Why visibility for women in the workplace is a double-edged sword

By Kate Kachor


By Kate Kachor

Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, says there needs to be a greater understanding of the risks women face “being visible” in the workplace.

Jenkins told the Future Women Leadership Summit 2022 the idea that women should be visible in workplaces is a double edge sword.

She illustrated her point by referring to an informal survey she conducted of 16 women, eight in Australia’s Defence Force and eight women outside Defence in male dominated industries including the police force and sport.

“I asked them about what their experience was of being in the spotlight. They kind of said actually mostly it never works in our favour,” Jenkins told the audience at Sydney’s Four Seasons Hotel.

“What they did tell us is that when you start your career in a male dominated career you are already standing out… in fact you want to show the blokes what you can do.”

She said for these women being asked to constantly come out and stand out “is against what you need to do to survive and get ahead in your career”.

For the women in the middle of their career, Jenkins said it’s all about survival – particularly for those with a family.


Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins gives a keynote address at Future Women's Leadership Summit 2022

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins gave a keynote address at Future Women’s Leadership Summit 2022

“You’re just trying to manage all the expectations of women with family responsibilities around a career –  if you go flexible [work] you pay the price,” she said.

As for being asked to give “an inspiring speech”, Jenkins said it’s the last thing they want to do.

For the women who are at the “senior end of their careers”, Jenkins said they all said they would be prepared to “stand out” for “the cause” but almost all of them said it had never worked out for them personally.

“They also said, the spotlight on me is great if I’m doing well,” she said. 

“But if I fail it’s seen as a failure of the whole sex. So the reality for us is that it’s high risk even then.”

She said the solution to making women more comfortable in the workplace boils down to leadership.

“We need to understand that for women, visibility, comes with risks but it’s almost essential for every role we do,” she said.

“And with good leadership and career opportunities it can be a rewarding part of a developing career and it can definitely help the momentum for change.”

She said Australia’s Respect at Work report and the bravery of women involved in the MeToo movement, overseas and in Australia, are examples of real change.

“The reality was that visibility in 2017 of the appalling allegations, not just of sexual harassment but of rape, false imprisonment that had been happening perpetually against what we would otherwise think are privileged high profile women. That story started a global conversation,” she said.

“And so while there is definitely something that we need to keep in mind, which is often the visibility is given to the more privileged groups, actually if we can take that and use it to make a difference to everyone that is really helpful.”

She pointed to Grace Tame, the former Australian of the Year and child sexual abuse survivor, as one of the key voices that helped spotlight change.

“A speech about visibility in 2022 really cannot be completed without reference to the impact that Grace Tame as Australian of the Year has had on our community and our country over the last 12 months”

“The fact that (Grace’s) visibility encouraged Brittany Higgins to speak out about her experience is incredibly important. And that experience was at huge personal risk and we do know that we do know that we need to stop our systems relying on the courage of victims for us to understand there’s a problem that needs action.” Jenkins said.

She said it was following the MeToo movement the Federal Government supported the Human Rights Commissioner to conduct the sexual harassment national inquiry.

Jenkins said since delivering the Respect at Work report to the government in November last year there has been “significant action”.

“There has been a commitment to implement all 28 recommendations, legislations have been past, acknowledgements and apologies have been delivered and there is every reason that in two years a lot of those changes will be implemented and in the longer term we’ll see a real culture change,” she said.