New research has asked government insiders how to solve gender discrimination in Australia

We are about to mark another International Women’s Day.

But amid breakfasts and uplifting speeches about girl power, we’ll also be reminded of the appalling rates of violence against women, the stubborn gender pay gap and a pervasive sexism seemingly ingrained in our society. An imbalance remains: women do most of the unpaid work in the home while men make most of the laws and policies that affect us all.

Nothing seems to change – or change fast enough. But there are concrete things we can do about it. New research offers practical ideas for redressing gender inequality in Australia from those at the very center of federal government policy-making.

Speak directly to the experts

As part of her doctoral research, Yolanda Vega interviewed past and current MPs, senior civil servants, diplomats and political and civil service advisers in 2018 and 2019. They were asked what works and what we need to to eliminate gender discrimination in Australia.

Australians have taken to the streets to urge political leaders to take more action against gender discrimination.
Diego Sidele/AAP

A total of 25 interviews were conducted, and all were people who had direct experience in developing government policies and legislation regarding gender discrimination. Both sides of politics were involved and responses were kept anonymous so people could speak freely.

More women in power

Respondents overwhelmingly believed that we need more women in federal parliament to create a fairer Australia (currently, 31% of deputies in the lower house and 52% of the Senate are women).

As one noted:

Australia has had an enviable record of 27 years of economic growth, the best in the world, but various cohorts of women have fared so badly, especially in the past 20 years.

They cited other parliaments as evidence of the benefits of more women in power, such as Scandinavian parliaments with higher proportions women parliamentarians, where they have “very pro-women” policies.

To solve this problem, one respondent suggested increasing the number of women in parliament by using the “Irish modelwhich uses financial incentives.

Every primary vote I received, in every election, earned my party approximately A$3.00 per vote, paid from government revenue. In Ireland, which has the same system, a party can only access these payments if it has put in place an equal number of women. I think it’s a great idea and would help drive change.

Others highlighted the importance of women being visible across the political spectrum – proudly telling their stories.

People who will talk about the importance of women’s rights [are] described by some politicians as “representatives of the green left” as if there is a political agenda involved in being in favor of women’s rights, which is really damaging.

More men prioritizing equality

Respondents also wanted more male leaders in government to prioritize gender equality. They said men should be encouraged to question the status quo and examine whether political decisions (or lack thereof) are based on biases and how these, in turn, affect women.



Read more: Host the celebrations – the budget’s supposed focus on women isn’t a game-changer


Respondents lamented that the attitude of male leaders has not changed over time. A structured way to ensure the integration of gender equality into policy-making is to integrate it into every aspect of the federal budget (and not just as a “women’s budget report”).

What is the best way to make macroeconomic reform that does not disadvantage women? […] What do investment strategies that are positive for women look like?

Another interviewee put it simply: “every policy should look at how it affects women”. This approach should be reinforced with measures of success. As one person noted, “transparency” was necessary for new policies to have a positive impact on women.

Another interviewee agrees, adding that KPIs “need to be in the job description.”

someone has to say, ‘I’m going to measure your performance […] on this subject, at a trot!

keep up the pressure

Respondents also wanted to see Australia take a cold, hard look at some of the infrastructure “defending” gender equality.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 was a watershed moment for Australian law and women’s equality (a reform that was no accident led by women).

A 1992 review added material to stop employers using pregnancy as a means to discriminate against women – but that was 30 years ago. Or, as one interviewee put it, “these legislative frameworks have served us well, but they are not yet complete”.

The late Susan Ryan, pictured in 2014.
The late Susan Ryan – the first Labor woman to sit in cabinet – spearheaded the creation of the Sex Discrimination Act.
Lukas Coch/AAP

As a starting point, it was noted that there are no provisions for child custody in the Sex Discrimination Act. But those interviewed also wanted to see other critical examinations of Australia’s legal and political landscape.

Several interviewees said Australia’s rewards system further entrenches gender discrimination and that as a piece of legislation, the Fair Work Act often works as a barrier. For example:

In my mind, that’s where a lot of the economic disadvantage comes from – the pay given to a child care worker versus a basic construction worker is not equal. Some of them [awards] exist and have not been changed for decades and decades and decades […].

Another interviewee said there would be a lot more transparency when it comes to wage negotiations – but that would be easy to fix if the federal government had the “political courage”.

A lot of it comes down to the fact that salary is negotiated behind closed doors and there’s no visibility into what you’re being paid, and if you’re not ready to bring it to light, you’ll have to hard to get there.

One pundit had an even more striking idea, for a royal commission on the matter, or “what’s going on?” » :

We are going to investigate our banks, but surely the bigger issue is what is happening every day in workplaces across Australia, where women are paid differently simply because of their gender.

The benefits of equality

These are just some of the perspectives shared by these experts at the heart of the Australian government. Despite the serious nature of the discussions, the dominant theme was one of possibility and optimism with future governments. However, accountability, incentives and resources to include women in policy making are essential.

As a final thought, informants also spoke of the need to reframe the debate on gender equality in more positive terms. And that has to come not just from politicians, but also from the media and other community leaders:

I would reverse the debate. I would not work for the elimination of discrimination against women in Australia or for the removal of barriers to equality, I would celebrate the benefits of equality.

About Alexander Estrada

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