you know, it's about the students. But you have to see a school that takes seriously the idea of student voice, before you appreciate this point. And I mentioned St. Albans again, here in Melbourne. It used to be one of the schools I mentioned; a lot of fluffy care but lousy results.
And I have to say that people who, you know, who've engineered the change say this about themselves, which is very interesting.
We know that it turns out that it was St Albans students who actually thought that they were getting a pretty mediocre education. We know this because St Albans did a very bold thing and actually asked the entire student body what they thought of the place. This is a very big school about thousand students, years 7 to 12, and they conducted forums right across the student cohort. The students took the exercise very seriously. It turned out they were acutely conscious of the fact that they were at a low-performing school. They mentioned the fact that many teachers turned up late for class with no organised learning plan, that they rarely provided feedback, and more than not set homework that was never marked.
Now, in the hands of someone else this might have caused a bit of an industrial relations meltdown, when the feedback went back to the staff. But with Carrie Dosley as Principal, someone who had been at that school for a very long time, she managed the very difficult conversations with the faculty about the response of students.
Kerry then took a second step. She went back to the students and she asked them what they thought a high-expectations environment would look like. Back came the answers. The students wanted order, structure, clear guidelines and teaching of the curriculum. They didn't want to go into exams and be surprised by what they encountered. Above all, they ordered specific feedback and feedback about how to get to the next stage, you know, how to keep on learning. This is all the stuff that is invisible learning. The product of Professor John Hattie's immense research over 20 or 30 years.
Well, needless to say, you cannot conduct an exercise like that and not act on it. So, of all the lower SES schools I've looked at St. Albans really has achieved the most consistent uplift in results, because they have acted on this. And I invite you to read the chapter. It's most interesting, I think, in the precision and the detail that the school has applied, but it has not happened in five minutes. It's really been a 20 year process at that school, marked again by intelligent leadership, a high-level of collegiality and significant ambition. The result is a huge pride in what's been achieved and a culture of consistent improvement.
So lead, be ambitious, challenge students and above all listen to them.
I could mention many other things, and I've heard some exceptional stories over the last couple of years, but I'll just go to the end point. As I go around schools, I find myself thinking a lot about the world that young people are being tipped out into. Excuse me. For those of you, I think with teenage children or young adult children or grandchildren, it is a compelling question. Degrees have never been more expensive and about to become more so. Apart from the professions, and even there we are going to see a lot of disruption, but whether it's a straight bachelor degree, a combined degree or a masters, graduates are finding the labour market a very difficult place to negotiate.
Many are in jobs that have nothing to do with their area of expertise. So the post-GFC world is a very different beast. We're seeing plenty of creative destruction, because of massive changes in technology. More and more, the expectation being that young people are required to create their own work. How many times have we heard this? That's fine for the entrepreneurial types, but what about the others?
We've always had a mixed record on innovation in this country, and I don't see much evidence that in schools we’re any more savvy about nurturing a future generation of creators and inventors. It's why there is huge interest in what Sir Ken Robinson talks about in his TED Talk lectures on education; the importance of building and encouraging the creative potential of our young people. He claims to have had something like 20 million hits on his TED Talk. The one, I think its entitled How Schools Kill Creativity. And as he says, the fact that so many people have downloaded and looked at this video suggests that a lot of people feel, you know, badly done by in terms of their education.
At the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, where I've spent a good deal of time over the last two years, Professor Patrick Griffin has had nearly 20,000 students across the globe sign up to his online moot course on 21st century skills and those skills that emphasise collaboration and creative problem solving.
And you might say, what's new about this? I bet Stephen Murray-Smith did that a bit of that in his time. Certainly, many of the big breakthroughs in science and elsewhere have come from an ability to work and share data and to systematically work through problems. But this is now an issue not just for scientists in the labs, but an issue for the wider workplace. As Pat Griffin says, some of the big global corporates, the Intel’s, the Microsoft's, they've backed the 21st century schools project, because they want to hire people who can work out what the problem is in the first place. And they have significant skill shortages because too few individuals can effectively work like this.
It’s why I think we might see a revival in the study of the humanities. As long as they are challenging courses, they can help extend the ability of young people to synthesise their arguments and to understand the power of language and concepts. Humanities studies teach people how to play with possibilities and how to be comfortable with ambiguity. And if you look at some of the inertia in either I think our commercial arenas or in this country or in government, boy do we need people who can imagine alternative ways of solving problems.
One of the more interesting things I've read on the subject has come from a column written by Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist. And it was, it was done about six months ago. It's one that gets passed around a lot. What Friedman did, he interviewed the Vice President of People Operations, don't you like that, for Google, who made some very interesting points. He said, ‘For every job, the number one thing we look for is general cognitive ability and that's not IQ, its learning ability. The ability to process on the fly and we assess that using structured behavioural interviews that we validate to make sure that they're predictive. Ongoing learning ability’. Very, very interesting. And, and Friedman concludes that column by saying, ‘Beware’, this is his message to young people, ‘Beware, your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job. The world only cares about and pays off on what you can do with what you know.’ I think they might be right.
So to conclude, I'm hoping that my little work Class Act is something of a catalyst for some different discussions about what success looks like, about how we can create a richer set of opportunities for all of our young people, and particularly, about how we can apply a more consistent policy approach to one of our most compelling national issues.
Thankyou very much Jill. And it's such a great pleasure and delight to be, to be with everyone here tonight in such a fabulous space. It's just fabulous. I haven't been in here before, but to be covered in books in a room like this is very uplifting. And I have to say, as someone who's never had a TV—I didn't have one growing up, I don't have one now, but instead I have a reading room—it's fabulous to be surrounded by books. I feel like I'm at home. My kids are still trying to work out what kind of dysfunctional family they live in that we don't have a TV. But anyway, that's another conversation.
But thankyou so much Christine and Jill for that lovely introduction. And I also want to acknowledge Sue Roberts, the CEO of the library who's doing such a great job in directing and progressing the State Library of Victoria.
I've been Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner now for seven years and it's an incredible privilege this role. It's a job that takes me from 200 meters under the ocean in a submarine, to the United Nations in New York, to spending time with survivors of acid attack in Bangladesh, to camping out with aboriginal women in the beautiful Kimberley, to the abattoirs and boardrooms of Australia, to the White House, NATO, the Pentagon, and everywhere in between. I mean there's no other job like this, I have to say.
And that's the tremendous privilege of this role. That every day I get to work with people, whether they're business people, refugee women, defence-force personnel, women of faith, aboriginal women, survivors of domestic violence, every day I meet inspiring individuals who are committed to using whatever influence they have to create change in Australia.
And, I have to say, one of the great joys of the role is also the ability to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. So I want to acknowledge that we're meeting here on traditional lands, the lands of the Kulin nation, and to pay my respects to aboriginal elders, past and present, and to really recognise this strong advocacy for equality over the generations.
Next week, some of you will know, on the 25th of November we mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It's a day that heralds 16 days of activism to eradicate violence against the women, violence against women and their children across the world. And one of the things that I do during this period of 16 days of activism is I start every speech with a story about violence against women. I don't care whether I'm speaking at a financial services conference, telecommunications, aviation, security, that's what I start with because I think we need to really bring this into the conversation.
And it's inspiring to be here in Victoria, because I think of all the states and territories in Australia, Victoria is absolutely doing the most in this area.
So did you know that there are more women living in an intimate relationship characterised by violence than malnourished people in the world? I know that because I recently attended the World Bank's board meeting on gender, I sit on the gender board, and this is data coming through from the World Health. Yes, that's about 980 million women, almost 1 billion.
And if I bring that back down into Australia. There's currently 1.2 million women who are either living in an intimate relationship characterised by physical violence—and we know domestic violence is much wider than that—or have recently done so. And you'll know the data as well as me that more than one woman a week is murdered by her intimate partner, about 75 a year. And, I have to say having spent the day with Rosie Batty yesterday and then going home and turning on the TV and seeing a woman in Sydney who had been attacked with a garden implement in her front garden and murdered on the day, it just keeps bringing it home just how pervasive these issues are.
But small actions can have a powerful impact. Two years ago now, I delivered the Vincent Fairfax Oration. I delivered in every state and territory around Australia and I chose to speak about the overlap between domestic violence and workplaces. And one of the women attending, Margo, she rang me the next day, she attended my speech in Sydney. She told me that following my speech, she'd called her staff together, and she's a very senior manager in one of the large banks in Australia. She has responsibility for many staff. She said, ‘Liz, I called them together and I told my staff that today I wanted to speak about something different. I wanted to talk about domestic violence, the prevalent starter, the lived experience. And I started by recounting my own story. A story I've never told before’. She told the story of growing up in a violent household, of wiping the blood off her mother's face, of taking her to hospital, of the shame and the silence. And she said to her staff, ‘Now I want you to do one thing. I want you to go back to your desk and tell everyone in the bank my story. Because in that small way maybe I can make it easier for someone to tell theirs’. And I have to tell you that that bank is now a leader in its response around domestic violence. So I think it speaks to courageous small actions that create change.
But I've had a busy last few weeks, I have to say. Three weeks ago I was in Korea on a floating island in the middle of the Han River, to be precise, and I had the opportunity to address the World Federation of Security Exchanges. So these are CEOs who lead securities exchanges in nations all across the world. And in that room were 85 men and five women. Between them, they were responsible for 98% of traded assets across the world. And we talked about the research which showed that gender diversity, particularly at the senior levels, delivers better outcomes for any organisation. We talked about the social norms that constrain not just women but also men in nations across the world, including Australia. And we agreed that stock exchanges, security exchanges as key economic players in nations could have a multiplier impact if they really set out to embrace gender-diversity.
Imagine if every exchange in the world used their influence in the way that the Australian Securities Exchange has. And you may see, we've had a doubling of the number of women on boards in the last two years. That's a result of systemic intervention in the Australian Securities Exchange.
And just two days ago, just today is…isn't Tuesday…I'm trying to work out. But really, two days ago I returned from visiting our armed forces in the Middle East, and then working with NATO up in Europe. And once again the challenge was to engage powerful men, military leaders, not just in our own armed forces in deployed environments—and I have to say how professional our deployed environments are—but also to engage men, military leaders, in NATO nations and to help them understand that how we treat women in military environments is directly linked to capability.
In NATO, as in many other military environments, I have to say it's very much a work in progress. For example, if you look at NATO, which is now around 75 years old, there have been 15 Secretary Generals of NATO, no women. If you look at who heads the member states. Over the years there’s 56 heads of member states, not one of them is a woman. And I thought it was an interesting contrast because we have the data for the CIA, and I don't know if anyone watches Homeland here, but 46% of people in the CIA are women, which I found quite fascinating. And maybe part of that picture is the success of you know public, or productions like Homeland, where we see very visible senior women carrying out important work, because one thing I know for sure is that it's hard to be what you can't see.
So these recent work-assignments have once again reinforced for me something that I've become more and more convinced of over the seven years that I've been Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner. And that is that if we are to deliver equality for women we actually have to focus on men. I now also understand that to move men from just being interested in this subject to actually taking strong action, we need to make the case for change personal. We have to engage both their heads and their hearts.
So, you might say to me, ‘Well why are we focusing on men?’ Well, the fact is in nearly every nation in the world, every institution and organisation, whether you’re looking at Australia, the United Arab Emirates, the Middle East, Korea, Spain, it doesn't matter, men hold the levers of power in nations and organisations.
When men step up beside women, not speak for us, but step up beside us, to take action with us, that's what accelerates our path towards a more gender-equal future. And why do we need to make it personal? Well, one thing I've learned is that when you take the case for change from people's heads to their hearts, that's when individuals feel compelled to take action.
So tonight that's what I want to explore with you. I want to look at two different case studies of how we have engaged men, and how we've taken the case for change from their head to their heart. And I'll do that first by examining the military and then looking in corporate environments.
So take a moment, if you will, to imagine a world where every private conversation you ever had is made public. A world where your most intimate secrets are spread far and wide across the Internet. And I have to say, the fact is, we already live in that connected world, where sexualised imagery and words are everywhere. We live in a world where the capability to transmit intimate sexual images is but one click away. And sadly, I have to say, from what I see, the transmission is not always with the consent of the other party involved.
And this was a case at ADFA, the Australian Defence Force Academy two years ago, or nearly three years ago now, when there was an incident, which you may have heard about, an incident of sexual misconduct which was called the Skype incident. It was an incident which involved two cadets having consensual sex in one room. What she didn't understand was that that was being broadcast live via Skype to his mates in an adjoining room. And after the incident broke on Australian television, and as a young cadet anonymously told her story, the community outrage was quite palpable. I mean everyone had a view. Was it about university students and cadets performing badly? Or was this something more sinister? Was this about the marginalisation and sexualisation of women in Australia's military?
And that was the world into which I was unexpectedly drawn when the Minister for Defence asked me if I would conduct a review into the treatment of women in Australia's Defence Force. The review was extensive. We have visited, I've visited more than 60 military establishments, not just here in Australia, but I have spent time underwater submarines, above water in frigates and war ships, travelled in tanks and armoured vehicles, Blackhawk helicopters, C17, C130s, and have been beyond the wire in Afghanistan up in the mountains and valleys of Oruzgan Province, in the Middle East, as well as elsewhere across the Middle East. So, over the periods, we've spoken to thousands of defence force members.
And as I travelled across Australia and beyond, a great many people told me stories. And I have to say, most of the stories were about how the Australian Defence Force had served their people so very well. I have to say, it's a great privilege to work with the Defence Force, but it's also a priority. Because on occasion, others told me quite distressing stories. Stories that had really never been told before. And that's when it occurred to me that whilst it was important for me to document these stories, because I was tabling several reports in the parliament, what was more important was that those who had power to create change in the system, and there I'm talking about military men, that they heard firsthand the personal narrative. Not only did they hear the case for change but they actually felt the case for change.
So I flew in women from all across Australia, many with their mothers, so that our chiefs of Air Force, Army, Navy, Vice Chief and others could hear what extreme exclusion feels like. What it's like to be on exercise for four months when no one speaks to you. What it's like to be sexually assaulted by your instructor, who's the very person you go to for advice. What it's like to have your career trashed because you have the courage to stand up and say something.
And I remember that first face-to-face session. The service chief sitting uncomfortably in his chair. The mother nervously escorting her daughter to the chair beside. And the box of tissues in the middle. And I'm sitting there thinking, gee, this sounded like a good idea when we conceived it but how are we going to get this conversation up and running, because these conversations are not easy to have. And then that courageous young woman, she turned to the chief and she said, ‘Sir, I am so nervous’, she said. And the chief replied, ‘Believe me, I'm scared too’. And I just thought, in that moment, we've got a chance at change, because it does take a compassionate military chief to admit that he fears what he's about to be told. And of course, it takes a courageous woman to step up and tell her story.
But most importantly, the chief also heard the pain of mothers. Mothers who had encouraged their daughters into the military, believing the enemy lay outside not within. And I remember one mother, she looked at the chief of her daughter's service and she said, ‘I gave you the person I love most in the world and this is how you've treated her’.
And at the end of a day, to hear senior powerful military men step up and say, ‘Look, if I could stand in your shoes every day and take away your pain, I would choose to do that. What happened to you in Australia's Defence Force should never have happened. I will do everything in my power to make sure it never happens again.’
And I think these were the defining moments of the review. The moments when we took the case for change from people's heads to their heart. And when you see the evolution of what's happening in the defence force, yes there are other incidents coming up, but I know from very deep inspection that they're going through a major transformation, a major cultural change. To build an inclusive culture, one that includes both women and men.
But here's the thing, as the Chief of Army Lieutenant David Morrison said just two days ago in a speech. He said, and this was a speech to one of the largest boy's schools in Australia, young boys, he said, ‘I've come to understand that the terrible things have happened in war zones, murder, rape, assaults, the stripping away of dignity, the absence of hope, they are just as much present in our own communities, in our own families, as they are in other more seemingly troubled countries. It's just that they happen behind closed doors, away from the lens of a war correspondent, ignored by neighbours or even family members, unspoken, but just as life shattering’.
And he went on to say that by every credible measure women are denied opportunities that are afforded to men by virtue of their sex. At home they face levels of domestic violence that imperil their very being. This is the case in the so called first-world nations and in the developing world. It's a feature of secular and non-secular societies. Women face barriers, sometimes tangible, often subliminal, that constrains their lives and their contributions to the development of our world.
And as he says, he says ‘we need men of authority and conscience to play their part. And we most certainly need women, too long denied a strong enough voice, to be given opportunities to lead in all endeavours, in all parts of our polity and society. We all need to come to grips with our culture and how much it counts’.
And I think he makes two really important points. Firstly, that gender inequality is cultural. It's pervasive, it's systemic, it's what I call gender asbestos. It's built into the walls, the floors, the ceilings of institutions and organisations, the behaviours, the practices. It's often not tangible. You can't point to it, but you know that it's there.
He also makes the point that when powerful, decent men step up beside women and we take action together that's when momentum grows and change happens. And the fact is that what I have observed in the military, those attitudes are held much more widely across Australian society. In families, in sporting clubs and sporting codes, and indeed in the corporate world.
So, I came into my role fundamentally believing that it was women working together that would create change. That would create a more equal Australia. And I absolutely agree that women's advocacy, women's leadership is critical to progressing gender equality. But many initiatives focus on fixing women. We need to engage women to change. You know, to network differently. To do, to lead differently, which really undermines the argument for diversity. In fact, all too often we look to women to change the practices that maintain the status quo. And if you're to think about it that's a really illogical approach because it fails to recognise the site of organisational power. Power sits in the hands of men.
So about two, three years ago having had this lightning moment of starting to understand this, I decided to embark on what was quite a controversial strategy called the Male Champions of Change strategy. Some of you may have heard about it and on a couple of initiatives we've partnered with the chief executive women.
How did this begin? Well basically, I picked up, I identified some of the most powerful men in this country and I picked up the phone and I rang them. I rang men who lead Australia's iconic companies like Telstra, Qantas, Woolworths, Commonwealth Bank, A&Z. I rang men who lead global organisations here in Australia like Citibank, Deloittes, Goldman Sachs. I rang men who hold the most senior roles in our government, like the Head of the Treasury, the Head of the Prime Minister in Cabinet, and I also brought in the Head of the Army. And I made a personal plea. I said to them, ‘Will you use your power and influence, your collective wisdom and voice to create change for women in this country?’
And I still remember the first conversation I had. This particular CEO had twins, a twin boy and a twin girl, and I explained to him that in Australia today women only hold 3% of CEO positions of ASX’s 200, and to be honest with Gael Kelly sitting down, stepping down, it's going to be even worse than that. That we hold only 18.9 or 19% now of board directorships, and that it doesn't matter which sector you look at, this basic rule holds true and that is that the higher up you go the less women you will see. That's as true as tax and gravity. And that those results exist, despite women outstripping men at educational, particularly in tertiary level. I mean even my own industry Law, 60, over 60% of graduates are female out of law schools.
And finally, I told this CEO that while women are excluded from power, economic, political and social power they will be marginalised all across Australia. And I first really started to understand that when I dropped into a women's refuge—and I go to many women's refuges across this country—I met a woman who had escaped violence with her children the night before and I met her the next day and I was introduced to her. And she said to me, ‘Liz, how are we going with the Women on Board’s agenda?’ It's like, what is that, you know, you're just trying to escape with your life. And so we had a really great conversation, I start to understand that in her mind women's proximity to economic power spoke to women having power in our nation, and while they didn't have that they would be marginalised across Australia.
So, I think what shifted for the first CEO that I talked to was an understanding that we'd been talking about this, as Christine said, we've been talking about this for years. What shifted for him was an understanding that without intervention by powerful, decent men like him, this picture would become his daughter's story. And not only that his daughter would never have the same opportunities as her twin brother. And what father wants that for their daughter? So, the Male Champions of Change says that, let's not pretend that there aren't already established norms that advantage men. Men invented the system. Men largely run the system. It's up to men to change the system. And that's what the Male Champions of Change strategy is all about. It's about men stepping up beside women to change the system. The discussions are serious. They're led by men and action is taken.
And I don't have time to tonight to talk about all the outcomes and actions that have resulted. But suffice it to say, I think one of the greatest contributions that the Male Champions of Change strategy has delivered has been to change the discourse on gender equality and women's leadership in Australia. We've start, it's helped people understand that these issues are not women's issues. These issues are leadership issues. That the achievement of gender equality cannot sit on the shoulders of women alone. And they're so active in that area. I mean, the last 12 months, despite being some of the busiest men in the nation, they've presented at over 150 women's leadership events. They've travelled for me to Washington, New York, Tokyo, London, Brazil, just to name a few, and all around Australia, persuading other men to get on board.
And they're doing things that only CEOs can do. One example of that is the All Roles Flex Initiative, and Telstra's leading the work on that, but that is where they've changed the starting point of work. So that instead of a starting point being what we call the ideal worker model, 24/7, the starting point is flexibility and then let's have a conversation about why this one needs to be done differently, this particular role. And if you see all their advertising, anything, it will have this job, it's available in flexible work arrangement. They're looking down their supply-chains. They've worked out that between them they spend tens of billions of dollars annually in procuring products and services. And they want to work with organisations that care about gender equality as well.
I think in the early days it could have easy to dismiss the group as simply just another boy's club. And a few people did that. It was quite controversial. I mean, the strategy is controversial and it's disruptive. And that's what we need. Some new thinking, some change strategies. But it took us time to come to grips. We did. But once we did, we very much focused on action, that's the imperative. The time for talking is over. This is about action. We agreed that every member had to play their part. That we wouldn't tolerate any free riders.
The Male Champions recognise that the change starts with them. Every single one of them admits to being an imperfect role model on gender equality, and they are. They are imperfect. On occasion, their actions and words can still unconsciously and inadvertently come across as impolitic or outdated in a world of gender nuance norms and language. And I still remember in the early days, I'd be driving to work and Fran Kelly or someone would say, oh, and we're about to hear from a NOW champion of change, and I'd go ‘Oh my God, what's he going to say?’ But I have to say, I don't worry anymore.
It's been, it's been a safe space for men to learn about gender equality. They're committed to learning from their mistakes. And that's what strong leadership on gender equality looks like. Listening first, learning through collaborating with others, and then leading through strong action. And increasingly, they're looking to engage in societal issues.
So, having understood that it's the personal narrative that takes the issue from head to heart. Just yesterday, I brought them all together. And I engaged two courageous women, Rosie Batty and Christie McKellar, both proud Victorian women, to come and talk about their lived experience of violence. To actually move this issue from the men's heads to their hearts.
The men heard from Rosie and Christie about the pieces that were taken from them. The pieces that can never be reclaimed, such as the joy of pregnancy and becoming a mother, the joy of parenting and watching your son grow up.
The men started to understand at a profoundly human level what it's like for many women. Women robbed of dignity and living in fear in the very place they should be the most safe, and that is in their own homes. And I think what we'll see as a result of that is over the next few months as they become more comfortable talking about these issues they'll really lift up their advocacy in this particular area.
It's no question that women lie at the heart of creating a more gender-equal world. But if we are to make progress, we have to amplify their voice.
As Rosie Batty said when she spoke to the men yesterday, she said to them, ‘Look, prior to Luke's death, no one wanted to hear my story of living with violence. Now everyone does.’ And I have to say that was one of the saddest moments of our session yesterday for me as an Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner. That when women living with violence speak, the system doesn't listen. If someone had listened to Rosie's story earlier, would she have lost her son?
The system breaks down at various points. But it's also equally clear that women cannot pursue this agenda alone. Men taking the message of gender equality are the men. That's what'll change the picture in Australia.
So while the Male Champions of Change will change corporate environments, the military cultural reform is progressing, none of this will matter if we don't change the informal social structures that sit around us and exist within our families.
In my role, on occasion, when you're presented just with the enormity of a challenge, it can be easy to lose faith, to really lose faith in the possibility of change. And it's in the small moments that change happens.
Just like yesterday when Christie McKellar, a courageous Victorian domestic violence advocate, she told the Male Champions, she said, ‘You listening to our stories gives us back meaning and dignity. It represents the idea that there is hope for change’. Or when Rosie Batty told them, she said, ‘Advocating for a world where women and children can live free from violence, gives me a reason to get out of bed every morning’.
These are the moments that matter. These are the moments when we can work together. Because we do have the beginnings of change. We have a path to a more equal future. But it starts right with each of us. And when people ask me, what will be your greatest achievement as Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner? It won't be the military, or the Male Champions of Change, it will be raising a son to believe that equality is the only path.
Thankyou very much.