Labor can’t just put policies in place to make it easier for women under the status quo. They need to shape perception to change the role of women so that we can be defined as workers and contributors to the economy as well as parents, writes Melanie Smart.
International Women’s Day didn’t get a lot of attention in Australia until the Queensland LNP decided to hold their event at a men’s only club. Abbott’s response to questions about the appropriateness of the venue was: ‘This is just how wonderful this broad church that I lead is … obviously they’ve just broken down the last barrier and they’ve made the men-only club admit women’. This response sent shudders through progressives, but the irony seemed to escape our illustrious leader.
An LNP spokesperson justified the decision by explaining that the men’s only Tattersall’s Club was able to accommodate the event at short notice. Does he think that leaving the organisation of an event for International Women’s Day to the last minute can demonstrate respect for women?
It’s important to understand the difference between presence and power. Letting women attend an event in a men’s only club does nothing to shift power structures. Business deals, job offers and networking will return to business as normal once the PM’s entourage exit, continuing to exclude women from these opportunities. The club inevitably perpetuates gender norms, allowing women to be present only as a man’s date, required for social niceties and conversation, but failing to recognise meaning contributions women might make in their own right.
Allowing his female colleagues to enter in to a space where they are not welcome as members or as equals cannot be seen as anything more than a perpetuation of the chauvinism which plagues this nation and particularly this government. Abbott and his Queensland colleagues may see no problem that needs addressing, but women are still missing out on a fair go in Australia. One third of women experience physical violence and 19% experience sexual violence. The national pay gap stands at 18.8%, leaving a difference of nearly $300 a week in what men and women get paid. More than 95% of CEOs in the top 200 companies on the Australian Stock Exchange are men. Women in Australia do nearly double the unpaid hours than men. These are just a few statistics that start to paint a picture of inequality which is quite distinct from the smashed glass ceilings that Abbott points to.
This prejudice is accepted by and large by Australian society, but it should no longer be accepted by Labor – as a progressive party best positioned as the vehicle for change. Why has Tanya Plibiseck faced questions about how she can perform in her role with small children when Bill Shorten has not been asked the same? On Q&A Julie Bishop even faced questions about hypothetical children and how they might interfere with her performance. This line of questions need to be called out by politicians for what it is: the media perpetuating unfair gender norms.
We need a government who is prepared to do more. It is not enough to introduce flexibility in work to allow women to care for children while maintaining meaningful employment. Instead, we need to encourage equal perceptions of gender that do not expect women to be the primary care givers. We need education programs that teach boys at school that family responsibility is more than bringing home a pay check. We need to enforce expectations that both parents have duties at home and with child care. Our Labor politicians are best placed to start a different dialogue about gender and needs of Australian women.
Labor can’t just put policies in place to make it easier for women under the status quo, they need to shape perception to change the role of women so that we can be defined as workers and contributors to the economy as well as parents.