I want to reflect in these few words on what is so special about tonight, and what is special about the year we have seen, when women’s movements are so publicly on the move and gaining the media spotlight.
All the time we are reminded that we do not yet live in a just world.
We know that when national and international awards are announced – whether it be for public service, for achievement in art, literature or science – the likelihood still is today that men will be acknowledged over women.
We see it in the Nobel prizes; we see it here in Australia in the Queen’s Honours lists; we see it at the Oscars.
(Graphic: 2017 Queens Birthday Honours, Companion of the Order of Australia recipients)
But there is push back on this; and there is progress. In some ways there is nothing new in the protest. But we sense it getting louder, getting more public buy in, and getting more determined.
We ask, each time this happens, why aren’t more women being recognized for their outstanding contributions?
And, where it is clear that there really are not so many women in the field, be it as scientists, or film directors, or politicians, we ask: how are women being pushed out, discouraged, or set up to fail?
Is it by harassment, by lack of support, by boys clubs wielding all the power?
When we see an event advertised where all the speakers are male, we say to the organisers, what were you thinking? You can’t do this anymore!
I have had several tussles over this. A major forum on Australian leadership at the ANU back in 2013 was originally planned with one female speaker to about 50 men. We made a fuss, and it is now run very effectively as a gender balanced event. And is all the better for it too!
But the problem has not vanished. At the start of this year I spotted a symposium advertised with a line up of 12 men, no women. They wheeled out the usual excuses about how the 4 women they had invited had been unavailable so although it was really unfortunate, there was nothing they could do.
I said – it’s not just unfortunate; it’s unacceptable.
And because I’m a philosopher, that phrase got me thinking.
What is happening when we manage to move things from being ‘unfortunate’ to being ‘unacceptable’?
It marks a form of progress that is highly consequential.
If you believe the outcome of running an all male event is unacceptable you don’t plan in the same way as if you think it would just be unfortunate if things turned out that way; you don’t imagine that is ‘all that could be done’. If an outcome is unacceptable you not only have to work much, much harder to avoid it, your show can’t go on until you fix it…
Establishing that something is unacceptable, not just unfortunate, actually changes the world.
Establishing that something is unacceptable, not just unfortunate, actually changes the world. These organisers would not have done what they did, there would not have been an all-male conference, if it had been fully understood it was unacceptable in 2018.
So our collective power of censure is a vital element in the press for progress, because it reshapes choices, action and results.
I give this small example to illustrate a wider theme.
‘That’s unacceptable’ – there are many historical moments and situations when in saying that you will be laughed down.
The powerless cannot say ‘that’s unacceptable’. When you say ‘that’s unacceptable’ and you are taken to be powerless –that’s when you are laughed at; or worse, become vulnerable to abuse: abuse that is (as much as anything) aimed at ensuring that you stay powerless.
Individual women have not had the collective power backing them to say ‘that’s unacceptable’
Lets not forget that this is one of the ways sexual and gender harassment has remained such a very large part of women’s working lives for so long.
Individual women have not had the collective power backing them to say ‘that’s unacceptable’ – because we have been taken to be powerless – taken to be people who can be dismissed.
Dismissed in the sense that our views are not allowed to count.
Dismissed, as the threat of losing employment, or of not getting the job in the first place.
Dismissed because the complaining will be seen as worse than the offence.
And of course many times, women have been dismissed for complaining, even when they were demonstrably within their rights in doing so.
So we need to acknowledge the importance of the spaces – local and global – in which women come together to support one another, and to strengthen their collective voice. Men’s support is important too, and we need a wider public. But lets not forget solidarity among women. This has been crucial.
When we shout ‘Me Too’ or ‘Times Up’ we demonstrate how the ‘unacceptable’ is crafted as power, how it makes a difference to the public world. It’s a social movement that was desperately needed to flesh out formal legislation guaranteeing equal treatment.
And it’s a movement that– we should acknowledge – still has a long way to go in terms of giving the powerless real protection, and amplifying the voices of all the silenced women of the world, the women who can still be dismissed.
Without renewing and also amplifying the small acts of bravery that push back against injustice, the law protecting equal rights becomes an empty formality.
This is hard won power and we have to keep on maintaining it, by making a fuss again and again
This is hard won power and we have to keep on maintaining it, by making a fuss again and again; by following through with whatever means available to ensure that term of censure and rejection – ‘unacceptable’ – really sticks.
And lets also not forget that as we gain power, it gives us responsibility: It confronts us all the time with difficult decisions – how much pressure to put on: how far to attempt to invoke sanctions, how far to go public, or work behind the scenes.
Anyone who works in an institution probably knows all too well how the times we live in – brave leadership in speaking out about harassment, for instance – also pose harsh dilemmas.
To do this well, we need to think together and act together and simply be together. That means that conversations and celebrations like the one tonight are hugely important.
We demand better recognition for the achievements of talented and outstanding women who must always, it seems, do so much more than men to be noticed; and we demand more equal support for women in pursuing their agendas and their goals.
(Photo: Virginia Haussegger; Caitlin Figueiredo, ACT 2018 Young Woman of the Year; Ashleigh Streeter-Jones, ACT 2018 Woman of the Year; Cathi Moore, ACT 2018 Senior Woman of the Year)
The women whom we honour tonight have all shown leadership in pressing for progress.
These are women who have made outstanding contributions to the lives of women and girls in our place – the place we have chosen to live in: this very wonderful place, the ACT, that gets better and better through your efforts, all of our efforts.
Together we create new spaces of both freedom and responsibility for women.
Thank you all so much for being here tonight and for all the work you do.
(Photo: blog author Prof Fiona Jenkins, ANU Gender Institute; Virginia Haussegger, BroadAgenda & 50/50 by 2030 Foundation)