Looking for a gender issue to fight for this International Women’s Day? Michelle Ryan outlines plenty to choose from.

Over a century ago, in a time when hashtags didn’t exist, let alone #metoo, women in different parts of the world bravely took to the streets, demanding gender equality and paving the way for profound social change.

As it’s moved through generations, International Women’s Day, marked every year on 8 March, has been a continuation of their legacy – sparking protests, movements, campaigns, conversations and a few Spice Girl tributes along the way.

But despite the progress, there are those at the frontlines of feminism highlighting the uncomfortable gaps in gender equality that continue to remain.

Professor Michelle Ryan, from The Global Institute for Women’s Leadership (GIWL) at The Australian National University (ANU), is one of those people.

Ryan says that while the women who called for action over 100 years ago would see significant change in today’s world, International Women’s Day still holds importance today.

“The first wave of feminism was around the suffragettes, which really talked about those basic rights – the right to vote and the right to own property,” Ryan says.

“And over time [and as we’ve achieved more rights], it’s moved on to other things.

“In the 60s and 70s, we saw things like the right to work, the right to continue to work after you got married, or after you had children, the right to have credit cards. There was also a real thing around sexual reproduction and the right to bodily autonomy as well, some of that was around the pill, contraception and abortion.”

“As feminists within Australia, we’ve got to recognise that not all women are at the same sort of place.”

Professor Michelle Ryan

Ryan notes that in recent years International Women’s Day It has focused on social rights, such as women’s safety, stereotypes, representation, equal pay, and sexual harassment in the workplace and in society more generally – with major gains made across the board. 

“If you compare yourself to women 100 years ago, yes, it’s better. But, if we compare differences between men and women, there’s still a lot to be done,” Ryan says.

Ryan explains that deeply rooted ideas such as gender stereotypes are particularly hard to budge.  

“Things like gender stereotypes between men and women and what the division of labour should look like in the household are really stubborn; they have hardly changed at all,” she says.

“There’s a lot of other areas, and you can’t legislate against. We can have policies encouraging women to work or men to take on more childcare, but you can’t legislate against those, which is why they’re really slow.”

In parts of the world, Ryan says many women have lamented significant steps backward in the fight for issues such a bodily autonomy. 

“If you look at other places outside of Australia, you can see stuff not just stagnating but going backwards. For example, bodily autonomy and reproductive rights in the United States or Poland or places in Latin America.”

That’s not to say Australia doesn’t have its own narrative to change. 

“As feminists within Australia, we’ve got to recognise that not all women are at the same sort of place,” Ryan says.

“The gender pay gap really varies across different demographic groups, so for migrant women, First Nations women and working-class women, the pay gap or gender equality issues are much larger.”

It’s in this push for inclusivity and intersectionality that Ryan says feminism can invite more people into the important conversation. 

“I’m absolutely supportive of feminism that’s as inclusive as possible. That includes trans women, men and gender fluidity,” she says.

“You can’t just achieve gender equality on one dimension while excluding people on other dimensions – that’s not how it works.”

Looking ahead to 8 March, Ryan says the GIWL won’t be advocating for one issue alone.  

“One issue that we are focusing on is women’s safety, looking at online safety and e-safety as well,” she says. 

“I think there are a lot of initiatives that aim to empower women to up-skill. But they’re not the reason that there are gender inequalities in representation. 

“Turnover isn’t because women lack skills or they’re not motivated; it is because of the barriers they face. 

“Focusing on structure, systems, stereotypes and norms is really important for us.” 

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