Gender equality: What would success look like?

The first job I had out of university was as a personnel officer with a large insurance company in Melbourne. There were three of us in the personnel department. Bill my boss, he looked after the important personnel issues and recruited the men. Me, I recruited the women. And Sandra provided stenographic, typing and administrative support. This was a time pre-computers and pre equal opportunity legislation.

The jobs available for men were primarily clerical, actuarial, and sales. The jobs available for women were stenographers, typists and some clerks. Typists had to be good at typing numbers which in the field of typing, is a rarer skill. Needless to say the men were paid more than the women and there was hardly any progression from the women’s jobs to those of men. When recruiting women it was standard practice to ask women questions about their potential marital, childbearing and child caring arrangements.

This is just how it was. Unquestioned, taken-for-granted, normal.

These days, decades later, I look at life differently. My perspective is informed by feminism.

Feminism is underpinned by constructionist ideas, meaning that how we see the world is socially constructed by cultural practices, rather than just ‘given’, and these practices support vested interests. Which is probably why many people don’t like feminism.

Back when I worked for that insurance company I was not a feminist. It took several years of life experience and consciousness raising before I got it and bought in.

It’s a pretty simple concept really, it asks that females be treated as humans.

We all know that gender equality has progressed during the last four decades and we all know there’s still plenty to do.

I discovered that back in 1991 U.S. Congress passed an act which created the Glass Ceiling Commission. This commission investigated the barriers affecting a range of minorities in America. In 1995 it produced its final report about barriers faced by women and the report offered a range of recommendation for action. These recommendations included the following:

  • Demonstrate CEO commitment
  • Include diversity in all strategic business plans and hold line managers accountable for progress
  • Select, promote and retain qualified individuals
  • Initiate work/life and family-friendly policies
  • Improve data collection.

Look familiar?

Gender equality has not been fully realised anywhere in the world. It’s not lack of resources or know-how that prevents greater gender equality.

Anne Summers, in her book The Misogyny Factor, suggests we’re preoccupied with progress rather than success. Evidence of progress is not evidence of success. When the Queen stopped by in Canberra in 2011 she was greeted by three more women – the Governor General, the Prime Minister and the ACT Chief Minister. Delightful though this image was, such blips of progress do not necessarily signify lasting change.

The UN’s current slogan for women is Planet 50:50 by 2030. Certainly much has changed since my work in the insurance company. Yet nearly 50 years on we still haven’t achieved equality and I doubt something significant will happen in the next 13 years.

After our election last year the ACT Legislative Assembly became the first jurisdiction to have equal numbers of men and women politicians, in fact 13 of 25. Fairfax Media did some calculations on how long it would take other jurisdictions to achieve a similar result. On present trends, they estimate it will take another 10 federal polls to go from 32 % to 50%. That’s 2046!

50:50 by 2030 unhelpfully represents gender equality as a numbers game proportional to population. Real gender equality will only be achieved when women regularly make up 100% of a government, council, board, meeting, even a conference program, and no one bats an eyelid. It’s accepted as normal, everyday practice. That’s success.

Let’s be clear, I’m not advocating simply reversing centuries of men holding 100% of the key spots. All I’m saying is that when women can hold a majority or all such positions without comment, only then will we have success.

To give you an inkling of what this looks like earlier this year Sweden’s Deputy Prime Minister and Climate Minister, Isabella Lovin, shared a photograph on social media of herself signing a new climate law. Behind her are seven female colleagues, giving a ‘cheeky nod’ to a recent image of Donald Trump signing an executive order reinstating a ban on US aid donations for abortion counselling.

If gender equality means treating all humans as equally valuable, it’s worth asking, what would success look like?

Here’s some further suggestions:

  • Women would make up at least 70% of the Australia Day awards
  • The final game of the Australian Tennis Open would alternate between the women’s and men’s game.
  • No woman would ever be called a girl.
  • The PM’s 11 would alternative between the women’s and men’s cricket teams.
  • Pink would be banned as a colour reference for women.
  • No woman would be murdered by her present or past spouse/partner/husband.

That’s just for starters.

While gender equity strategies cover a range of useful actions, little addresses the core of the issue: the social construction of masculinity and the pressure to conform to this limited model, with its restrictions on sophisticated communication and interpersonal skills. Having men champion gender equality will not achieve success. What will move us towards 50:50 by 2030 is men taking responsibility for changing themselves.

[You may also wish to read my article ‘Hold off the celebrations: gender equality ‘progress’ is not ‘success’, published in The Canberra Times.]
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.