'We can all be that one conversation': Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins on improving gender equality

‘We can all be that one conversation’: Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins on improving gender equality

“We can all be that one conversation,” Kate Jenkins, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner told journalist Gina Rushton during Women’s Health Victoria’s annual general meeting.

“People often say change takes time…but in the time that I’ve been in this role, I have repeatedly heard, particularly from men, that there was one conversation where they changed.”

At Women’s Health Victoria’s AGM on Monday afternoon, Kate Jenkins and Gina Rushton sat down to reflect on gender equality setbacks this year, particularly in light of the pandemic, and where the crisis has left women as we look to the future.

While there are a myriad of significant issues facing Australian women at the moment, Jenkins says that during her time as Sex Discrimination Commissioner, she has been encouraged by all the people working hard to progress gender equality, and that she’s seen everyday conversations have a real impact on the ground level.

“My main encouragement is that the conversation in Australia about sexual harassment…I feel like the way we work is that it’s a slow build,” she said.

“I would say in the three years since the Harvey Weinstein thing happened, workers, investors, customers are actually really starting to use their voice to say, ‘No, we don’t think it’s okay that someone who has sexually harassed, gets promoted’.”

“That’s the ground swell that’s really positive.”

The conversation between Jenkins and Rushton covered everything from women’s economic security, gender segregation in the workforce and the “pink recession”, women’s mental health, childcare reform, sexual harassment, and the national emergency of domestic and family violence.

And as CEO of Women’s Health Victoria Dianne Hill shared, the pandemic has quickly highlighted just how at-risk progress on gender equality is.

“Little did we know that in 2020 a global pandemic would come along and its impact would highlight how fragile some of the gains are and how pervasive deeply entrenched structural barriers continue to be in causing harm to women and many others in our society,” Hill said.

Kate Jenkins explained that when the pandemic hit, many women in Australia were suddenly faced with the reality that they were either going to be positioned on the frontline in occupations like teaching or as healthcare workers, or they were going to be out of a job because they were more likely to work in a hard-hit industry, or in insecure work.

In situations like this, it’s become clear that Australia’s highly gender segregated workforce doesn’t help anyone.

“In this recession, we have seen women more impacted, but in other ones it’s been men. As a community, it’s in our interests that we don’t have these lopsided exacerbations of the vulnerabilities that already exist,” Jenkins shared.

“We know our workplaces would be more productive if they were gender balanced. They’re more successful, they’re more profitable, we also know families will be more prosperous as well.”

In terms of the conversation that’s being had around investing more in early childhood education and care, Jenkins said that the beginning of the pandemic clearly demonstrated the government understands the importance of having women in the workforce.

“It was really interesting that the government so quickly realised that it needed to secure childcare,” Jenkins said.

“The message out of that really was – we’ve realised that if we’re going to get through this, we need our healthcare workers and our teachers.

“We need these people to be able to continue to work, and that means we need childcare no matter what.”

Jenkins says she can see a total redesign of our childcare system happening in the future, and she would like to see it focus on elements that would unwind some of entrenched gender stereotypes the current system reinforces.

“To look at how the leavers are working to reinforce the stereotypes that the mum is primary carer and the part time worker, and the dad is the full-time worker on the higher income. That’s the redesign that I hope we will achieve,” she said.

As we’ve seen people stay at home and move online during the pandemic, we’ve experienced rising rates of domestic abuse in homes, and more gendered abuse online, including image-based abuse. Jenkins believes it’s essential that governments continue to invest in prevention and response.

“Prevention being recognising the underlying drivers, like gender inequality. We haven’t broken the dam wall but as a community we are starting to speak about this in the way that we should be,” she explained.

Amid the deterioration of gender equality we’ve seen during the pandemic, one of the silver linings has been an influx of gender desegregated data that is being produced. Jenkins shared that it’s incredibly helpful in recognising the issues that are affecting women and men the most, and will ensure we can invest in the right places and policies going forward.

To make this happen, a top priority in Australia should be getting more women into political life, according to Jenkins.

“In moments like this we realise how important our political leaders are. They really are the ones we are turning to to make decisions for us,” she said.

“In the Cabinet and those important decision-making forums, I think it is good for the whole community to have women and men making decisions for us.”

Jenkins doesn’t believe that women are inherently different to (or better than) men, but having a diversity of lived experience in parliament is imperative to improve outcomes for the community as a whole.

“I do think that women and men can bring different things, they come from different histories, they have different experiences and we will do better with that diversity.”

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