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The Australian National University

If not now, when?

Professor Kim Rubenstein has been a tireless advocate for equality for women in her role with the ANU Gender Institute, but that’s just one aspect of a life that’s as full as the day is long, writes Martyn Pearce.

You have to get up pretty early in the morning to get the better of Professor Kim Rubenstein.

The constitutional lawyer, Public Policy Fellow, Director of the Centre for International and Public Law in the ANU College of Law, mother, immediate past President of the Canberra Jewish community, and inaugural Convenor of the ANU Gender Institute (2011-2012) packs an awful lot into each of her days. So much so in fact, that she often starts them before it’s even light.

“I often get up at around 4.30am and do a couple of hours of work,” she says.

“Those early hours of work are when I can get some intense research time. I had a period where I’d be up at 3.30am because I wanted to work on a particular project.”

That drive and enthusiasm to make a difference has recently been recognised through appearing in the 2012 Financial Review 100 Women of Influence Awards. The awards aim to recognise women with significant personal, academic, professional and community achievements – four areas where Rubenstein has had her fair share of involvement and success.

But, just as you can pack a lot into a day that starts at 4.30am, so Rubenstein has packed a lot into a life and career that has led her to the award. Her most recent success has come as the inaugural Convenor of the ANU Gender Institute. The Institute aims to focus the University’s work on issues of gender and sexuality, as well as provide a virtual network for researchers, and promote and support the attraction and retention of women staff.

As her two-year reign at the helm comes to an end, she says there have been some real highlights along the way.

“The launch with the Governor General was a wonderful event,” she says.

“There was such a buzz about it. The whole aura of the launch was full of positive energy about this being an important step in the University’s development.

“The other highlight was the visit of Michelle Bachelet [Executive Director of UN Women] which the Gender Institute was approached to host. It was recognition of the Institute’s standing, but it was also amazing on a personal level. Getting the chance to talk with her and spend some time with her – she is an unbelievable human being.”

“On top of that, her talk was so dynamic. To have 1,000 people in Llewellyn Hall at 10am on a Friday morning to hear her was amazing.”

But while the high profile events may have brought the Gender Institute to people’s attention, for Rubenstein the most satisfying thing from its first two years is the groundswell of support it has gathered.

“The whole thing has been a buzz in the sense of momentum. If you have a look at the list of academics involved [with the Institute], it’s huge. It’s affirming to people to know that there’s a whole community out there.”

The Gender Institute may have had notable success in its two years, but Rubenstein’s involvement with gender issues goes back much further, to her early university days.

“In my high school years I was in an all-girls school in Melbourne – at Presbyterian Ladies College – where there was never any doubt that you would do what you wanted to do because of your capacity,” she says.

“At university I started to see how gender was relevant to issues beyond merit. That merit alone was not enough.”

But it was after university that her twin interests of gender and constitutional law came together through the 1998 Constitutional Convention leading to the republic referendum. Rubenstein, who was living in Melbourne at the time, campaigned for greater representation for women among the elected members of the Constitutional Convention.

“I did a lot of lobbying to say that they were mirroring constitutional conventions from the 1890s and that, because there were no women in the 1890s conventions, the government had to commit to making sure that there were half women delegates this time around,” she says.

The case for a republic may have been lost, but since then Rubenstein has continued to press the case for stronger female representation in constitutional matters, including in the role of Governor General.

“I’ve advocated that, if we move to a republic, we need to build into the Constitution that the head of state alternates between men and women. I gave the Dymphna Clark Lecture in 2008 about that and three weeks later Quentin Bryce was appointed as the first woman Governor-General, so maybe I had some influence there!”

Her other great academic interest lies in Australian citizenship law.  In 2005 she became one of the few women to have the main speaking role in presenting arguments to the full bench of the High Court. The case – which she argued on a pro-bono basis – looked at issues of deprivation of Australian citizenship after Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975.

The case was lost, but the experience left a lasting memory.

“Even though we weren’t successful in the case, it raised some very significant issues and was quite an exhilarating experience,” she says.

“It was exhilarating on an intellectual level, but also from being a woman, because the proportions of women that have speaking roles in the High Court is still far too poor.”

Unfortunately, the legal profession is hardly alone in failing to succeed in gender equality. Throughout public life, it is men, not women that are in the majority. For Rubenstein, intervention to bring more women into senior roles is essential to getting the message across.

“I think it’s one of these issues that is so profound. If people are surrounded by people like them, then they don’t see anything wrong with it. But, if you had an experience where you are continually the only man in the room, you’d start to get it.”

Another challenge for many women is finding a balance between having a family and a professional life – something Rubenstein says she’s been fortunate with. Her early morning starts enable her to be around with her husband for her teenage children after school.

“As an academic I’ve always felt that there is such importance in being a role model, particularly for younger women, seeing that you can be a person who balances work and family in a way that affirms both and isn’t undermining,” she says.

“That juggling act is often seen as being difficult, and there’s no doubt it is, but it is possible.”

But to do it requires energy and enthusiasm, and that’s something Rubenstein has no shortage of. She says that throughout her life she’s been used to being involved in a wide range of things.

“It’s part of who I am,” she says.

“My whole life has been about balancing a range of different interests. I guess sometimes you’re blessed with certain characteristics that enable you to have energy.”

“The other aspect is that at each step I have been affirmed in everything that I’ve been doing. It’s not that I’ve been successful at everything and that I haven’t had knockbacks. But, the things that I’ve been doing – eventually – I’ve had some affirmation from outside that these things are worthwhile.”

Perhaps surprisingly for someone expert at keeping spinning plates off the ground, her next move is all-together more reflective. She’s going on sabbatical so that she can really make headway into her two Australian Research Council grants and finish off her pet project – a biography of the highly-influential educator, and Rubenstein’s high school Principal, Joan Montgomery.

“Joan was a great influence on me and a great mentor. I was school captain in my final year in school, and as a Jewish girl in a Presbyterian environment that was very affirming.”

“But when she turned 60 the school board, which had been weighted towards the church, announced that they wouldn’t be renewing her contract, even though it had provision to be extended to age 65. It caused a national uproar.”

“I’m writing that story and weaving her life into it. I started it in 1993, before I became an academic, and my aim is to finish it in the first part of next year. I actually saw her in Melbourne last year and she said ‘oh well, I might still be alive then for when it comes out!’”

Rubenstein says that Montgomery’s influence on her life is part of the foundations that have given her the energy and enthusiasm to succeed. But, what’s kept her going throughout her career is a simple guiding principle, as she explains.

“In my school captain’s speech at the end of Year 12 I used a quote that really speaks to me. It’s from the Jewish philosopher Hillel: ‘If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? But if I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’

“I still get shivers when I say it because it’s so profound. It says you have to, of course, do things for you. But if that’s all you’re about, then what are you? You’ve also got to use your attributes for the good of others.”

Photo credit: Belinda Pratten
Martyn Pearce is Online Editor, Marketing & Communications at ANU Crawford School of Public Policy.