Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

A fool to believe? Gender equality advocacy in times of trouble

Sep 9, 2018 | News

Written by Pia Rowe

“The future is not shaped by people who don’t really believe in the future. [It is shaped] by men and women who want something very much or believe very much”  – John W. Gardner


Gender equality in Australia is in trouble. This is reflected in a range of measures, from our low ranking of 35 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, to the way we treat women in politics, the prevalence of sexual harassment, and the at times appallingly low standards of the public debate in general.

Against this backdrop, is it foolish to stay optimistic about the future?

What does it say about the society, when despite decades of work, despite the fact that gender equality in the workplace is one of the key debates of our times, and despite the fact that Australia has one of the best anti-discrimination legislative frameworks in the world, we don’t seem to be making much progress? If anything, we seem to be slipping backwards. And crucially, against this backdrop, is it foolish to stay optimistic about the future?

Last week, we launched our new landmark research report From Girls to Men: Social attitudes to gender equality in Australia. The first one of its kind to take a nationally representative sample and break the results down not just by gender, but also by generation, the findings give us significant cause for concern.

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A staggering 88% of Australians believe that gender equality is still an issue in Australia today. Only 29% of all women believe that people in Australia are hired on merit. More than half (56%) of men believe that men and women have different talents and skills based on their gender, while almost one in four (23%) think that men are better suited to leadership roles, and a whopping 40% of men believe that women are best suited to be the primary carer of children.

These statistics offer just a quick glimpse into some of the report’s findings, but by and large, the story stays the same. We are light years from where we expected to be in 2018.

It’s not easy to explain the backslide, especially given the monumental efforts and achievements of those who’ve come before us.

Perhaps we did get complacent at some stage. The wins that propelled some of the biggest changes in the societal fabric, enabling women to enter the workforce in increasing numbers also meant that for many of us who were young adults in the 90s, the struggle had never been a lived reality. Rather, and as research has shown, the message we grew up listening to was that of individualistic determination: As long as you work hard enough, you can be whatever you want to be.

It wasn’t unreasonable to assume that the situation would naturally correct itself as more and more women entered the workforce

Then again, at face value, it wasn’t unreasonable to assume that the situation would naturally correct itself as more and more women entered the workforce – an assumption we of course now know not to be true. Women’s educational attainment has surpassed that of men’s for over two decades in Australia. The pipeline didn’t deliver.

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Of course we could speculate some more, and add another qualifier: You can be what you want to be… until you have children. The changing work and family dynamics continue to be inadequately supported by the broader societal structures in Australia. Childcare is prohibitively expensive and in many cases, designed to function around standard office hours. Paid parental leave provisions leave a lot to be desired, and factors such as lack of paternity leave reinforces the traditional idea of women as caregivers.

However, family and caring roles are of course just one piece of the puzzle, and we need to be careful not to trivialise the problem here. Many of the issues impacting women today are universal and not in any way linked to whether one has children or not. Sexual harassment, trolling, gender segregated workplaces, career advancement, or lack thereof, are just some examples of the issues that impact people regardless of their family status.

The largely unregulated and often uncontrollable nature of the internet has also added another layer of complexity to the problem.

Add to this the finding from our survey, which showed that almost half of Australian men feel like they’ve been left out of the measures to improve gender equality, and it is clear that things are not great at the moment.

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But bleak as the situation may be, now is not the time to pack our bags and go home. Quoting Virginia Haussegger, Director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation and the driving force behind From girls to men, progress is never inevitable. However, with a concerted effort backed by evidence-based information, progress is also achievable.

This has very little to do with wide-eyed naivety so often associated with the word optimism, or unsubstantiated beliefs that the situation will correct itself. Rather, it requires what leadership scholar John Gardner terms ‘tough-minded optimism’ – “a blend of original ideas, deep convictions, and resilience in the face of change”.

‘Sisu’ has no direct translation, but it encompasses extreme strength, perseverance and dignity in undertaking tasks that may appear almost hopeless

I would add to this a concept from my native Finnish: sisu. The word has no direct translation, but it encompasses extreme strength, perseverance and dignity in undertaking tasks that may appear almost hopeless.

When we look at the big picture, there is a lot that give us reason to hope. With movements such as #MeToo, we’ve witnessed what can happen almost overnight, when people band together for common cause. The numerous organisations around Australia working tirelessly to change the status quo signal that change is upon us.

What we need now is new tools, and new knowledge to change the course and drive us in this direction.

And some sisu.

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