The rising tide of gender equality

Last month, I attended Breakthrough, a two-day conference held by the Victorian Women’s Trust exploring issues of gender equality. This was the largest gender equality conference in Australia’s history with more than 100 speakers, and it delivered big ideas, leading thinkers and passionate change-makers, as promised.

Breakthrough highlighted women’s collective struggles and victories through history, but also showed that we are building a clear path to future equality between men and women.

I’d like to share some of the insights that stuck with me.

Women and history

Dr Clare Wright, author, historian and research scholar delivered the opening keynote address highlighting how so many historians have been blind to the contributions of women in history. For women to understand what they can achieve in the present and future, they need to know what they have achieved in the past.

Dr Wright described victories for women during first-wave and second-wave feminism and closed her speech with an uplifting analogy of a wave in the ocean: that the force against a wave only helps the wave to grow bigger and stronger. This imagery was true to the premise behind Breakthrough; that to achieve gender equality the only way is forward, no matter how strong the force from the opposition.

Women and economics

Over the two days, we were reminded of the structural inequalities that women face, including in the workplace, representation in parliament and the gender pay gap. Richard Deniss, Chief Economist at the Australian Institute used sarcasm to remind women that if they want financial equality, “don’t go into the caring professions, don’t take time out of the workforce to have children or simply, be a man”.

Tanya Plibersek, Deputy Opposition Leader called for better representation of women in political settings to help create change that is meaningful to women.

Dr Marilyn Waring, New Zealand political economist unapologetically highlighted the gender bias present in the GDP, which renders the unpaid work of women invisible in the national accounting system, further devaluing women’s contribution to society.

Women and trolls

Online abuse was a topic discussed by women who are vocal in the online space on issues affecting women. During a session called Trolls, Clickbait + Insta-Perfection, speakers recounted personal stories of being trolled online, being physically attacked in public, having their social media accounts hacked and having to move house for their personal safety. Initially, I found it hard to understand how these women can handle the constant stream of abuse flowing into their social media feeds, and at times in public settings. However, by the end of the session it became clear that what drives them to continue voicing their opinions online is the refusal to be silenced by groups such as Men’s Rights Activists, anti-feminists and other online trolls.

These women pull us out of our echo chamber and remind us that there are people who use the online space as an anonymous haven to threaten and silence women, and they continue their fight everyday to pave the way for more women’s voices to be heard.

Women and violence

Tara Moss, author and journalist poignantly spoke of how our everyday language is implicitly embedded by sexism. She recited example sentences in the Oxford Dictionary for the term Bossy, which is ‘a bossy, meddling woman’ and for Boss, ‘her boss offered her promotion’. She talked about the extraordinarily higher rates of violence against women compared to men and how language used in the media about violence against women often diminishes the responsibility of male perpetrators and lays blame on female survivors. These are reminders that words are powerful in shaping cultural attitudes and beliefs about the roles of men and women.

Rosie Batty, family violence campaigner spoke of her personal experience of violence and the murder of her son, Luke at the hands of his father and gave the audience hope that one day soon, we will see the issue of violence against women in the same light we see smoking today. She reminded us that if someone lit up a cigarette inside the Melbourne Town Hall in that moment, on that day, there would be a wave of angry discontent, driving the perpetrator out of that room. This is her vision of the future free of violence against women.

The future for women

#TheFutureIsGenderEquality was the tagline for Breakthrough and summed up how I think everyone felt walking out of the Melbourne Town Hall at the end of the conference. It was impossible not to be inspired and invigorated by the speakers. As well as highlighting the everyday inequalities faced by women, they gave pragmatic advice and shared their vision for moving forward.

The standing ovation for Mary Crooks AO, executive director of the Victorian Women’s Trust was a testament to the wonderful event organised by an incredible and visionary team. Thank you to the Victorian Women’s Trust for a truly inspiring event.

By Sorayia Noorani