“The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”
– Gloria Steinem
As with all ‘days of significance’ and campaigns, it can be easy to oversimplify the solutions – “fix the system”, “empower women”, “lean in”, “ask for more”, are some of the common catch cries we hear at this time. But IWD this year feels different. And certainly, the conversations we’ve had thus far are different.
The difference this year can be attributed to three key elements:
- Rage & hope – the women’s movement is representative, united and motivated through hope and rage, and women will no longer fear speaking truth to power;
- Evidence – a mounting body of evidence now proves not just the problems caused by gender equality or the business case for change, but rather it demonstrates what works to #BreakTheBias is clear, meaning this year’s conversation is no longer a shopping list of more data pointing to inequalities or how we will ‘fix’ women but rather a conversation about which part of the blueprint to implement first; and
- Accountability – Respect@Work calls for the most progressive changes to our legal and regulatory system in a generation, but for enduring change, it requires imposing personal responsibility on leaders to address gender-based structural inequalities.
While women have always spoken out, and the prevalence of gender-based violence, discrimination and harassment is nothing new, in recent years the conversation at International Women’s Day events has evolved around a binary view of gender equality. We’ve either been focused on individual responsibility for change and the empowerment of (largely white, able-bodied cis) women, or, we’ve been calling for ‘culture’ or ‘systemic’ change which has been vague enough to be everybody’s – and therefore nobody’s – responsibility.
But this year is different. And in taking ‘the long view’, we can see why.
The #MeToo movement of 2018 re-energised the women’s movement globally and set the foundations for a fundamental shift in community expectations around equality, safety, and respect.
In Australia, it sparked a national inquiry into sexual harassment in our workplaces, with Respect@Work finding that sexual harassment is prevalent, pervasive and preventable. Releasing the report, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins didn’t just call for policy change.
Finding that the current legal and regulatory system was ‘no longer fit for purpose’, the report built the case for a new evidence-based model that is victim-focused (read: empowering), evidence-based (read: does not require women to be fixed), and framed through a gender and intersectional lens (read: the structural changes will address more than just white cis women’s equality).
And while policymakers were slow to respond and the gendered impact of the pandemic was revealed, as a community, there were signs – from employee activism at AMP to the apology by the High Court regarding Dyson Heydon – that our tolerance for bad behaviour was changing.
“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”- Malala Yousafzai
The signs were right, and 2021 heralded a new wave of feminism frontlined by Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins, Chanel Contos and Saxon Mullins. With the support of many, many others, including Wendy McCarthy and the grandmothers, each of these survivors was believed and backed.
The stories of Tame, Higgins, Contos and Mullins serve as a reminder this International Women’s Day that ‘empowered women empower others’. In individually speaking their truth to power, they’ve collectively delivered a seismic shift in expectations of women, empowering all women to speak truth to power, especially as it relates to gender-based violence, child sexual abuse and gender equality more broadly.
It must also be observed – and never be forgotten – that each of these survivors has borne the enormous burden of being re-traumatized again and again by telling their story over and over again.
And nor shall it be.
For their contribution to the national debate on gender equality is etched not only in our hearts, but recorded as part of our country’s history:
- Brittany Higgins’ bravery in publicly sharing her allegations of rape in Parliament House resulted in Set The Standard – an independent review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces established by the Australian Government, with support from the Opposition and crossbench;
- Chanel Contos’ courageous insta campaign on sexual assault and sexual coersion has impacted the national curriculum with consent education agreed to by every Education Minister.
- Grace Tame’s bravery has seen her share her story and participation in the #LetHerSpeak campaign has contributed to changes in child sex abuse legislation in four states, and more recently launch a new campaign to “ensure that every state and territory adopts the best practice model by totally removing all language which sanitises the sexual abuse of children.”
- Saxon Mullins’ bravery resulted in the NSW Government passing their Affirmative Consent Bill 2021 through the Upper House, with the new law stating that consent must be communicated rather than assumed.
Accountability – It’s time for leaders to accept personal responsibility for structural injustice
There is a growing body of research on effective approaches to the prevention of gender inequality. Yet as we’ve seen time and time again, calls for ‘culture’ or ‘systemic’ change are often met with resistance from ‘good men’ because through their own lens, they’ve not personally contributed to women’s disempowerment. Familiar catch cries of #NotAllMen or meritocracy arguments in our workplaces have created a vacuum in leadership accountability for addressing gender bias.
And so in the spirit of the theme for this International Women’s Day, I’m calling on leaders to take personal responsibility for #BreakingTheBias. For just as gender bias impacts women via individuals and systems, to #BreakTheBias we need leaders, who by virtue of their position hold power and privilege, to accept personal responsibility for structural injustice, in the same way they’re personally responsible for workplace health and safety.
A new day is dawning for women’s empowerment, and this year I’m committing to calling on leaders to embrace their personal responsibility and #BreakTheBias