To mark the 2021 International Women's Day, the University of Tasmania’s Alumni and Friends spoke to alumna Dr Helen Szoke AO (BA 1977), a leading thinker and advocate for human rights, gender and race discrimination and foreign aid.
The former Oxfam Australia CEO is leading a review into sexual harassment in the legal system in Victoria and previously served as Australia’s Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner and as the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner.
Dr Szoke was awarded the University of Tasmania Distinguished Alumni Award in 2020.
Have you always had a strong sense of fairness and an interest in advocating for justice, human rights and equality?
“I had first-hand experience of what it was like to be different. My dad was a Hungarian refugee who arrived in Australia after the Second World War and he had this beautiful, thick European accent. And I saw that we were treated differently and so I had an early sense of the kind of marginalisation that people from different backgrounds can feel and how hard it is to get into the mainstream groups.
But the real awakening and the confidence to understand that there was a contribution that I could make came as a result of attending university.
It was during the Whitlam years, so university was free, which was incredible, because it gave people from low socio-economic backgrounds, like myself, the opportunity to attend.
I remember when I told my father that I was going to go to the university and he said that it would be a waste of money because all that I was going to do was to get married and have kids, so there was no point wasting my time on a tertiary education. And I thought, well, I'm going to go and I'm going to get married, and I'm going to have kids. Why can’t I have it all? That was one of the moments that crystallised my ambition.”
The theme of the 2021 International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge. What does this mean to you?
“I've just concluded a review of sexual harassment into the Victorian courts and VCAT (the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal) and one of the biggest challenges that came out of our consultations was that people saw bad conduct, but didn't know how to respond to it.
If you consider the recent high-profile cases of alleged sexual harassment and assault cases, Choose to Challenge is extremely relevant. I think that we need to focus on supporting people to know how to challenge, because it can be difficult. All the research tells us that bystanders observing bad behaviour are often unsure whether they should intervene, or they don't know how to intervene. I think we have to have a real focus in workplaces and community settings on creating the tools to challenge in a way that's constructive and progresses matters for everyone.
My second observation is that I think that it's good to choose to challenge ourselves and that's a continuous process. Even at my age, I still observe behaviour and then afterwards I wonder if I should have said something.”
Whilst we have made significant progress on gender equality, many of the same challenges still exist, why hasn’t more progress been made?
“I think it's an iterative process that requires a combination of things. We need the type of leadership that will allow people to feel safe to speak up if they see sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination. There needs to be a victim-centred response, rather than protecting the reputation of the organization, which often is what happens.
Bad behaviour can be averted if it’s tackled early, so I think the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is a good one— it’s asking us to think about prevention.
We can't keep relying on victims to be brave enough to come forward to try to change the system. This can be emotionally challenging, disempowering and have lifelong impacts.
There is also the need for structural change. For instance, if we look at gender equity, Australia is still behind other Western developed countries. I think we need to consider targets that means we think differently about how we are recruiting, retraining and supporting people.”
What impact do you think the global pandemic will have on gender equality?
“I have some personal reflections. My husband and I have eight children between us and three of those couples have children – our grandchildren. Here in Victoria, we have had extended periods of lockdown and home schooling and I wonder if this led to a change in appreciation of the role of women? Or if there was a transfer of care or more sharing of parental responsible in those situations? There were certainly more dads at home being exposed to the full gamut of parenting!
There have been some positive aspects that have come out of the experience of the last year. We have learnt that we can make efficiencies on our carbon footprint. For instance, in Victoria the Review that I led was done online. I had a team of five people, but we never met in person. I also suspect that some families, like ours which had weekly online meetings, had more contact during the lockdown than normal.
I'm on the board of a very big national organization, which is a service provider with frontline workers, including disability, aged care and children in care. They were really dealing with the pointy end of things and they learnt a lot about how to enhance communication, team-building and make efficiencies.
There are reports that COVID-19 has a gendered impact on employment, but I think we are yet to see the full impact of that.
I also think the inequality gap is going to be even bigger, particularly for women and people from culturally diverse backgrounds. It has also had an adverse impact on people experiencing mental health and domestic violence.
I’m interested to know what the impact has been on the teenage cohort, so the kids that miss the socialisation at school, I think that is something that we really have to watch.”
The biggest big picture aspect of the pandemic that is worrying is how it has reinforced the trend of countries to become more nationalistic in their focus. Borders have closed, there are different rules in different parts of the world and different access to solutions. I hope that we see global leadership that commits to multilateralism in the future and also to the connected we must have with poorer countries to ensure that the gap between us and them does not get even bigger.
Finally, what advice do you give to women who come to you for career advice?
“I encourage them to take a broad look; don't cut off any opportunities until you have explored them. There are all sorts of ways to test your talent and you've got nothing to lose by exploring them; you don't have to make a decision until there is a decision to be made. Next time you are going for a job and you think you are not fully qualified for, or extends you beyond your current experience, don’t overthink it or rule it out, just seize the experience. Be open-minded about all the ways that you can make a difference.”