There’s a wonderful New Yorker cartoon that shows a woman seated at a conference table with five men. The man chairing the committee says: “That’s an excellent suggestion, Ms Smith. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”
When we think about gendered bias in workplaces we naturally focus on what happens to women at work. But it’s equally important to understand how discrimination affects women in daily lives and well into their futures.
Next time you show up to a meeting dominated by male executives, consider that this dynamic may be affecting homelessness statistics.
Domestic violence is experienced by one in six Australian females – with an incident occurring every two minutes in this country. Domestic violence is also the dominant pathway to homelessness for women.
Ask most people why people are homeless and they are likely to say it’s because of drug and alcohol addiction or mental health issues. In fact, research initiated by the bipartisan Council of Australian Governments found that domestic and family violence is the leading cause.
It seems unbelievable, but one in three Australian women have experienced physical violence from the age of 15. It’s a tough statistic to get our heads around. And even tougher when you realise that most of that violence occurs at the hands of men they trust – those they are in an intimate relationship with or related to.
The most common reason women give for seeking support from government funded homelessness services is domestic or family violence.
Whether domestic violence results in homelessness is influenced heavily by whether the survivor has access to money and friends or family who can house and support her and her children. Unless they are born into an affluent family, that’s exactly where gender imbalances in the workplace take on a grim complexion.
Generally speaking, women are less likely to be hired into a role (at any level), and are much less likely to reach leadership positions. In Australia, women comprise just 17.1% of CEOs in the 2018 WGEA survey. The gender pay gap that flows from this, which in Australia hovers around 14%, means that women are materially less financially independent, and therefore have fewer options when they are threatened.
We also know that women are overwhelmingly disadvantaged when it comes to the proportion of superannuation they have because their career paths are so often broken up by having children and taking on the invisible and unpaid labour of raising children.
Exploring the situation facing many women in 19th century Australia, historian Marilyn Lake wrote: “Increasing numbers of women found themselves juggling work and childcare.” Not much has changed for women whose partners’ violence gives them no choice but to leave and take the kids.
There are women living on the street with their children. Living in their cars. Afraid to go to homeless shelters because they don’t want to deal with more violence and they want to protect their children.
Grassroots action must be taken inside corporate leadership to recognise the needs of those women and support the primary service providers who service them. And they need financial support.
Equally, we need to recognise our contribution (as leaders or bystanders) to the economic and social factors that render so many women less financially self-sufficient than men.
Why are women still relegated to the lower ranks of organisations despite their educational and professional achievements? Why is feminised labour like childcare, primary school teaching and nursing still undervalued? Why do we accept indirect discrimination in hiring practices?
And why do we think it’s OK for women and children to be treated as property? This is at the heart of domestic and family violence. It’s a hard truth.
Which is why we should all take a turn participating in or supporting the Vinnies Sleepout and spending some time thinking about that truth. And thinking about how we might more urgently address female disadvantage in the workplace as a way to tackle the root causes of domestic violence and homelessness.
This article was first published in The Guardian