At home with Liz Broderick

Bookish type ... Liz Broderick at her Hunters Hill family home with Billy, the ageing family poodle.
Bookish type ... Liz Broderick at her Hunters Hill family home with Billy, the ageing family poodle.

On a mantelpiece groaning with photographs sits a black-and-white picture of a well-groomed, smiling woman. She could be straight out of a 1960s ad with her well-coiffured hair, smart outfit and general air of confidence.

The woman is Margot, the mother of Elizabeth Broderick, the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

''My mum always worked but she and my father were in small business, medical practitioners, so we were always there and incorporated into the life of the practice,'' Broderick says.

A working mother was the type of mother with which the Broderick girls were most familiar.

To her surprise, young women continue to ask Broderick whether they should work and have a family.

''My advice to all young women is to remain attached to the labour market,'' she says. ''With paid work comes economic power. So many women are entering retirement in poverty because they choose to care. Yes, they chose to do it, but it was a constrained choice because that's what society said you should do.''

We meet on a late spring day and the magnificent jacaranda that dominates the back garden of the family's Hunters Hill home is drooping under the weight of rain.

The family's ageing poodle, Billy, shows a flicker of interest in the outdoors before returning to sleep.

After a year in which the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, gave the speech many women wanted to hear and social media cowed the once-untouchable radio shock jock Alan Jones, Broderick reflects on how much has changed.

She has just returned from a day trip to Perth, where she spoke to recently arrived African women who moved to Australia to give their daughters a better life, only to encounter employers who want them to Anglicise their names for easier pronunciation.

The daily struggles of migrant women remind Broderick of how far there is to go.

She applauds Gillard's speech and her presence in the top job.

''It's made the impossible possible,'' she says. ''She is a ground-breaker. She's like the first person in armed combat. We can't be what we can't see. If women aren't prepared to step up, then we will never have the same opportunities.''

But domestic violence and sexual assault statistics remain alarming, the pay gap between men and women has actually increased, and families continue to struggle to find appropriate childcare.

''In the 1960s and '70s, there were very obvious things like women couldn't work, that was very clear discrimination, the equal-pay issue, the fact women couldn't have bank accounts or super or drink in a main bar,'' Broderick says.

''Now, it's more more insidious, it's built into the walls and floors of institutions. You can't touch it, so it's very difficult to combat.''

Broderick has just passed the five-year mark as commissioner, a job she took after a career at law firm Blake Dawson Waldron and the establishment of an award-winning online services practice. This year has been dominated by a review of the Defence Force, continuing work on domestic violence and sexual harassment, and the daily grind of balancing work and family.

She says the problem remains that women do the bulk of child-rearing and housework and are expected to fit their families in around work. There is also a lack of respect for the skills a person learns as a parent.

''They have new skills but what's disappeared is confidence. The whole thing [maternity leave] needs to be turned on its head. The skills I learnt having kids, I use every day - look forward and keep moving, how to prioritise and influence … Being a parent is the hardest job you will ever do. Work is attractive because you get feedback and it's immediate. It's the opposite in parenting.''

No one finds the juggle easy, even Broderick. A suitcase sits unopened on the study floor, ironing is pushed to one side and Broderick is wary of guests entering the bathroom since her children - Lucy, 15, and Tom, 16 - have just left for school and its condition is unknown.

Like Broderick's parents, her husband, Hunt, runs his own business, which gives the family greater flexibility. Her sisters and father live close by. Someone is always around to help out.

Hunt claims the title of ''domestic goddess'', Broderick says, while she would rather be in charge of opening bottles of wine and packets of biscuits and cheese.

Broderick often takes her twin, Jane, on work trips. The pair have travelled to remote communities together, talking to women about foetal alcohol syndrome, a condition Broderick is keen to see get more attention.

''Children are everyone's future,'' she says. ''Yes, it's a choice, but they are the future. You don't see kids in workplaces. Ten years ago, I thought it would be the norm but it's not.''

Job redesign is needed, she says, for men and women, and the division of labour at home has to be more equitable.

Broderick's job also takes her to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, where she worries women's rights are going backwards.

When she goes to meetings of the World Bank's gender-equity board, she says there is no longer talk of the Arab Spring but the ''Arab Winter''.

''Women were at the forefront of democracy movements, but what we're seeing is women's rights being put back by 200 years. It's a pretty disturbing situation that's occurring. In some areas, things are definitely getting worse.''

But there are heartening signs. On a trip to Bangladesh last year, Broderick visited a program caring for women suffering from the horrific effects of acid attacks, prompted largely by spurned marriage proposals.

''There was a girl who was 10 at the time a 25-year-old man asked to marry her and her dad said no. The man came back to their house and she went to make him a cup of coffee and he threw acid on her. She said he had taken away her outside beauty and at that moment I thought, 'I'm not complaining about being too fat or thin.'''

Although acid attacks are on the rise and little is done to pursue the attackers, Broderick is heartened by attempts to regulate the sale of batteries containing acid. The progress is encouraging, even when it feels as though there are more steps back. And there is always the comfort of a trashy magazine.

''Everyone gets on the plane and gets out their documents,'' Broderick says. ''Not me. I get out Hello! magazine.''

This story At home with Liz Broderick first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.