Towards gender equity
A passion for gender equity brought two eminent people together to deliver this year’s inaugural Foundation Day lecture – former ANU Chancellor Emeritus Professor Peter Baume AC and ANU Alumna of the Year Dr Susan Ryan AO.
Here are edited extracts of their speeches.
Dr Susan Ryan AO FAICD, MA ’74, HonLLD ’17
In Australia we are fortunate to live in a country that has the rule of law. This legal basis to our society means we can in general live with civil harmony and personal security.
Australia is still a place in which women do not get equal pay.
To maintain these qualities, we need continually to be reviewing our legal system and, from time to time, make new laws or update older ones.
When I introduced the Sex Discrimination Bill into parliament in 1984, it was urgently needed.
Let me remind you that women were denied economic independence by wide-ranging sex discrimination in the workplace, in educational institutions, by banks and so on. The proposition put by the many critics of this new law was that society would change in its own time, and such a law was an improper interference by the state in the way employers and others chose to operate. Bad luck about the women reduced to poverty and insecurity.
Happily for Australians, that proposition did not carry the day. The Bill was passed, not only by the government members, but with the brave and principled support of Peter Baume, a true liberal.
Over the last 34 years, the Sex Discrimination Act has been effective in creating dramatically better opportunities for women.
The Act is used. Every year many hundreds of individuals bring complaints of sex discrimination to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and have their matters in most cases satisfactorily resolved. This law certainly makes a difference.
But now in 2018, we see a raft of other big challenges facing women.
The epidemic of sexual harassment in the workplace is not under control. The associated horror of domestic violence also appears to be growing, despite the many official and community programs aimed to reduce it. Equal pay has not been achieved in every workplace.
Where does the law stand?
It is time to revisit the sexual harassment provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act.
Despite the many benefits this law has brought, Australia is still a place in which women do not get equal pay and are often not protected against violent or other unlawful attacks.
When I was appointed Age Discrimination Commissioner in 2011, I felt a lot like I was starting out to define and address a problem, just as I had with gender discrimination in the 70s.
The fact of ageism and the damage it was causing to our older citizens was barely acknowledged. The cost to our national economy and to individuals was huge.
The worst impact of ageism was age discrimination in the workplace, which excludes men and women from paid work years before they are eligible for the age pension, and without enough savings to prevent their descent into poverty.
Having conducted a national inquiry into discrimination in the workplace against older Australians, I am in no doubt that ageism is widespread and needs to be tackled, by laws as well as by other means.
We have had an Age Discrimination Act in place since 2004. It is time to look again at that Act and make some amendments.
I am pleased to note that several of the recommendations from my national inquiry report were implemented in this year’s Budget. So we are seeing improvements in opportunities for older people to achieve economic independence, and of course, to be treated with respect and have their human rights observed at any age.
But many more changes are needed. For these changes we look to our parliaments, powerful institutions and universities.
A combined effort is needed to continually pursue our ideal of a society in which all have equal rights and equal opportunities.
Emeritus Professor Peter Baume AC HonDUniv ‘04
A recent issue of New Scientist had an awful graph about the ‘glass ceiling’.
• Women hold 18 per cent of ministerial-level positions.
• Women hold 23 per cent of federal parliament seats.
• Women hold 6 per cent of CEO positions in the top 100 companies in the UK but get half the pay.
• Of 193 member states of the United Nations, just 12 have a female head of government.
We want everyone to get a fair go – men and women.
ANU should be proud of the number of women in senior positions. This University compares very well with many other universities where equal employment opportunity (EEO) for women has not really been embraced.
Alice Duer Miller was a poet and feminist at the time when a debate was raging in 1915 about votes for women. Imagine that – one century ago, women did not have the franchise!
She poured satire on the arguments by giving five reasons why men should not get the vote:
• A man’s place is in the army.
• If men should adopt peaceful methods, women will no longer look up to them.
• No really manly man wants to settle any question other than by fighting about it.
• Men are too emotional to vote – their conduct at baseball games and political conventions shows this.
You will have picked up that these were the phony arguments that were being put then against women receiving the franchise.
In John Howard’s autobiography Lazarus Rising, there was no mention of the Coalition opposing an EEO Bill proposed by then Senator Susan Ryan nor that a quarter of all Liberal Senators crossed the floor to support Susan’s Bill. That says something about attitudes to gender equality principles – they were not important enough for him to mention gender inequality at all.
However, men were crossing the floor to vote for EEO for a group of women. But what about the women on the Coalition side. Where were they?
Well, there were about a half dozen female Senators. They did not support the Bill. They all voted against the EEO Bill at that time.
They did it on a phony technicality – they followed the party line.
The problem is that we, as a society, are dumb if all the talents and resources of our society are not used.
But women represent a majority of our society and we do not use all the skills of that majority properly.
So we are dumb – the glass ceiling does exist. We use some, but not enough, of our talent. Discrimination is less than it was, but it is still present.
The class of medical students that sit in front of me now is, properly, half female.
There is not much of a problem at junior levels where women are well represented. It is at senior levels in so many places that females are notably absent.
The issue we have is, how do we move to get more women into the game at senior levels?
We want everyone to get a fair go – men and women. So the ANU created four women-only chairs. We appointed women to senior positions.
We can do simple practical things like providing more childcare, not penalising people if they take maternity leave and offering better services for old people.
But we need to get widespread cultural change. We need to stop condemning all women to a caring role and allow those who want an academic career to pursue one.
Things have improved – but not enough.
In about 1870 in England, a clergyman actually said that God had created women inferior to men and that is how they would remain. And there was the marriage bar that decreed that any married woman had to leave full-time employment – that was still present in Rockhampton in the mid-1970s.
So things today are somewhat better than they were. Thank goodness! They are still not good enough but they have improved.
Now let us improve things more.