Finally! A minister for women who is a feminist & willing to fight for change

Finally! A minister for women who is a feminist & willing to fight for change

Kelly O'Dwyer
I’m going to be honest. It is a rare evening when I warmly welcome my five-year old unexpectedly bursting into the living room at 8pm.

When the appearance is to advise me that it is too hard to sleep because her mind is filled with questions she desperately needs to ask her 7-year old sister (and bedroom-mate) who is refusing to play along and answer her queries, my compassion is limited.

When this takes place while I am in the middle of interviewing a government minister? It is less welcome still. At least, however, I was on the line to a minister who did not merely tolerate the brief interlude but understood it. Easily and genuinely.

Before my daughter had even finished explaining the woes of being so cruelly expected to sleep of an evening, the minister for women, Kelly O’Dwyer insisted I go and call her back whenever it suited. In the morning if need be.

Now, of course, there ought not be anything revelatory in this exchange, in two working parents respectfully navigating the two worlds they straddle. In reality managing work and family remains an obstacle for too many Australians and in the halls of Parliament House in Canberra, it’s as stark as anywhere else.

Which is why the symbolism of having a woman who is literally in the throes of raising two small children whilst holding a significant ministerial portfolio, matters in and of itself.

But in O’Dwyer’s case that is secondary to the real appeal of her appointment as the Minister for Women. In O’Dwyer Australia, finally, has a minister for women who not only identifies “strongly as a feminist” but who seems genuinely disinterested in accepting the status quo for women.

“The easiest path is always the path of least resistance. The path that says ‘Everything is ok. Nothing needs to change’,” O’Dwyer says. “It takes a lot more effort to interrogate these things and take different action.”

Moving the dial for women will require immense interrogation and effort which O’Dwyer is willing to undertake.

“I persevere,” she says. “I have a reputation for that.”

At the National Press Club on Tuesday, O’Dwyer, in delivering her vision for the portfolio, gave a snippet of how this persistence takes shape.

“Not long after I was elected Parliament, I met with a female scientist who told me that she wasn’t able to apply for a NHMRC research grant because she was working part-time,” O’Dwyer explained. “She had a young family, and the failure to get this grant was going to be catastrophic for her medical research and for her continued career. She also told me that she could apply for the grant if she was working full-time, and then go part-time, but could not apply whilst already working part-time.”

O’Dwyer looked into it because it didn’t seem right and she discovered it was correct. She wrote a letter to the minister outlining the issue and was “miffed” to receive a response that she describes as a “total fob off” that didn’t address her concerns.

She wrote back re-iterating the same concerns.

“This was a genuine issue,” O’Dwyer says. “There are a host of jobs that might legitimately need to be full-time but in the majority of roles there are degrees of flexibility. Why put in place artificial barriers that don’t need to be there?”

She received another ‘fob-off’ in response and decided to take a different tact.

“I thought if he’s not going to listen to me I’ll do something about it myself.”

O’Dwyer rang Labor MP Amanda Rishworth, whom she had met a few times and suggested forming the Parliamentary Friends of Women in Science, Maths and Engineering.

“I said to her this is beyond politics, it’s an important issue that we should focus on as women. Let’s form a parliamentary group and make this our first cause.”

In doing so they began to get real results and shortly afterwards the NHMRC changed their research fellowships to allow part-time applications.

“We later discovered that our group had attracted attention as the first gendered parliamentary group in Australia and one of only a few gendered parliamentary groups in the world,” O’Dwyer says.

This anecdote is heartening and disheartening at once: it proves both the capacity for – and resistance to – change.

When asked how far the Liberal Party has come in its own resistance to change for women, O’Dwyer is circumspect.

“There is a lot of room for improvement,” she says.

As minister for women O’Dwyer says her priority is on ensuring women enjoy physical security – in their homes, workplaces, online, in the street – as well as having economic security.

“If women are to have real choices and access the opportunities that flow from that they need to be economically secure,” she says. “My ambition is to be able to put in place a framework that can help deliver that for all women.”

O’Dwyer said it’s too early the outline the various policy settings this framework will comprise but says come budget time all will be revealed.

There is no doubt that O’Dwyer’s ambition will be difficult to realise. The task is monumental but it is refreshing and overdue to have a minister at the helm of this portfolio who seems genuinely willing to fight for change.

If that seems a low bar it’s because it is: neither Tony Abbott nor Michaelia Cash demonstrated a sincere or credible commitment to women in their respective tenures in the role.

In relation to Cash, O’Dwyer says that characterisation is unfair.  In her press club address and interview with Women’s Agenda O’Dwyer praised Cash’s efforts in the portfolio. She did note that Cash’s comments in the senate last week were “regrettable”.

O’Dwyer has been criticised for remarks she made about #MeToo.

“We need to think about the implications, both good and bad, that come with the airing allegations in a public forum. Social media is not a courtroom, and complainants, and those who are the subject of complaints, can be subject to trial by keyboard warriors. We need to be careful that this public push doesn’t silence the very women it wants to help.”

It would be hopelessly naive to believe that having an engaged Minister for Women will change the position of Australian women in any meaningful sense in the very short-term. But, the fact we have a minister for women who is interested is a start. May it be the beginning of this subject receiving the focus and resources it deserves.

On Feminism

“I have always defined myself as a feminist…it’s not something I’ve ever questioned.
There is no broader expression of feminism than to self-identify. I have no hesitation in identifying strongly as a feminist.”

On targets

“Unless you have a target you’re not focused, you can’t measure your progress and there’s no accountability mechanism. I think all of those elements are very important if you want to achieve cultural change.”

On flexibility

“We need to ensure all Australians have the flexibility needed to fully participate in the workforce; we need to switch the setting where child care and family are automatically considered a woman’s principal responsibility.”

On men working part-time

“There is an idea that in this day and age younger men are a bit more modern but the figures don’t lie. The number of men who work part time has changed little over the past 10 years. We need to normalise flexibility for men. Just like there are targets for women on boards and in leadership positions – why aren’t there targets for men working part-time? What are the barriers?”

On blending parenthood with work

“No one should have their career penalised as a result of being a parent – that shouldn’t be a natural consequence of having a child.”

On the personal juggle

“While theoretically I thought I understood [what it would be like] living it – for me – has been very different. It’s been a revelation that has brought home what a challenge it really is. Having said that I know I am incredibly lucky to have the support and resources I do.”

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