What Australian women need to fight for

Mehreen Faruqi, NSW Greens MLC and spokesperson for the Status of Women.

Mehreen Faruqi, NSW Greens MLC and spokesperson for the Status of Women.

Growing up in Pakistan, a poor developing nation underpinned by a patriarchal society, I always imagined prosperous countries like Australia having achieved gender equality in all spheres of life. So imagine my surprise when I arrived in Sydney 21 years ago and started my postgraduate studies in engineering, only to discover there was only one female academic amongst a fifty odd male teachers in the school of civil engineering at my university.

Of course, judging gender equality is much more sophisticated than just measuring numbers and ratios in one particular institution and profession; nonetheless it is a good indicator of existing marginalisation. This discovery was the start of my rose-coloured glasses getting less and less of a workout in the coming years as I made Australia my home.

Gaining the right to run for parliament has not yet lead to equal representation. 

There is no doubt that much has been achieved through the successive three waves of feminism over the last century. We’ve fought hard and won many battles - the right to vote and to run for parliament, to join the workforce and pursue careers in all professions. We have better access to contraception and abortion services. Laws have been enacted that attempt to create equal pay, equal opportunity and protect women from violence.

While these much needed reforms have vastly improved women’s rights and opportunities, change has been painstakingly slow, and inequality and discrimination still pervade many parts of our laws, workplaces, society and democracy.

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Gaining the right to run for parliament has not yet led to equal representation. I sit in NSW parliament where only a quarter of the MPs are women. The first woman was elected to the lower house of NSW parliament in 1925. It is quite unacceptable that after almost a hundred years, there are only 18 more, in an assembly of 93.

It was this male-dominated chamber that last month voted to give foetuses legal personhood status in NSW. “Zoe’s Law” is an unnecessary and dangerous piece of legislation, and will have serious consequences for women’s reproductive health and their right to choose, especially since abortion is still an offence under the NSW Crimes Act.

Even though more women complete university degrees than men, they are less likely to reach higher management positions. The gender pay gap, shamefully, still stands at 17.5%.

Not only has our journey of equality been slow but even more disappointing is the fact that we are moving backwards and unwinding some of these hard-fought rights: The gender pay gap has actually increased by 2.6% since 2004.

Women’s rights to reproductive health are yet again under threat from conservative parliaments across Australia. Following the passage of foetal personhood law in NSW Lower House, South Australia attempted to do the same. The Victorian Liberal state council has decided to overhaul abortion laws and there are fears that abortion may again be criminalised.

This year the world economic forum ranked Australia 24th in their global gender gap report, well after the Philippines, Cuba and Nicaragua – countries which have a much lower GDP than Australia. Not only this, but we have slipped 9 places in the last 7 years.

Women’s participation in politics is a key measure of women’s empowerment but in our Federal Parliament women’s representation has dropped significantly, moving from 24th to 43rd in the world in the last 12 years. We lag behind developing countries such as Senegal, Nepal and Afghanistan.

No doubt Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s decision to allow only one woman in his cabinet will slide us even further down the scale in 2014.

Given this widening gap in gender equality and concerted moves to wind back women’s rights, it was especially inexcusable for the Prime Minister to try and justify his decision by highlighting that "There are very strong and capable women knocking on the door of the Cabinet."

Of course, there has never been a lack of strong and determined women in society. Some recent examples include our first female Prime Minister and Governor General, and of course the young Pakistani woman, Malala Yosefzai, who is the role model for a whole generation.

But more of these “very strong and capable women” need to knock down more doors, call out sexism and gender-bias for what it is and take up their rightful place in politics and in society. It’s also time for me to pack away those rose-coloured glasses for now. It’s quite clear that women in Australia cannot take their rights for granted just yet.

Let’s make sure that in 2014 we all take responsibility for closing the gap.  Women’s empowerment and equal participation are a ‘whole of society’ responsibility. I already see supporters of women’s rights and social justice joining up across politics, class, gender and ethnicity It is extremely inspiring and energizing to see the fourth wave of feminists, young and old, men and women working together for equality. As a passionate feminist and the Greens NSW spokesperson for women, I will be standing up with them, and we will turn the tide, as we have in the past.

Mehreen Faruqi, Greens MLC and spokesperson for the Status of Women 

 

12 comments

  • A study in the US showed that where a woman ran against and sitting member her chances of being elected were the same as a man standing for the same seat. In a vacated seat again she stood the same chance as a man. So why are there not more women elected? Because women CHOOSE not to do the hard yards to get selected and many don't want to because the long hours and disruptions of political life don't suit them.

    Commenter
    Bev
    Date and time
    December 16, 2013, 9:42AM
    • First of all the USA is streets ahead in terms of gender equality, so the study may not be relevant to Australia.
      Secondly, why do women choose not to enter politics? Because they do not have the support at home if they want to have a family.
      Men don't have to choose, they can have it all, family and a political career (Tony Abbott, Rudd, Howard etc etc) . Women are either childless like Julia Bishop or Julia Gillard or they find the toll is too much on their family and resign like Nicola Roxon.
      Trying to have a career and children is almost impossible when your children are young. My daughter used to be totally and utterly distraught when I would come home from work when she was about 2. She would cling on to me like her life depended on it. It made going to work a terrible guilt trip for me and I reluctantly gave it away. It was not really a choice to stay home but I did it because I realised that working was not fair to her. From the outside you would think oh aren't I lucky, I chose to stay home and bake cookies. But the reality is, I sacrificed my much loved career for my children. My husband didn't. He still has a career and family.

      Commenter
      Les
      Date and time
      December 16, 2013, 1:17PM
  • There is a lot in here about what women need but much of it is within their grasp if they choose to go after it. Want more women in Parliament? Then more women need to do what men in those positions do and be willing to sacrifice having children or having family time with those children if they do have them. It's the same for higher management and executive suite positions, I don't know of too many CEO's who work part time. Of course there are some women who are willing to make those sacrifices and good luck to them, they have as much right to a seat at the boardroom table as anyone else. But if you're not willing to make those sacrifices then why expect that others who are should be promoted ahead of you?

    It is saddening that the wage gap has increased since 2004, I wonder though how much of that is due to higher wages for mines, engineeers, plumbers, electricians etc because of the mining boom during that period? Women are massively underrepresented in those jobs which are now quite high paying, should it come as a surprise that the wage gap has opened up as a result?

    Commenter
    Hurrow
    Date and time
    December 16, 2013, 10:49AM
    • Here's an idea - how about men participate in raising their children in a meaningful way so as to allow their partners to pariticpate in the workforce in a meaningful way. True equality - if you bring children into the world then you need to make the sacrifices to raise them (this is not just women's unpaid work!)

      Commenter
      for the love of
      Date and time
      December 16, 2013, 3:18PM
  • they should fight for the right to be mothers.Real mothers.Not working part time mums struggling to find some time to be a mother first.With pride.,they should be demanding the right to at least three years from birth to be with their children,not to foster them to some strangers ,or people with no other job options but baby sitters at day care.

    Commenter
    Kane
    Date and time
    December 16, 2013, 10:54AM
    • Who would want to employ them in that case Kane? No business is going to be keen to hire someone who is entitled to three years off and their job or something similar at the end of it, particularly if they are entitled to it for each child. You could very easily end up having to pay or at least keep a job slot open for someone who is barely there for a 10-15 year period.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      December 16, 2013, 11:25AM
    • "With pride.,they should be demanding the right to at least three years from birth to be with their children"

      I'm pretty sure they have that right now. I'm not aware of any legal requirement to give up your child to daycare.

      Or are you saying they should have a government-enforced law compelling somebody else pay them money while they care for a child rather than participate directly in the workforce, and then give them back the same job they had when they left, despite them now being years behind in terms of training, networking and experience?

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      December 16, 2013, 11:26AM
    • Geez, I hope it's your inability to string together coherent sentence...

      Commenter
      Ripley
      Location
      Hunting Aliens
      Date and time
      December 16, 2013, 11:41AM
  • "only one female academic amongst a fifty odd male teachers in the school of civil engineering at my university."

    Note its civil engineering, its not that females are not represented, its that very low amounts of females would choose to do civil engineering. Looking at statistics in one dimension will always get you the answers you want.

    Other faculties such as chemical engineering, finance, would have much higher representation of females.

    Commenter
    h
    Date and time
    December 16, 2013, 11:07AM
    • All power to you, Ms Faruqi. It's certainly a roll of illustrious and impressive women who've been selected for the Women of the Year list.

      Commenter
      Kudos
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      December 16, 2013, 11:20AM

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