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“The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’ ” – Sigmund Freud

Oh, Sigmund. Such a clever man, so stupid about women. He forgot one vital thing, possibly because he spent so long trying to fathom how a woman’s mind could be occupied with anything but penises: just ask a lady and she’ll tell you what she wants. Simple, brilliant, effective.

Suffragettes used to yearn for a world where women’s opinions were sought, and heard: by journalists, political parties, and yes, even advertisers. But in Australia it was not until the 1970s that political parties grasped the idea that women would be attracted to policies that met their needs. Genius! In the early 1970s, the Women’s Electoral Lobby had a brief moment of glory when Susan Ryan convinced the ALP to canvas the views of women, and adopt some as policy. It was a revolutionary idea. Now the gender gap is not always understood, but it is tracked, targeted and recognised as important.

So let me try to answer, with a single word, at least one thing women want: respect. Which is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as: “A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements; due regard for the feelings, wishes, or rights of others: avoiding harming or interfering with.”

Women will always argue vehemently about exactly what it is that we want, and even the question has become a cliché. The suffragettes were bitterly divided, as were second-wave feminists in a century of conflict over women’s rights. But through the anger, agitation, disagreement and activism has come the impetus for change and liberation that usually drives us to the right place: somewhere we can try to live free of artificial impediments, discrimination, violence; a freedom that allows us to love the people we choose, pursue the dreams we crave, try to create a sweeter world we can usher children into, charge up the mountains we want to conquer and topple off others.

What is undeniable is that there is a real, palpable impetus for change in Australia now, partly fuelled – or hosted – by social media, and partly driven by a reaction ranging from disgust to discomfort with the way our first female Prime Minister has been sledged about her gender, her jackets, her hair, her sexuality, her childlessness, her very womb and, most appallingly, her dead father. Her electric speech on misogyny in parliament went beyond the sordid political context to firmly press a button on the chest of any woman who has been patronised, sidelined, dismissed or abused. It crackled across oceans, and, astonishingly, her standing went up in the polls, defying political wisdom that no woman would benefit from publicly slamming sexism.

After all, there are many things we still want, and seeing female leaders being treated with respect is one of them.

We also want more of them. We have a female prime minister, and almost 40 per cent of senators are female, but only one in four parliamentarians and ministers are female. The 2011 Global Gap Gender Report found only 37 per cent of Australian legislators, senior officials and managers overall are women.

We want to work without harassment. A 2012 Human Rights Commission survey found a quarter of women had been sexually harassed at work in the past five years. The vast majority don’t report it, and a third who complain experience backlash, from further harassment to demotion.

We want to be promoted when we deserve it. Women have made many gains at an educational and entry level, but at higher echelons, the female ranks thin out. Women comprise almost six in 10 of commonwealth public service employees, for example, but only 38.2 per cent of senior executive service positions. More than half of all university students and academic staff are female, but they hold only 27 per cent of positions higher than senior lecturer. Six in 10 law graduates are female, but two in 10 senior lawyers are.

What of the corporate world? In 2012, women chaired only 2.5 per cent of Australia’s 200 biggest companies, were board directors of 8 per cent, and held a mere 8 per cent of executive management positions. More than half of these companies did not have a single female board director. Things have improved with a change in reporting requirements; in October 2012, women held 15.1 per cent of AS X200 board seats.

We also want to live without fear of violence. An entire nation grieved the brutal murder of Jill Meagher. One in three Australian women has experienced violence since the age of 15, most by a man they know, in their own homes.

It is not acceptable, it is not what we want. And it’s not a secret code or complex algorithm that requires 30 years of research into the feminine soul. Aretha had it right: we want respect. We want feet kept off our necks, the removal of false barriers to achievement, equal representation, the control of our own bodies, and the ability to soar or stuff up the way men do. We want to love our families fiercely, to have time to nurture our children, to live lives of integrity, honour and meaning.

And here’s a tip: if you want to know what a woman wants, ask.

Follow Julia Baird on Twitter at @bairdjulia.

The Sunday Life / Daily Life What Women Want reader survey is based on 1524 responses from Australian women.