What to change while we wait 117 years for full gender parity

The depressing forecast of parity tells us we have a lot of time - but on the upside, that means that we can finally ...

The depressing forecast of parity tells us we have a lot of time - but on the upside, that means that we can finally work on getting it right. Photo: AMC

Today is International Women's Day, an auspicious and wonderful day on our calendar. International Women's Day celebrates women's achievements while acknowledging the political and social struggles that act as obstacles to our success. Its origins can be traced back to 1909, when the Socialist Party of America marked February 28 as National Women's Day in homage to the 1908 garment workers' strike in New York City.

The following year in Copenhagen, the Socialist International moved to establish a Women's Day to "honour the movement for women's rights and to build support for achieving universal suffrage for women". Over 100 women from 17 different countries unanimously approved the proposal. International Women's Day has been celebrated in some form every year since, but it wasn't until 1975 (also celebrated as International Women's Year) that the UN officially declared March 8 as IWD.

But to my mind, IWD is about more than just celebrating women's achievements. It's also a time for women to mourn. On IWD, we honour our dead - the women we've lost to gendered violence, women killed by men both unknown to them and known. It's a time for us to acknowledge the women who've been victimised by gendered violence but survived. It's a time to recognise that there is a long standing war on women, but unlike the conflicts documented in history books and celebrated in national and international days of remembrance, this is a war that we're still fighting to have acknowledged. 

Indeed, there's still so much about women and our experience of the world that is yet to be acknowledged. The theme for IWD in 2016 is "Pledge for Parity", a nod to the fact gender parity has not only slowed in many areas but in some cases is actually moving into reverse. According to the official website for IWD, "The World Economic Forum predicted in 2014 that it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity. Then one year later in 2015, they estimated that a slowdown in the already glacial pace of progress meant the gender gap wouldn't close entirely until 2133."


But what does parity really mean? Is it a simple matter of putting more women on boards? More female CEOs? More women elected into a Westminster system of governance? Equal numbers of men and women entering particular industries? These things are important, but aspiring to parity just within those areas cements the false assumption that there's nothing wrong with the world as it exists now, only the rules governing who gets to play in it.

Let's be real. Power structures did not spring up out of nowhere. They've been heavily informed by masculine ideals and influences with a not insignificant splash of white supremacy thrown in. The systems that govern us socially and politically were not designed by an outside force, but by a consideration of values belonging to only a small proportion of the world's population. The pursuit of equality can't be just about women and men being given the "same" opportunities to succeed in a world that has fundamentally prevented the former from having any role in shaping it. If we are to strive for a gender equality that is both real and game-changing, it has to be about more than just aligning women with systems that have been built by a patriarchy invested in sustaining itself at all costs.

And what does this mean? Well, firstly it means recognising that fundamental change is required. Think about the arguments around reproductive labour that are used to keep women from being promoted into senior positions in the corporate world or being paid an equal wage - like, "what's the point of professionally investing in women who are likely to leave the workforce in order to have children?" and "women work fewer hours than men because of their children, so why should they be paid the same?"

Leaving aside for a moment the fact they assume all women want and can have children, a better question to ask is why one of the most necessary roles in human history is consistently reimagined as an irritant that inconveniences business. Women (for the most part) are the ones who bear the physical and emotional responsibility for re-populating each generation, but that work is chronically undervalued or dismissed outright. Why is the solution to more parity in the workplace only ever conceived of as "better" (although not actually best) practice Paid Parental Leave and never the possibility of a radical shift in how we structure the workplace as a rule to provide, say, onsite childcare?

Similarly, the push to get more women into leadership roles and governance in particular is predicated on the assumption that the systems themselves have no room for improvement. I am a big supporter of quotas (the "meritocracy" everyone harps on about doesn't exist - if it did, we wouldn't have Barnaby Joyce as a Deputy Leader, Peter Dutton as Immigration Minister, or legacy of Tony Abbott in its entirety). But quotas only act to gain equality for women (and white women in particular) in a world whose power structures have been dictated by men (and again, mainly white men).

Pledging for parity should therefore be understood to be a much greater (and more beneficial) exercise than simply shifting the numbers in a flawed system. I'm dismayed by the fact it will take an estimated 117 more years to achieve gender parity in the world we already have. But on the upside, maybe we could use that time to work on creating a better future entirely. A future where parity exists for all people, not just white men and women, and where a broad range of different ideas and methods are used instead of the boring practices of old. The depressing forecast of parity tells us we have a lot of time - but on the upside, that means that we can finally work on getting it right.