International Women's Day

Catharine Lumby, 8th March 2021

International Women’s Day is a time for reflection on how far we’ve come but what is still left to do. And this year it’s pretty clear there’s still a lot left undone.

Across Australia, we are witnessing a reckoning about the extent of sexual assault and harassment of women that reminds me of the shock wave that 70s feminism sent through society.

These days the overalls and the placards seem almost quaint – though there will be a Women’s March on Federal Parliament on March 15 to protest gendered violence and demand justice. #March4Justice.

The rally was organised by Janine Hendry who sent out a single tweet and got an overwhelming response. And this is the power of social media. It allows women to speak out about gendered violence in a collective voice rather than in the single file we’ve always had to tell our stories in. To friends and family, to counsellors, to the police.

There is now a broad coalition of women, and many good men, who are saying very clearly that we have had enough. Enough of fabulous young ambitious women not having safe workplaces. Workplaces free of sexual harassment and assault.

Enough of all women not being treated equally and respectfully and being given exactly the same opportunities on merit as their male colleagues. Enough with the sexist assumptions and the boys’ club. And let’s face it Parliament House is one of the biggest boys’ clubs in town.

We need a Federal Parliament that represents all of us when it comes to gender and cultural and religious backgrounds. And while I’m on that point can straight white men stop their whinging about having their freedom of speech suppressed. The rest of us have heard enough from all of you to sustain us for a century.

A friend of mine recently proposed a radical solution: women should go on a sex strike until all good men stand up alongside women to oppose gendered violence. And while we are at it, women should stop giving their money or their votes to any organisation that does not understand why gender equality is a basic human right.

I am heartily sick of inquiries and reports being done and then being left to gather dust in a drawer. I am very pleased that Kate Jenkins, a very expert woman, has been asked to lead an inquiry into the culture at Parliament House. She will do a fabulous and fair job.

The question is what happens with her recommendations? We already know what needs to happen. Her report will contain evidence of the existing culture. Let’s not bury it.

Let’s use her research to ground evidence-based education programs – ones which aren’t just tick the box. Ones which engage the men and women who work in that hothouse environment in genuine conversations about how to make change. Policies mean nothing unless they are embedded in the DNA of an institution or organisation.

When Malcolm Turnbull was Prime Minister his Ministerial Code of Conduct had a fantastic preamble which spoke to exactly that. It used words and phrases like: ‘integrity’, ‘public trust’ and ‘values should be lived’. It was an excellent example of a document which framed the importance of the Code.

It is interesting to note that much of that language is now absent in the preamble to the incumbent Prime Minister’s Code of Conduct. It would be interesting to know why.

We know what needs to be done to change culture and society when it comes to the epidemic of gendered violence. We need to start young educating boys and girls about consent – and not in a ‘just blame pornography’ way. I grew up in an era where the worst pornography boys could access was their dad’s Playboy magazine. But girls in my town were still being raped.

We need to talk about how gender is related to power and who gets to exercise it. That’s what is really at the heart of sexual harassment and assault.

We need to take the temperature of organisational cultures through good research, design best practice education programs, evaluate them and repeat the research. Cultural change takes time. Just ask any advocate of gender equality.

On this International Women’s Day, I ask all the amazing and good men I know who stand with women to stand up.

And I applaud the courageous young women like Chanel Contos who are calling out sexual assault in Sydney’s private schools for speaking out too. Young women are our voice and our future in this fight for justice.

And a fight for justice and equality is exactly what it is.

Catharine Lumby is a Professor at Sydney University and a consultant on gender equality.