Voice and action on International Women’s Day

mural in George Town, Penang

Today is International Women’s Day. It is a day that is about raising mindfulness and action around parity, equality and inclusivity. In some ways, the world is changing. In the last week, a man in Belgium has been fined for a sexist comment towards a police officer. In October last year, Jacinda Ardern was appointed as the prime minister of New Zealand at the age of 37, making her the world’s youngest female head of government. Her first day in office, however, she was quizzed about whether she had plans to have children, and has since been the subject of plenty of opinion about her pregnancy, including during a 60 Minutes interview that focused on her pregnancy and her appearance, rather than her politics. Many have noted that male politicians would not be subjected to similar attention.

There remains gender disparity in leadership. Women currently account for 27% of ASX 200 board positions, up from the woeful 8% in 2009. In Australia, only one in four IT graduates and fewer than one in ten engineering graduates are women. In the education sector in Australia there remains a discrepancy between the amount of women in teaching versus the number of those in school leadership. 80% of primary teachers are female but only 57.5% of primary principals are female. 58.4% of secondary teachers are female, yet only 41.7% of secondary principals are female. Australia’s National Excellence in School Leadership Initiative has named 2018 the ‘Year of Women in Leadership’. They argue in their white paper that there are insufficient leadership opportunities for women, inadequate support mechanisms, and a paucity of role models for female teacher and students who aspire to leadership. I have reflected before about masculine models of leadership, in which the (often white) male leader (usually in a suit) is normalised as an image of ‘leader’, and what this tells people who are female, Indigenous, black, brown, or LGBQTI.

In her 2017 book, Women & Power: A Manifesto, Mary Beard writes that “we have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man.” In advocating for a world in which power can exist in diverse ways, she adds:

“You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession.”

Social media has been the vehicle for much of the global solidarity and activism surrounding issues of discrimination and inequity, and a way that some use to try and think about power differently. It can be a democratised platform where everyone can speak, regardless of power or position.

There are those who use humour to shine a spotlight on the absurdity of how the world can see women. The spoof Twitter account @manwhohasitall, for example, tweets out advice such as:

“MY DREAM: That one day boys will become anything they want to be – male chairwomen, gentleman drivers, men writers or boys who code”; and

“I am interviewing a famous working dad who manages to juggle 3 kids and work outside the home for a magazine. What should I ask him?”

There are more serious movements on social media, too, such as the #MeToo and #TimesUp hashtags, which build on the work that activist Tarana Burke began as a grassroots movement in 2006 as a way to help young marginalised women feel safe to speak up about sexual assault, in order to support survivors. After Alyssa Milano’s 2017 tweet using the hashtag #MeToo, the hashtag was used more than 12 million times, helping to de-stigmatise speaking up about assault. TIME magazine named its person of 2017 as ‘The Silence Breakers’ of the Me Too movement. Then, early this year, a number of high-profile people from Hollywood founded the #TimesUp movement to build momentum from #MeToo by confronting discrimination, harassment and pay parity across industries. On a recent Q&A ‘MeToo Special’ on the ABC, however, the panel showed no understanding of the history of the MeToo movement, despite being directly asked by an audience member:

“The #MeToo movement was initially created in 2006 by social activist Tarana Burke as a means to promote empowerment for women of colour experiencing sexual harassment. How can we ensure that this campaign is inclusive of all forms of diversity going forward?”

Host Virginia Trioli responded with, “It started, of course, as you say, correctly, Janet, as a very privileged white conversation. But it doesn’t mean that it has to stay that way.” She and the expert panel showed no knowledge that this was originally a grassroots movement in a black community, not a ‘privileged white conversation’. On the one hand, these movements can be seen as powerful attempts to rally the world to address issues of inequity, and bring attention (and hopefully action) to issues of discrimination and inequity. On the other, I wonder what these movements say about power in our world when the words of Tarana Burke, a black woman activist working in her local Alabama neighbourhoods, only become legitimised and amplified when appropriated by those who have power and platform. Pleasingly, there are actions emerging from social campaigns. TimesUp members have set up a legal defense fund to help victims of sexual assault that has raised over $21 million. They are advocating for legislation that penalises companies that tolerate persistent harassment and that discourages the use of nondisclosure agreements to silence victims.

Meanwhile, I have been working on the Australian Flip the System book with my co-Editors Jon Andrews and Cam Paterson, and thinking on inclusivity. The book is an Australian take on the theme explored in Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up (Evers & Kneyber, 2016) and Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto (Rycroft-Smith & Dutaut, 2018). Flipping the system is about subverting power hierarchies in the education system, and elevating the voice, agency and influence of those often ignored or marginalised by the system. This involves sharing teacher perspectives and Indigenous perspectives, for instance, alongside the academic voices of scholars. What we have found, however, is that elevating the voices of those at the nadir of the system is full of challenges. Often there are vulnerabilities or ethical tensions that deter individuals and groups from sharing their stories. Like those voices who have brought prominent social campaigns to the fore, it is those who have the most power, stability and security that often feel most free to speak. Those who have the most to lose, or who are in the most precarious circumstances, can be wary about speaking up or speaking out. I wonder about how much career stage and level of influence make a difference to the extent to which it is possible to disrupt the status quo.

Tarana Burke said in an interview with The Guardian that “having privilege isn’t bad, but it’s how you use it, and you have to use it in the service of other people.” Those of us with a privilege and a platform to be heard can ask ourselves: Who gets to speak? What voices are heard and what voices are ignored, drowned out, or silenced? How might we resist power structures, rather than perpetuating them? Are we participating in slacktivism, self-aggrandisement and self-congratulation, or are we taking positive action?

To ‘Press for Progress’ in issues of discrimination, opportunity and diversity, we can be mindful of those things that are normalised in our world in terms of who gets to speak, where power resides, and (when the social media storm melts away) what is actually getting done.