Catherine Fox, WLA's Director of diversity, on the importance of IWD  ​

one picture is police, firefighters and a politician standing together outside, chatting, the other picture is of a woman, smiling, with a badge pinned to her blazer

By Catherine Fox 

On the same day the Prime Minister recently explained to a Perth forum that we don’t want to see ‘women rise only on the basis of others doing worse’, I was wishing a happy International Women’s Day (IWD) to an audience of more than 450 Women in Construction Victoria members on the other side of the country.

Sure it was an afternoon tea. But the discussion was far from the ‘cupcake feminism’ that critics have dubbed these kinds of gatherings. In fact the talk about the history and success of women’s solidarity which is celebrated on IWD drew cheers from most of the audiences I spoke to around Australia.

These were not simply token efforts in the face of daunting gender equity issues nor were they a bit of corporate box ticking. In fact the women I spoke to, from all kinds of sectors and jobs, seemed fed up and were vocal in a way I’ve rarely seen before.

A few years ago the organisers of these presentations were struggling to fill a room. This year many sold out. Something has changed.

That doesn’t surprise me. The reboot from #MeToo and women supporting each other while standing up to poor behavior, such as the brave few who called out the bullying in the LNP, has put women’s rights back into the spotlight.

There was much more open acknowledgement of the barriers and less appeasing than I’ve seen before. This dialogue had moved well beyond the old theme of whether discrimination exists and was focused on working out how to tackle it.

Speakers on panels at several events were talking about the need for uncomfortable conversations to make change; some blokes were challenging power structures that remain male dominated at the top and making opaque networks and patronage visible; of many leaders with a blind spot when it comes to how traditional masculine styles are self-perpetuating; the depth of the backlash and ways to debunk the argument that if women have ‘merit’ they will get ahead.

There were women who told painful stories of their lives to help understanding of how race or disability combine with sexism in devastating ways. Aboriginal women spoke of the extra hurdles they face at every turn; and why younger Aboriginal women don’t take hard won women’s rights for granted because for them there are virtually no obvious signs of change, much less role models who look like them.

I heard a visually impaired woman talk about being patronised and of having her husband constantly mistaken as her carer when she is out; and that she is not ashamed of her disablilty because it’s what has made her the person she is.

And at Macquarie University the story emerged of a concerted push to fix the system, not the women (partly inspired by my book Stop Fixing Women) by reviewing rules and practices. At the School of Engineering, once dubbed the ‘man cave’ on campus, a different approach to identifying and promoting senior academics led to increasing the women at senior levels from 5% to 25%.

There’s been a real spike in the number of women asking why they are blamed for outcomes of bias in the workplace; many who grapple with inflexible attitudes and double standards. They were figuring out how to identify and address bias in areas such as recruitment and promotion to change the landscape.

One other observation from the week was about men – both as speakers and in the audience. Some on the stage were clearly trying hard but failed to come to grips with the causes of discrimination and defaulted to well-worn advice about women being the problem – either not studying maths at school or failing to speak up more in the workplace.

This didn’t go down well.

But some urged other men to step up and tackle the entitlement of the boys’ club, use procurement policies to ensure suppliers have gender equity strategies, hand the microphone to a woman at events, and push the envelope on flexibility by taking paternity leave.

And that’s why IWD remains a potent rallying point and of course keeps me busy – and I obviously have a vested interest in supporting it. But as an advocate for change over several decades, I am pragmatic too.

IWD allows public conversations to unfold that might not happen otherwise. It takes women’s concerns seriously and celebrates the enormous steps forward in the last century: winning the vote, the right to education and a fair wage (in theory if not in practice).

There’s no denying much remains to be done to deliver fairness for women and improve understanding of what is at stake – as our PM’s comments reveal. But I think we have to remind ourselves of not just what has been achieved but how it happened.

I came away from a few days of celebrating IWD without eating a single cupcake but with a surge of optimism at the wave of energy from women working together just like the suffragettes did a century ago. That’s why we need to keep loudly and proudly celebrating IWD.

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