The past two weeks have not been good for women.
In addition to the sickening story of Brittany Higgins, a further three women have come forward with allegations of sexual assault and harassment in the same workplace and Christian Porter is in the spotlight once again for all the wrong reasons.
Recently, former Sydney schoolgirl Chanel Contos started a petition on Instagram, asking her followers how many of them (or close friends of theirs) had been sexually assaulted whilst of school age. Since then, over 2,000 stories of assault, toxic masculinity and a clear lack of understanding around consent have been shared.
These stories should be a difficult read for anyone (regardless of whether you have three daughters or not). But are we, as Australian Of The Year Grace Tame said at the Press Club on Wednesday, “on the precipice of a revolution”?
I hope so.
But in order for that to happen, and for women to truly stand side by side with their male counterparts, we need tangible action from the institutions which provide the social frameworks by which we live.
Real social progress depends on institutional support and reform. So what are our schools, industry and government doing about the very real and pressing issue of women’s rights?
Undoubtedly there is plenty of work yet to do to get our girls off on the right foot. So many of our social instincts derive from our early years at school - it is a critical time for young people to adopt social norms.
Chanel’s petition, though disturbing in what it revealed, ignited a national debate around the education of consent (of which there is no one, legal definition in Australia). This is a fantastic achievement. Now we need all schools (private too) to commit to the same consent education program, nationally. This is what Vic Education Minister James Merlino is pushing for, which makes practical sense because how can we make sure the message is getting home when there is disparity and discord between how we, as a nation, define and educate on consent in our schools?
In other encouraging news this week, NSW has followed the lead of Vic, SA and New Zealand by offering free sanitary products to schoolgirls in a bid to stamp out ‘period poverty’. It is estimated that 1 in 5 girls will miss school because of the unaffordable cost of female hygiene products, embarrassment and poor access to washing facilities. This is especially felt by those living in remote areas where it is believed students are missing school for several days a month.
So, whilst the education system has traditionally been reticent in addressing gender equality, it feels like the tide is beginning to turn and we’re getting some movement in the right direction.
One of the missions articulated by International Women’s Day this year is “to forge inclusive work cultures where women’s careers thrive and achievements are celebrated”.
Girls like Chanel may look forward to the time when they join the exciting world of corporate life, only to find that the same patriarchal frameworks exist. Whether it’s as subtle as a brush of a hand or something more sinister, sexual harassment is well and truly alive in corporate Australia, and indeed in the murky world of marketing.
As the 2018 National Survey Sexual Harassment in the Workplace revealed, almost two in five women (39%) have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years.
We need to raise our standards and start thinking about treating sexual harassment proactively with prevention strategies, rather than deploying reactive measures which are painful and tedious for the victims.
We also need to elevate the roles and voices of women.
Looking at our own creative industry, platforms like B&T’s Women In Media Awards are great to recognise the hard work and talent that exists in our industry but for real change, we need more women in more senior roles. Two years ago, only 29% of creative and design roles in Australia were held by women*.
We also need to turn our eyes to the type of work we are putting out into the world and ask ourselves how well this represents the reality for 49% of the world’s population.
Thankfully, this work feels well and truly underway.
One of the most talked about and creatively lauded campaigns over the last year broke down stigmas around the biggest of female taboos: Libresse and Womb Stories. Whether it’s as impactful as Fearless Girl herself, or as subtle as Uber’s female lexicon driver, these are all positive markers for social progress.
For the first time in its 61 year history, the Australian Of The Year Awards celebrated four strong women who are actively fighting for change. By publicly decorating these women, the government has elevated topics which traditionally, get zero air time; the sexual abuse of women and children, the educational gap for Aboriginal students, the inacessibility of sanitary products and the plight of migrant and refugee women.
I really hope Mr Morrison didn’t use this high profile moment to further his own interests. I hope this wasn’t an exercise in profile building for a man who casually once said “These things happen in Australia. People do things and they regret them” in reference to the allegations of Mr Porter in 2019. And the man who famously manterrupted the female Minister for Families and Social Services when she was asked what it was like to be a woman in Parliament. Something to hide Mr Morrison?
From a legislative point of view, many states and territories have plans for the prevention of violence against women, but most of these plans do not include any specific actions to address sexual harassment, or only do so indirectly.
On the flip side, the conversation is gathering pace and no longer being whispered about in the shadows of Parliament House.
We are making progress. Gender equality is now one of the most talked about topics in the boardroom and the newsroom. But we must keep pushing for more. Now is the time for our institutions to stand up and speak out with proper policy making and reform to address the gender inequalities that persist across Australia.
For in the words of Brittany Higgins’ partner, David Sharaz, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”
Support services: Lifeline 13 11 14; beyondblue 1300 224 636; Domestic Violence Line 1800 65 64 63; 1800-RESPECT 1800 737 732
*The Agency Circle Diversity Study, 2018
Words by Laura Barette, Head of PR