In 2018, United Nations General Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared achieving gender equality “the unfinished business of our time” and “the world's greatest human rights challenge”.
Unions NSW rose to this challenge, joining the international campaign of 16 Days of Activism to end gender-based violence with a series of forums featuring campaigners, politicians, journalists and leading experts on how to spur activism and drive reform.
In 2021, as allegations of sexual assault and revelations of a sexist culture emerged from Parliament House, followed by the huge women’s March4Justice, it was clear women had had enough – because what was happening in Canberra was happening everywhere.
This led to the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins in late 2021.
We’d already had the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces (known as Respect@Work), also by Kate Jenkins, in 2020.
But meaningful change has been slow. On 8 February 2022, the Federal Governemnt finally implemented the first recommendation of Jenkins's second report: Acknowledging and apologising for the assaults and sexism in Parliament House. It's only a start.
But back to late 2021, when NSW Labor MP Jodie Harrison, who is Shadow Minister for Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Seniors, and Women, spoke about women and leadership; and journalist Jane Gilmore described her “Fixed It” campaign in which she rewrites media headlines as a way of exposing their gender bias.
“Headlines are a choice,” said Gilmore. Here’s how she “fixes” them:
- Original: Women three times more likely to be abused if in pandemic-induced financial stress
- Fixed: Violent men more likely to abuse financially stressed partners during pandemic
Gilmore deftly flips the focus from woman as victim to man as perpetrator.
She also tells the story of John and Mary, “a typical Australian couple”, and how gendered economic inequality plays out over a lifetime. “John ends up comfortably wealthy,” Gilmore said. “But Mary lives the last years of her life perilously close to homelessness.” It’s not an unusual story, as women’s superannuation payouts average about one-third of men’s.
It’s this kind of inequality that has led Gilmore to run as an independent Senator for Victoria. “I will promote and support legislation to keep women and children safe at work, at home, and everywhere in between,” she said.
Harrison pinpoints a key factor linking women across Australia. “We all have different experiences,” she said. “But one thing unites us all: We all experience some form of sexual discrimination throughout our lives.”
Harrison readily names women leaders she admires, from Julia Gillard to Joan Kirner, Sarah Hanson-Young, Sally McManus and Jacinda Ardern.
Since leaving politics, Gillard has expressed regret that she didn’t call out sexism when she experienced it, nor enlist the support of male allies. Instead, she opted to keep the story off herself, and the unintended consequence was that the behaviour continued.
“It’s not just a women’s issue but a society-wide issue,” Harrison said. “We need to call it out, to make change, not just in our own lives, but in the lives of all women and girls.”
Respect raises the bar
Harrison highlights a research project between BankWest and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA). The findings are stark: “Increasing the representation of women in executive and leadership roles is associated with a decline in an organisation’s gender pay gap,” Harrison said.
“NSW Government targets for increasing the percentage of women in senior public sector roles have met with some success, lifting representation from 33 percent to 40 percent.”
When inequality is reduced, domestic violence decreases and there are better outcomes for children. “These effects cannot be understated,” Harrison said.
“Gender inequality is the key power disparity that drives sexual harassment both in the workplace and more broadly,” the Respect@Work report found. But, Harrison said, fewer than one in five women make a complaint, fearing their careers will be destroyed.
When only 34 percent of ASX 200 directors are women, when the average superannuation payout for women is about one-third of men’s, when the gender pay gap sticks stubbornly at 14 percent, we know that the business of gender equality is very much unfinished.