I just dove into the Women’s Agenda archives as I do from time to time, looking for a particular piece of writing, when the headlines above caught my eye.
They all belong to stories that were published on Women’s Agenda during a one month period … back in 2015. Six years ago. Realising that every one of those headlines could have been attached to a piece written this year felt like a sucker punch.
As the author of most of those stories I am, quite obviously, well aware that the subject matter in question is sadly both ubiquitous and timeless.
I know there is nothing new about blatant sexism, about prolific sexual harassment, about sexual violence, about lucrative incompetence dressed up as ‘merit’ or prime ministers with a wholly absent regard for improving the lives of women. I know all of that. And I know there are hundreds of thousands of women who have known that for far longer than I have.
The ways in which our workplaces, parliaments, schools, universities, businesses, communities and leaders are failing women has reached a very public crescendo in 2021. For some, Prime Minister Scott Morrison included, the events of 2021 have constituted a “big wake up call”. But, to quote Tracy Grimshaw, it’s been less of a shock to 52% of Australians who know all too well the difficulties too often associated with being female.
Being fed up with that enduring, immutable understanding is what ignited the fury that compelled tens of thousands of Australians to take to the streets all around the nation back in March. #March4Justice could only seem a spontaneous reaction to new information to someone who hasn’t been paying attention. Women didn’t march because it just dawned on them, this year, that women are being failed. They marched because women being failed has been wilfully and systematically overlooked, ignored, dismissed and disregarded for too long.
Which brings me to the reason for my trip down memory lane that brought me face to face with the old headlines. I delved into the Women’s Agenda back catalogue after seeing the news that the 2021 Women’s Agenda Leadership Award finalists had been announced. That particular announcement always feels uniquely wonderful but never has it felt more urgently necessary than in April 2021.
Casting your eye over the finalists selected from over 900 entries is a welcome counterpoint to the toxicity 2021 has revealed so many women endure.
As a longtime writer and editor here, I am naturally completely biased, possibly closer to evangelical, about Women’s Agenda. Its value and function as an independent and small-but-mighty, female-owned media platform that champions women and unapologetically applies a gender-lens to the news daily cannot be overstated.
But the annual Leadership Awards are the most tangible expression of one of its defining objectives; to create new female role models, to uncover the achievements of unsung leaders, to place the spotlight on a diverse range of emerging female leaders doing extraordinary things. (Small aside if you’re wondering, I can brag shamelessly about these awards because aside from always being there and being involved behind the scenes, I cannot claim any credit! Angela Priestley and Tarla Lambert are the powerhouses who make it happen.)
These awards, conceived by Angela and Marina Go in 2013, have always been living testament to the fact that there is no shortage of talent, education, skill, capability, ambition or determination among women in Australia. These awards are proof women are not underrepresented because they’re deficient. Australia’s systems, our policy settings, our infrastructure, workplaces and attitudes, are deficient in supporting, accommodating and recognising female talent. And yet even with structural hurdles women are out there doing and achieving remarkable things.
In 2015 the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered a keynote address at the Leadership Awards in Sydney in front of 400 guests. Giving a welcome speech on that occasion remains a career highlight I’ll never forget and yet I live in hope for the day the remarks I made are rendered obsolete.
That day is not yet upon us. The reason I searched the archives for the speech I gave on the 26th of February in 2015 was because I sensed how tragically prescient the comments I delivered that day would feel to re-read in 2021. It felt worse to read back than I expected.
Back in 2015 I said it was time to tell Australian men and women a new story about women, because the old story wasn’t working.
“When an author can sell a million copies of a single book and be reduced to “plain of feature and overweight” in her obituary, as the late Colleen McCullough was, it is clear that the story isn’t working.
When a seeded tennis player can finish a match at an international tournament and be asked to give a twirl, like Eugenie Bouchard was at the Australia Open, it is clear the story isn’t working.
When it is revealed that the gap between what men and women earn in certain areas of management, in Australia in 2015, is as high as 45%, it is clear.
When Alan Kohler presents research on the ABC News about female-led companies in America and can’t show a corresponding graph for female-led companies in the ASX because there aren’t enough to form a sample size.
When the first two months of a year haven’t even finished and already 15 Australian women have been killed at the hands of a partner or an ex-partner.
When a country like Australia can rank number 1 in the world for educating women but rank 52nd in the world for female workforce participation and yet barely create a ripple in the news.
All of these things illustrate that the story isn’t working.”Extract from a speech delivered in February 2015
In 2021 the details might be a little different but the substance is shatteringly similar. As devastating as it felt to contemplate how little has changed in the intervening six years – not for lack of solutions but the absence of commitment and leadership – at the very end of my speech I found a glimmer of hope.
Shining a light on women who defy the odds won’t alone create change but it can certainly plant the powerful seeds that might. Supporting women to create a new story and a new conversation for women matters. It is my sincere hope that each of us might leave here today more emboldened to live the new story.’
In 2021 women in Australia are more emboldened than ever before to live a new story and lead a new, necessary and deeply uncomfortable conversation. A story in which women who have been hurt or humiliated or silenced or punished are willing to directly challenge the assumptions, leaders, power, and systems that have failed them – and, critically – be met with widespread support and solidarity.
The courage of women like Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins and Christine Holgate to fight back against powerful institutions and individuals, has started a new conversation for women in Australia. These women were less powerful than the people and structures that hurt and failed them, but they are all incredibly privileged. They are white, middle-class and highly educated. That privilege didn’t protect them from being hurt but what they were subject to raises a sobering and pertinent question, that Industry Professor at the Jumbunna Institute of Education and Research, University of Technology Sydney, Nareen Young, posed last week. If a woman as privileged and relatively powerful as Christine Holgate can be bullied, imagine the treatment that less privileged, less powerful women face at work?
The discrimination, harassment and violence that women suffer is prolific and it is compounded exponentially by racism, disadvantage and inequity for First Nations women and women of colour.
The story needs to change for all women in Australia – but for some women there is more that needs to change.
If you are committed to changing the story for women in Australia I invite you to support the 2021 Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards. Read about the current and past finalists. Be overwhelmed by their tenacity, determination and innovation. Consider the breadth and depth of their talent, and note the diversity of the women recognised. Follow them online. Support their ventures. Promote their work. If it’s at all feasible to buy a ticket to the dinner on the 29th April in Sydney, please come along. Even better, buy a table!
This event often sells out and you will not be disappointed. Aside from hearing from Yasmin Poole, Louise Milligan and Senator Larissa Waters in conversation with Tarla Lambert, you will walk away inspired and comforted that the future of this country is in good hands.