Australia's sexist climate resulting in young women curbing their ambitions

Deakin student Natalie Petrellis, 19.

Deakin student Natalie Petrellis, 19. Photo: Joe Armao

"Hey sweetheart. How much for an hour?"

She was only 12 at the time, but Natalie Petrellis, now a 19-year-old student, still remembers his exact words.

"I didn't really understand what he meant but I still found it intimidating."


Since then she has copped more vulgar intimidation on the street. But just as disheartening has been watching other young women internalise chauvinist attitudes and curb their ambitions.  

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Young women are turning their backs on leadership or politics because of an overwhelming perception of growing sexism in Australia, according to a survey by child rights organisation Plan International Australia.  

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Just 1 per cent of girls or young women dream of a future in politics, about half say sexism affects the career path they choose and more than 75 per cent have been the target of sexist comments.

The poll of 1000 young women and girls also found that about half believed sexist attitudes in Australia were increasing and the same number said sexism affected their decision to speak out on issues important to them.

They had few home-grown role models, but the most popular individual role model was former prime minister Julia Gillard.

"We commissioned this research to discover how girls and young women feel about sexism and their own place in Australia and were genuinely shocked by the results," said Plan International Australian chief executive Ian Wishart.

It was sobering to find that girls were putting up with a chronic level of sexist attitudes and commentary, he said.

The only dream jobs for which being a woman was seen as an advantage were full-time mother or athlete, the survey found.

A delegation of 24 young women, including Ms Petrellis, will on Wednesday present Foreign Minister Julie Bishop with recommendations they believe will make for a more equitable world.

These include global access to education and healthcare and an end to gender violence.

Ms Petrellis is studying creative writing at Deakin University, and has volunteered for two years with Plan International Australia to put on events to create awareness of children's rights.  

She initially felt saddened by the findings of the report but has found it cathartic to talk to other young women about ways to end sexual assault and harassment.

Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls, and a former leader of the Australian Democrats, Natasha Stott Despoja, said it was a travesty that girls were still subject to such sexism in today's society.

"It is almost 20 years since I entered federal parliament and I recall the sexism and antiquated portrayals to which I was subjected: I had hoped that progress would be greater by now," she said.

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