To a certain extent I am guilty of complacency and the misconception that women have largely achieved what their pioneering forebears set out to do 100 years ago – procure better working conditions for women, and the right to vote and to hold office; to be free of violence; and to be considered the equals of men. In fact, there is still plenty to do – in all parts of the world.
Early this morning, I searched for events in Brisbane to mark the occasion, but I hadn't got my act together in time to attend the UN Women Australia's Brisbane IWD Breakfast at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, especially at 06.45.
So instead I looked at the media's response to this momentous day. The Guardian's front page (online) featured eight among 100 of the world's most inspirational women nominated by their readers. The top 100 women are listed by category, and although I am familiar with those chosen in the politics, sport, and art, film, music & fashion sections, I recognise few in science & medicine, technology, law, or activists & campaigners, and only half of those in writing & academia.
The Age had also previously asked its readers which women inspired them, but the choice was from among Australian women only, and included 'your mother', who won hands down. Let us not forget, however, that this nation has its first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, and head of state, Governor-General Quentin Bryce, and three state premiers are women – Anna Bligh in Queensland, Kristina Keneally in New South Wales and Lara Giddings in Tasmania. Anna Bligh recently gained many brownie points for her handling of the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi, but Julia Gillard is currently experiencing a popularity low after announcing her intention to re-introduce carbon pricing. Australians are squealing at the prospect – even though there are no details yet – of increased fuel and energy prices as a result. I never cease to marvel at the level of distrust, and even dislike, of the Greens by many Australians, and their lack of appreciation of the urgent need to modify their resource-hungry lifestyle. But I digress.
There is a Minister for the Status of Women in the federal government, and has been, in one form or another, since 1983. The position is part of the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, and the present incumbent is Kate Ellis. In the UK, there is a Minister for Women and Equalities. Initially called Minister for Women, this position was created by Tony Blair in 1997, when it dealt exclusively with women's issues.
Kate Ellis told the Courier Mail today that she hopes one day there will be no need for her job, although that may be some way off, and reiterated her government's commitment to the target of 40% of public company board positions to be held by women by 2015.
Bettina Arndt in The Age investigates why more women aren't getting to board level. Research has shown a reluctance on the part of women to negotiate their way into the 'boys' club' at 'the pointy end of the corporate world' because they fear rejection and they don't like to practise the pushy behaviour necessary for success at this level. It seems very few women are very good at persistent self-promotion. Neither are they good at asking for what they want. Men, it is claimed, are four times more likely to enter into negotiations about salary and career advancement*.
Australia was the first country to give most women both the right to vote and the right to stand for parliament, in 1902. Unfortunately, it took until 1943 for the latter to happen. As of the 2010 election last August, there are 37 women among 150 MPs (almost 25%) in the House of Representatives and 27 women out of 76 in the Senate (35%). In the UK, there are 144 women among 649 MPs in the House of Commons (22%).
One of the 27 in the upper house is Mary Jo Fisher, Liberal** Senator for South Australia, who, in a ridiculous rant against carbon pricing at the beginning of this month, did more singlehandedly to damage the cause of women in politics than decades without positive discrimination strategies. If you watch this – and I defy you not to turn it off before the end – perhaps you can explain to me what the purple choker is all about. Oh, and non-Australians will need to know that a bowser is a petrol pump. (http://video.adelaidenow.com.au/1826544562/Senator-dances-Hokey-Pokey-Time-Warp)
Talking of statespersons, last year I attended an awards ceremony held in Brisbane by the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) celebrating the contribution of women to Australia's construction industry. The NAWIC organisers' first choice for guest speaker was Anna Bligh but she was unable to attend. Instead we had to endure the 'Honourable' Robert Schwarten, then Minister for Public Works in the Queensland government. On his arrival at the Conference and Exhibition Centre on Brisbane's South Bank, he apparently made it very clear to the lady who welcomed him that he didn't want to be there, and he wasted no time in alienating his overwhelmingly female audience once he got up to speak.
Neither my friend nor I can remember a single word of substance: all we can recall is a deliberately provocative sprinkling of the word sheila in every sentence. He looked more like an ill-educated, chauvinistic, disparaging, downright rude Aussie Bloke than a Labor cabinet minister. His audience became embarrassed on his behalf, looked at their plates and wished he'd disappear: what we should have done is slow-handclapped or talked among ourselves, but nobody, except Schwarten it seemed, wanted to spoil the evening. Would he have behaved like that in a hall full of male construction workers? He is said to have apologised later to the organisers, but no one was more pleased than I to hear of his recent resignation as a minister and his decision not to stand at the next election.
Among The Guardian's list of female influentials is Jessica Valenti, who pioneered feminism online through her blog, feministing.com. She has since written about the threats and abuse she experienced as a result. It seems there is an anonymous, menacing, good-old-fashioned misogynistic force out there in the ether that sees fit to bully and besmirch women who openly discuss gender issues. And, according to The Guardian, there were three denial-of-service† attacks today on the IWD's website.
The extent of the work left to do by women's rights activists across the world is probably best illustrated by a couple of statistics...
Every 90 seconds of every day, a woman dies in pregnancy or due to childbirth-related complications (source: Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women and ex-President of Chile).
One in three Australian women has experienced physical violence since the age of 15; one in five has experienced sexual violence (source: Kate Ellis, Minister for the Status of Women).
...and the words of writer, social commentator and activist Eva Cox, contributor to On Her Shoulders††, a short documentary commissioned by UN Women Australia in honour of the 100th anniversary of IWD:
'The message to young women is, you might think you're equal, but mate, you're not. You earn less; you earn less per hour; you earn less over your lifetime. You do a heap of unpaid work because somebody's got to do it. You don't run things; you don't decide things. So don't have the illusion that you've got choice.'
I would only add, if you are a woman and you believe that you are considered the equal of the men in your world, consider this: when was the last time a man asked you across the dinner table what you did for a living or how your work was going?
* research by Professor (of Economics) Linda Babcock at Carnegie Mellon university in Pittsburg, USA
** the Liberal party in Australia has much more in common with the Conservative party in the UK than the Liberal Democrats
† an attempt to prevent a computer resource being available to its intended users
†† see the film at http://www.unifem.org.au