This time last year, I, like many, looked to the year ahead with anticipation and motivation, and a lovely dose of blissful ignorance that 2021 would be the year of recovery from the pandemic. After all, it all looked so positive after what we all thought was the hardest lockdown we’d ever do (I live in Melbourne). But as the year started to unfold, a strong sense of dejavu began to creep in. Hadn’t we been here before? Lockdowns, home schooling, zoom meets… here we go again.
Needless to say, things have turned out a little differently than what we anticipated! While those milestones certainly came and went, they were – how can I put this delicately? – usurped by what the universe had in store.
There is no question that the challenges of 2021 have been unprecedented (and are far from over), but I’m of the firm belief that it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. In fact, I think it has been a time of reckoning, surprising us with the gift of clarity and visibility of human rights issues.
In January, we saw for the first time ever, four women awarded the Australian of the Year Awards. The awards demonstrate that women’s rights are human rights.
Proud Nauiyu Aboriginal elder, writer, public speaker, activist and artist Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, was awarded Senior Australian of the Year for her life work advocating for the inclusion of visual art as part of every child’s education. And advocate for survivors of sexual assault, particularly those who were abused in institutional settings, Grace Tame was awarded Australian of the Year.
Entrepreneur, Isobel Marshall was awarded Young Australian of the Year for her social media enterprise which breaks down the stigma around menstruation and provides greater access to hygiene products for women around the world, and advocate for migrant and refugee women’s rights, Rosemary Kariuki won Local Hero of the year.
While we may have known about the inequalities and injustices that existed in our systems before 2021, COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on them. Through the brave campaigning led by victim-survivors such as Brittany Higgins, Chanel Contos and Grace Tame there has been a long-overdue public discussion over the prevalence of sexual violence, assault and consent. We have found our voice in a movement and stand in solidarity to call out unacceptable behaviour in workplaces and homes across the country.
On Monday, March 15, the Grace Papers team joined tens of thousands at March4Justice where we were joined by Mums and Dads pushing prams, elderly women, Indigenous people, the LGBTQI community, school kids and university scholars and many, many men to demand equality, justice, respect and an end to gendered violence.
If this year has been a time of clarity and of visibility, 2022 must be the time for sustained action.
And I believe that means putting care, not just carers and parents, at the centre of our workplace systems.
This time last year the ABC reported, Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said that the gendered impact of coronavirus was hard to ignore. She said, “Women tend to be employed in caring industries on the front line or industries like tourism or hospitality which were shut down, they continue to be primarily responsible for caring and domestic work and that’s increased due to COVID.” Even more pertinently, she continued, “In the longer term, I am concerned families might allow women to drop out of the job market and that has a serious long-term effect, including a risk of homelessness in old age, and that reverts us back to gender norms that impact whole communities.”
The Commissioner is certainly not alone in her sentiments. While many workplaces have pleasingly adopted flexible work practices (if only out of necessity), the impact of the pandemic on women in the workplace remains significant.
McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2021 report states that one in three women says that they have considered downshifting their career or leaving the workforce this year, compared with one in four who said this a few months into the pandemic. Additionally, four in ten women have considered leaving their company or switching jobs—and high employee turnover in recent months suggests that many of them are following through.
I am not undermining the strong progress we’ve made toward gender equality in the last 50 years, but the last eighteen months have shown us that when pressure arrives, it is still too often women who are asked to relieve it. The reality is that – as progressive as we may claim to be – our systems are still reflective of outdated gendered expectations. So if we want to see change in our lifetimes, action needs to start immediately.
Is it all a bad news story? Far from it. We see hope and opportunity everywhere
Let me be clear. While 2021 has certainly been tumultuous, it has not been all bad news.
2021 has been a year when women and men alike have adopted feminist styles of leadership, placing an emphasis on empathy, humility, and relationship and consensus-building, and collaboration.
We’ve even seen the phrase “soft skills” replaced with one that is much more apt – “human skills.”
And with the 2022 International Women’s Day theme being Women In Leadership, there has never been a better time to continue to envisage a female-led future. As UN Women said, “The theme celebrates the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
They continued, “Women stand at the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, as health care workers, caregivers, innovators, community organisers and as some of the most exemplary and effective national leaders in combating the pandemic. The crisis has highlighted both the centrality of their contributions and the disproportionate burdens that women carry.”
With this in mind, what does an equal future look like? Julia Gillard recently told the New York Times that things have changed for female leaders, but there is still work to be done. “I think things have gotten better, but I am certainly frustrated at the rate of change,” she said. “We need things to keep getting better far more quickly. At least the public dialogue around gender equality and gender and leadership is much more to the fore now than it was when I was prime minister.”
So it is a pertinent time to bring the perspectives, skills and experiences of women to the forefront, to make their invaluable contributions to decisions, policies and laws that work better for all.