Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs was the keynote speaker at the Melbourne Women’s Fund inaugural forum held in Melbourne.
Professor Triggs spoke of having grown up post-war, as a baby-boomer, given a free legal education and becoming a practising barrister at 22. This was an optimistic age and she was influenced by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own which with absolute clarity and no weasel words stressed the importance of financial autonomy for women. (Financial autonomy and independence – and especially superannuation, was to be a key theme throughout the Forum).
Professor Triggs believes that economic empowerment is crucial for strong societies and strong communities, and sees health, housing and employment as legal rights. She also believes that human rights for women, children as well as men are good for business.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Index measures where countries stand in relation to these rights. Australia has dropped from 15th place to 46th (behind Rwanda, Burundi and Nicaragua). The Index compares economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment. It is not just that in Australia only 25.4% of board members on the ASX200 are women and that women retire with on average 46% of the superannuation balances of men. What is striking is that Australia ranks No 1 for educational attainment for women yet the highest growing poplation of homeless people here is women over 55.
Professor Triggs noted that the spirit of equality, non-discrimination and equal opportunity of the early 1960s has been lost. There had been a view that if women had education they would be able to resolve all other problems, but even this week, a report by Plan International on the attitudes of young women has shown a growing loss of confidence, a drop in ambition and declining mental health. 98% of the young women and girls surveyed believed they are treated differently to boys.
Professor Triggs referred to the high standards of “evidence” required to support advocacy for “women’s issues”, noting the criticism of the recent Human Rights Commission report on sexual assault on university campuses. Despite having been approved by 39 Vice-Chancellors (in itself no mean feat) and with more than 39,000 respondents to a survey and 2,000 submissions provided in writing, parts of the press doubted the methodology of the findings and in doing so attempted to diminish the report’s significance.
For Professor Triggs, the optimisim of the1960s has not delivered what her generation had hoped. Society ignores the productivity supported by women through unpaid caring responsibilities, has imposed high costs of child care and reduced women’s career opportunities through the development of casual, contract and gig economy employment. Structural issues such as changes in penalty rates will further penalise women who had been its main beneficiaries.
Occupational and industry segregation still exists and barriers such as non family-friendly workplaces also prevent women’s full economic participation.
The phenomenon of “post truth” is a concern. While there has always been spin and propaganda, for Professor Triggs, the issue now is that we are starting to believe it. “Alternative facts” is an absurb proposition, yet false news is increasingly pervasive and informing people’s positions. Professor Triggs referred to Jennifer Hochschild’s Do Facts Matter which posits that the danger of post truth is that you get political benefit by muddying the waters (eg – by mixing the issue of religious freedom with the same-sex postal survey).
There is also the strange phenomenon of raising an issue, proposing a solution, and then accusing women of manipulating the process (the maternity leave double-dipping fiasco). The result of this is that women have now lost 18 weeks paid maternity leave – due to lies.
Professor Triggs spoke about domestic violence and the clear link between social disadvantage and vulnerability to violence. While the government is now rolling out a $100 million package to stop violence against women, this is not enough for structural change, particularly while the government is cutting funding for refuges and defunding community legal centers.
Professor Triggs views these issues through the prism of human rights (not surprising given her background), and referred to the Beijing Platform for Action. A difficulty in Australia is that although Australia is a signatory to many international human rights treaties, these have not been passed into Australian law. This then affects women, children and families in many ways. Professor Triggs noted that it was fortunate that we at least have the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984.
Other issues still to be addressed include the UN sustainable development goals, which call for gender equality by 2030. While aspirations are important, strategies, plans and leadership are also needed.
There are also initiatives for women’s economic empowerment championed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The IMF recently published research Banking on Women Leaders and wants to double its lending to women from $1billion to $2billion as well as develop new financial tools for women in emerging markets. (Consider this – in Myanmar, less than 10% of women have a bank account).
And progress is happening in Indonesia, where the country is considering allowing working women to file tax returns independent of their husbands.
So what is happening in Australia? According to Professor Triggs – not very much. We have no national action plan for women in relation to finance, only abstract and high level objectives. Although we have an Office for Women, there is no dedicated Minister at the Federal level, and the Office for Women has a miniscule budget of $3million which is trivial if it is to address major problems.
There’s the Women’s Money Tool Kit as part of ASIC’s MoneySmart website, but we need to do more to work more closely with women.
The conservative press considers women’s issues to be “identity politics” (I could include a link here, but don’t want to give the Hun more web hits).
So while there is a bit of doom and gloom, and there is a challenge to bring work down to a level where it will have an impact – there is something we can all do.
Professor Triggs took us back to the other literary influence of her earlier years – Germaine Greer. She suggests we should be more aggressive and bolder, speak up more clearly and push back against “alternative truths”, present our arguments with evidence, and even be more vulgar -because “we have played the game for far too long“.
Who is with us?
A couple of questions from the audience:
Q: from the Australian Women Donors Network: “Where are we on progress vs pushback?”
A: there is real pushback in the media and manifest in the statistics – we need to produce strong statistics and spokespersons to speak up in these dangerous times where civil society is retreating from advocacy – especially in the case of community legal centres who are no longer able to stand up and speak. Our freedom of speech is being curtailed and there needs to be accurate, measured balance. Attention to detail in research methodology is important or the media will refute it.
Q: from Sisterworks: from the perspective of an advocate for women dependent on welfare and working in the social sector, there is a gap where people are struggling to do their best, but they don’t have the means.
A: Women need higher levels of economic stability and women need to have public voices (like Anne Summers, Liz Broderick and Rosie Batty). How have we allowed things to get to this point? Professor Triggs made the point that if the 70 women killed by their partners each year had instead been killed by terrorists, the government would be throwing money at the issue.
ozphilanthropy attended the Melbourne Women’s Fund Forum as a guest of the Melbourne Women’s Fund.