Over the past few months, Australians have heard horrific stories of sexism, harassment and assault. Together we have started a much needed conversation about the way our society treats women. But it’s not enough to just have any conversation. We need to get this right if we want to make a real and meaningful change to the experience of many Australian women.
In an interview on A Current Affair last week, the Prime Minister said the word ‘respect’ 14 times and didn’t mention ‘equality’ once. It’s a pattern that has played out again and again in his public comments and it needs to change.
Respect is important, but by itself it won’t produce the society we all want.
Too often, respect serves as a stand in for politeness and courtesy. Whilst politeness is certainly better than the alternative, it’s frankly just not enough. We’ve all met someone who is capable of being perfectly polite to people they don’t value at all. Women deserve better than that. If respect is to mean something, it has to exist in families, workplaces and communities that value women as equal participants.
Australia has made great strides towards gender equality over the past few decades, but there is more work to be done. Research by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency found that on current trends it will take at least another 26 years to close the gender pay gap.
Women are both more likely to start their working lives with professional qualifications and more likely to end their working lives 40 years later with few assets and no superannuation. In the middle lies decades working what academics call the ‘second shift’, shouldering the brunt of unpaid household and caring responsibilities.
Female dominated professions are underpaid in part because they are undervalued by many. The pandemic revealed how dependent we are on teachers, early childhood educators, and workers who care for our elderly or disabled family and friends. Our society may respect the work these (mostly) women do, but that hasn’t led to a wage that reflects their worth.
It’s easier to track dollars than conversations, but many women know from personal experience that this inequality flows through to how they are treated at work and at home.
Equality matters because it is an essential component of dignity for women as members of our society. But it also matters in really practical ways because inequality is a key cause of the sexism, harassment and assaults that have prompted us to have this conversation in the first place. It’s a point made explicitly in the Government’s own framework to prevent violence against women. The Our Watch framework couldn’t be clearer:
“What this framework makes clear is that gender inequality is the core of the problem and it is the heart of the solution.”
Domestic violence workers say one of the most common reasons that women stay in violent relationships is the fear of poverty and homelessness. When women earn less, work in less secure jobs, have less in savings and lower superannuation balances they don’t have the economic security they need to protect themselves and their children.
The evidence outlined in the [email protected] report tells the same story – economic inequality affects safety. There is more harassment in workplaces where men are over-represented in senior roles, or where men dominate the workplace culture.
This is a complex problem that can’t be solved by respect alone. If we want to address the gendered violence and harassment that has appalled Australia, we need to address gender inequality. I worry that the Prime Minister isn’t able to lead this conversation. That’s not just because of his inability to say the word ‘inequality’.
His actions over the past few years suggest he just doesn’t get it. This is a Prime Minister who used International Women’s Day to make the point that “I want women to rise, but not at the expense of men.” Who as Treasurer developed a tax plan that delivered three times the benefit to men as women and when challenged on this said: “The tax system doesn’t discriminate by gender. You don’t get pink forms and blue forms to fill out your tax return.” Who just this month championed a plan that would have women empty their super to fund their escape from a violent relationship.
Respect cannot be measured, but equality can. And on the measures of equality, the Government continues to fail. The Prime Minister needs to rise to meet the challenge to deliver for Australian women. If he is serious about ending disrespect, he will need to grapple with equality.