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Is Australia in 2017 still a man’s world?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

International Women’s Day takes place on March 8th each year around the world celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political successes of women. The day also marks a call to action for achieving gender equality. Each year the Australian Institute of Management holds an International Women’s Day Debate. This year’s event, with the support of Business News Australia, will debate the topic ‘Australia in 2017 is still a man’s world’. In the lead up to the event, I’ve explored some of the possible arguments on either side of the debate.

There’s a very strong case for the affirmative team. The rate of domestic, family and sexual violence women experience at the hands of men in Australia is devastating. Each week, at least one woman in Australia dies due to domestic violence. It is the leading preventable contributor to death, disability and illness for women aged between 15 and 44. Women are three times more likely than men to experience violence at the hands of their partner and every two minutes Australian police deal with a domestic violence matter. As journalist Annabel Crabb said, “a woman gets killed by her male partner every single week, and somehow that doesn't qualify as a tools-down national crisis even though if a man got killed by a shark every week we'd probably arrange to have the ocean drained.”

Also supporting the affirmative case is the gender pay gap.  In Australia today full-time working women earn on average 17.7% less than their male counterparts. Often this gap is dismissed as simply a reflection of the choices women make regarding work - having children, working part-time or not seeking senior roles. There are two issues with this argument - firstly, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that women are often paid less than for the exact same role. AIM’s 2016 Gender Pay Gap Report, which collects national data across job levels, found that on average men are paid 8.2% more than women in the same role. This is not the result of women having made different choices - it’s discrimination.

Secondly, it’s important to question the social norms and pressures, as well as the workplace policies in place, that encourage women, rather than men, to take parental leave and work part-time while caring for children or relatives. While for many women the choice is happily and willingly made, for many others it is a coerced decision, one that reflects the widely held view that women should remain the primary caregivers.

There are many more statistics, case studies and personal anecdotes to support the notion that Australia in 2017 is still a man’s world - women make up only 17% of CEOs nationally;  40% of Australian women do not feel safe when walking alone at night in the area where they live (compared to 17% of men); and one in two mothers reported experiencing workplace discrimination as a result of their pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work.

But while it is important to recognise the ways in which women are discriminated against, the negative team has an opportunity to celebrate the women who, despite the limitations placed, on them have achieved extraordinary success. Last year Australia elected its first indigenous woman - Linda Burney - to the House of Representatives and appointed its first female High Court chief justice, Susan Kiefel. 2016 was also the year the AFL Women’s League was announced, bringing with it impressively high viewer numbers around the country. You need only look at the speakers for AIM’s IWD debate to see a list of high-achieving and powerful women. These women’s successes risk being overlooked if we simply write off Australia as only a man’s world. It is so important that when acknowledging the difficulties faced by all women, we do not take away the agency and the power women have, even when battling ingrained discrimination.

It is similarly important to acknowledge who the above statistics on discrimination don’t include. Indigenous women experience domestic and sexual violence, at far higher rates than non-indigenous women. Non-Indigenous girls born between 2010-2012 in Australia can expect to live a decade longer than Indigenous girls born the same year. Women and girls with a disability are also terribly overrepresented as victims of rape and assault - it is estimated up to 70% of women with a psychosocial disability in Australia have experienced sexual abuse.

Elsewhere, nearly half of LGBTIQ Australians hide their sexual identity at work, and six in ten experience verbal homophobic abuse in the workplace. Same-sex attracted Australians have rates of suicide attempts 14 times higher than their heterosexual peers.  Nearly half of all Australian residents with culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds have experienced racism in their lifetime and people with foreign or Indigenous sounding names have lower chances of securing a job in Australia. Discrimination in Australia is wide-spread and impacts more than just women alone. Australia and other Western countries have poor track records when it come to ensuring their feminist movements don’t solely serve the needs of white, straight and middle class women. While white women were given the right to vote in 1902, Indigenous women could not vote until 1965. Homosexuality was not decriminalised in Western Australia until 1989. And as the women’s movement fought for access to abortions, some disabled women were being sterilised without their consent.

So, when we say “Australia in 2017 is still a man’s world”, we run the risk of simply looking at discrimination as something all women experience and men don’t. But it is infinitely more complicated than that. Gender discrimination intersects with racism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism. If we look at any type of discrimination in isolation we are not looking at it in full. Any attempts to correct discrimination and oppression in Australia must take those nuances and complexities into account.