6 March 2015




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When we gather to celebrate International Women’s Day we are making a statement of our values as individuals – and we are also taking part in something bigger than each of us.

This is a celebration which is observed around the world.

And it’s a tradition which spans more than a century.

International Women’s Day was first observed in 1911 in Germany, Austria, Denmark and other European countries.

One of the organisers, the Russian feminist Alexandra Kollontai, wrote that the turnout “exceeded all expectations.”

“Germany and Austria … was one seething, trembling sea of women,” she said.

Quite an image!

In its early days in Europe, International Women’s Day was linked to radical political movements.

There may be a few radicals here this morning – perhaps even some feminists.

But International Women’s Day is now a part of the calendar for people from across the political spectrum.

And that is something to celebrate as well.

Because it shows that women’s rights are a cause for all of us.

International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the women who have pressed for change in the past; it’s a time to reflect on the progress we have made; and it’s a time to network and to mobilise for the future.

Women today enjoy freedoms and opportunities our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were denied.

We enjoy those freedoms because earlier generations of women campaigned for change.

This was no small thing to do.

Taking a stand against powerful institutions and entrenched attitudes required courage.

Earlier generations of women put themselves on the line to achieve change.

I love the story of the South Australian suffragette activist Muriel Matters.

I am sure many here know it.

She was born in Bowden in 1877, studied music at the University of Adelaide, and pursued a vocation as an actor.

When she was a teenager, South Australia became one of the first jurisdictions in the world to give women the vote.

Muriel sought to export this reform to England.

In 1905, she went to London, joined the Women’s Freedom League and campaigned for votes for women.

In 1908, she chained herself to an iron grille in the ladies’ gallery of the House of Commons.

The grille was there to obscure women’s view of Parliamentary debates – a contraption Muriel regarded as a symbol of a male-dominated society.

In 1909 Muriel used another contraption – an airship – to fly over London and drop Women’s Freedom League leaflets from the sky.

It was an exploit that drew international headlines.

The Muriel Matters Society has pointed out that while these two famous deeds punctuate Muriel’s story, they mask a lifetime of hard work in pursuit of deeply held convictions.

Those convictions were gender equality, access to education, and career opportunities based on merit, not on gender or social background.

We take those propositions for granted today.

But for much of the 20th century, women had to fight to turn them from ideals into reality.

And South Australian women were at the forefront of these campaigns.

South Australian women like Mary Lee and Catherine Spence, who campaigned for electoral reform and political participation by women.

Women like Dame Roma Mitchell, the first woman appointed as a judge in Australia in 1965 and the first woman to be appointed a State Governor in 1991.

Women like Jessie Cooper and Joyce Steele, the first two women elected to State Parliament, and Dame Nancy Buttfield, the first woman to represent South Australia in federal Parliament.

They paved the way for future generations of South Australian women in politics from Anne Levy to Jennifer Cashmore to Janine Haines; from Rosemary Crowley to Heather Southcott to Amanda Vanstone; from Jeannie Ferris to Natasha Stott-Despoja to Kate Ellis.

All the way to Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Adelaide’s own Julia Gillard.

International Women’s Day is not only an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come.

It is also a forum for highlighting the changes we still need to make.

In Australia today women can be chief executives, mining magnates and farmers.

They can be High Court judges, Police Commissioners and Generals.

They can be neuro-surgeons, airline pilots and orchestra conductors.

Yet in Australia today there is still a gender pay gap in our workplaces.

Figures released last week show that on average, women working full-time earn 18.8 per cent less than men.

This gender pay gap reflects the segmentation of working women into lower-paid occupations and industries.

It also reflects discrimination against women, especially when it comes to the impact of their family responsibilities on their careers.

In Australia today there is also a gender imbalance when it comes to leadership positions.

Figures released by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency show that women make up only a quarter of key management personnel at Australia’s 11,000 largest private sector employers.

A third of these businesses had no female key management personnel at all.

The picture in the boardrooms of corporate Australia is similar.

Women make up less than one in five of the directors of ASX 200 companies.

And 35 of our top 200 companies do not have a single woman director.

There is a similar picture in government.

Women comprise:

  • 35 per cent of Commonwealth judges and magistrates;
  • 30 per cent of federal Parliamentarians;
  • 17 per cent of federal Ministers;
  • and just 10 per cent of federal Cabinet Ministers.

The World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap report showed Australia ranked 65th of the world’s countries on the proportion of women in ministerial positions.

We ranked lower than Sweden, Finland, France, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Canada, the United States, Austria, Spain, Albania, Italy, New Zealand, Brazil and Israel, amongst others.

It was Australia’s lowest level on this indicator since 2006.

So we have an apparent paradox.

Women now have equal access to education and to the full range of occupations and professions in our society.

Yet women earn less than men, participate in the workforce at lower rates, and are severely under-represented in the senior echelons of business and government.

One of the main explanations for this paradox is that women take primary responsibility in our society for caring for children and also for the elderly and the disabled – and this affects their careers.

This is why access to childcare and family-friendly workplace policies are important issues.

There are also structural barriers and unconscious biases which stand in the way of women achieving their full potential.

Many employers are tackling these barriers by adopting gender equality strategies.

Yet half Australia’s largest private sector employers do not have policies on flexible working arrangements or for supporting employees with family and caring responsibilities.

Economic security and equality is important for women.

Physical security is absolutely fundamental.

There are still terrible levels of violence against women in our society today.

Women are far more likely to be victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show:

  • 1 in 5 Australian women have experienced sexual violence;
  • 1 in 4 women have experienced emotional abuse from a current or former partner, and;
  • 1 in 3 women have experienced physical violence.

There is an urgent need to do more to tackle domestic violence  – the increasing focus on this issue was epitomised by the naming of Rosie Batty as Australian of the Year.

In conclusion, International Women’s Day is a good day to remind ourselves that for all the gains that have been made, we still have a long way to go.

We may not need to climb into a rickety airship or chain ourselves to Parliament House.

But we do need to keep working to turn our ideals into reality.