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International Women’s Day: milestones matter but there’s a long way to go

It’s been 111 years since the first International Women’s Day was celebrated, and while equality remains a priority, we still are struggling to close the gender gap.

The day, celebrated around the world each March 8, is recognised as a day to celebrate social, economic, cultural, and political gains and achievements of women, while also signifying a call to action in accelerating gender parity and equality.

The impetus for IWD began in the early 1900s, building on the ‘radical ideologies’, unrest and critical debate that had seem women march and protest in major cities demanding voting rights, better pay, and equality before the law.

Following several International Conferences of Working Women, the idea of an IWD was tabled and passed unanimously, leading to the first celebration in 1911 by Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. Eventually, the United Nations celebrated for the first time in 1975, which led to the introduction of the General Assembly adopting a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace in 1977.

The Global Gender Gap Index 2021

On one end of the spectrum, Iceland is the closest country to being able to lay claim to closing the gap, while at the other end Yemen is the furthest away with drastic changes required.

Australia continues to make gains in achieving gender equality – but in comparison to other countries, sits a measly 50th with a gender gap of 0.731. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There have been several pivotal moments in Australia’s history that have led us to have the rights we freely express today.

Women win the right to vote

One of the most important ways an individual can express their political views and influence governmental decision making is through voting. In our representative democracy a vote gives people the power to affect how the country is governed, through elections.

When Australia federated in 1901, men were the only people who could vote at a national level – with the exception of women in South Australia and some in Western Australia.

After the suffragists and some politicians applied relentless pressure, the Commonwealth Franchise Act was brought in on June 12, 1902. From this date women in Australia over the age of 21 had the right and capability to vote and be candidates in federal elections.

Australia was one of the first countries in the world to allow women the right to vote, which led to countries like England and the United States asking Australian suffragists for help and advice.

While this was an important step, many of the non-European residents and all First Nation Australians were not allowed to vote until an amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Act was made in 1962 – after it had been made compulsory for all to be electorally enrolled and vote.

First female in parliament

It took several attempts, but in 1921 the first woman was elected to Australian parliament. Edith Cowan was elected to the WA Legislative Assembly after narrowly defeating the sitting member.

Cowan’s election made headlines around the country, and while she only sat for a single term, she was an effective and independent-minded member.

Cowan was concerned about the ridicule she would face as an MP, so much so she only decided to run four weeks out from the election. Her concerns soon proved justified as she and the three other female candidates were exposed to persistent verbal abuse.

Cowan was known for her work in improving the lives of women, children and the underprivileged, advocating for compulsory voting and fighting against domestic violence and sex crimes.

She campaigned for women to become justices of the peace; a judicial officer of a lower or puisne court, elected or appointed by a means of commission, and became one herself in 1919. The following year she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

Her achievements are reflected in the use of her name on  Edith Cowan University, and her face on  on the Australian $50 note.

Sex Discrimination Act

August 1, 1984 marked the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (SDA), following its first draft in June 1983. On the same day, the position of Sex Discrimination Commissioner was created, with Pam O’Neil the first commissioner appointed to the role.

The SDA makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on their sex, gender, intersex status, sexual orientation, marital or relationship status, family responsibilities, actual or potential pregnancy or because they are breastfeeding. It seeks to create a recognition of the principal of equality.

In addition, the SDA made sexual harassment against the law and implemented obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which was enforced in 1981 due to several reservations relating to subjects including paid maternity leave.

As a result of the SDA, the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service were integrated into the Royal Australian Navy; the Marriage Act 1961 was amended to equalise the marriageable age of both sexes to 18 years; the rights and responsibilities of pregnant or potentially pregnant workers in the workplace were clarified, and in 2019 the Senate held an Inquiry into the Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill.

First female Prime Minister

108 years and 41 Federal Elections after women won the right to vote and run, Australia swore in its first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

While the way in which she came to power was controversial to some, Gillard served as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia between 2010 and 2013 for the Australian Labor Party. She was elected unopposed in a leadership spill following the loss of internal support for then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.

Just 23 weeks after being sworn in, she led Labor to victory in the 2010 Federal Election, which resulted in the first hung parliament since 1940.

Despite this, her tenure as Prime Minister saw the Gillard Government introduce the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Gonski funding for Australian education and the implementation of carbon pricing, as well as overseeing the National Broadband Network.

Julia Gillard’s political career began in 1998 at the age of 37, when she was elected to the House of Representatives for the seat of Lalor. During her time in parliament, prior to becoming Prime Minister, she served in the Shadow Cabinet and as Deputy Prime Minister with portfolios including Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and Social Inclusion.

2013 saw Gillard face a lengthy period of leadership instability, which led to her eventually losing a leadership spill that returned Kevin Rudd to the top spot. She resigned as Prime Minister the following day and retired from politics.

Although Gillard ranked poorly in opinion polls on numerous occasions, her time as Prime Minister has been favourably viewed in retrospect by political experts – particularly her famous speech on sexism and misogyny which she delivered in October 2012.

First Indigenous woman in Federal Parliament

Three years after Julia Gillard rose to leadership, Nova Peris became the first Indigenous woman to win a seat in the Federal Parliament.

Following an invitation from Prime Minister Gillard to join the Australian Labor Party in 2013, Peris was elected to the Senate for the Northern Territory.

During her maiden speech she highlighted the known struggles facing Aboriginal people as well as her own life story. Peris extensively travelled Australia in her endeavours to raise awareness of the causes of the struggles facing Aboriginal people and communities.

Peris didn’t sit a full term, retiring from politics in 2016 just prior to the election.

Prior to parliament, Peris played for the Hockeyroos. She became the first Aboriginal to win Olympic gold, with the Hockeyroos’ 3-1 win over South Korea in the gold medal match at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Where we are now

There’s no denying Australia has witnessed a significant change and attitudinal shift around discussions and actions of women’s equality and emancipation. There are increasing numbers of women in our boardrooms, greater equality in our legislative rights and an adjustment in the critical mass of females as impressive and powerful role models, all of which could lead to  thinking that women have achieveded true equality.

However, there is work yet to be done. The fact remains that Australian women earn 22.8 per cent less than males and occupy only 31 per cent of parliamentary seats while a third of women have experienced physical/sexual violence. .

These statistics demonstrate the large gap that still remains between the genders.

The future

At the rate the world is moving, it will take society 99 years to achieve gender equality – and that’s assuming the threat of a drastic setback doesn’t overshadow the gains made so far.

There’s no doubt many obstacles remain in the way, in the form of unchanged law and culture, stigmas and stereotypes and the opinion that feminism is only related to women’s rights rather than gender equality.

As we move to close the gap, it’s important to remember that equal does not mean identical and giving women the rights they deserve does not mean men will lose the rights they already have.

We will not achieve true equality until both men and women are seen as equal in value and status, judgements and decisions are based on merit and not  gender, and employers are just as engaged in asking men about their parental plans and leave as they are women.

We can contribute to supporting and enacting gender equality – and by working together, we can close the gap.