Protests Signal a Reckoning in Australia’s Struggle With Sexism

It’s been more than a decade since Australia’s first and only female leader came to office. In the corridors of power in the capital Canberra, however, it feels there’s been little progress in the march for equality.

Thousands of women rallied in cities across the country Monday, angered by the government’s handling of rape allegations in Parliament House, and its refusal to hold an inquiry into separate claims the attorney-general sexually assaulted a woman he met at a school debating event over 30 years ago.

Protests Signal a Reckoning in Australia’s Struggle With Sexism

Gender equality advocates hope that the high-profile cases will force Australia to a turning point where it takes serious steps to tackle sexual harassment -- a stain that bleeds well beyond political life and hampers participation of women across different spheres of society, including the corporate world. By one estimate, workplace sexual harassment costs the Australian economy some A$3.5 billion ($2.7 billion) a year, based on figures from Deloitte Access Economics for 2018.

“It brings that conversation that has been building to a real national focus, and I do think it creates the environment for real change,” said Kate Jenkins, Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner who just last year handed the government a watershed report into sexual harassment in the workplace. Its 55 recommendations, however, have largely been ignored.

‘We Need Structural Change’

Nowhere is the regressive trend of gender equality in Australia starker than in politics. At 31%, Australia sits above the world average in terms of female parliamentary participation, according to Inter-Parliamentary Union data, and above peers such as Canada and the U.S. However, Australia has steadily deteriorated on that front, with its ranking nosediving to 50th from 15th since 1999. Meanwhile, the U.S. now has a record number of women serving in Congress.

Protests Signal a Reckoning in Australia’s Struggle With Sexism

Female politicians have long been forced to put up with the kind of sexist behavior that former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop upon her resignation said wouldn’t be “tolerated in any other workplace across Australia.” Julia Gillard, the first female prime minister, famously stood up to then opposition leader Tony Abbott and called out his “misogyny” and said she’d been offended by “cat-calling” to her inside parliament.

Pressure is now mounting on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to hold an inquiry into the recent claims brought against Attorney-General Christian Porter. Police aren’t pursuing the case due to a lack of admissible evidence and Porter, who strongly protests his innocence, has commenced a defamation action. Meanwhile, the government has called an inquiry into workplace culture at parliament after Brittany Higgins, a former parliamentary staffer, alleged she was raped by a fellow staffer in 2019.

“We don’t need more royal commissions, inquiries and reviews. What we need is a code of conduct with strong sanctions that covers sexual harassment and gender disparities, and we need structural change,” said Louise Chappell, director of the Australian Human Rights Institute at the University of New South Wales.

Protests Signal a Reckoning in Australia’s Struggle With Sexism

Past attempts to address sexual discrimination in politics, including through a code of conduct, have faltered, as have efforts to include lawmakers in the Sex Discrimination Act which left them neither protected from nor liable for sexual harassment. Another bid to amend the law to make public servants, including lawmakers and judges, subject to the act will be heard in parliament this month.

Corporate Australia’s Push

Better progress is being made in the corporate world, where female representation on boards, for example, hit 30% in 2019 following a years-long push by pressure groups and pension funds to reach the quota.

Though these quotas are voluntary, companies in Australia are increasingly supportive of such targets as an effective way of addressing systemic inequalities, potentially putting an end to the allegations of misconduct that hit financial giants including wealth manager AMP Ltd. and QBE Insurance Group Ltd. last year.

Protests Signal a Reckoning in Australia’s Struggle With Sexism

Corporate Australia has its sights set on a higher target now. Investment firms which together manage more than A$1 trillion, for example, have signed up to the 40:40 Vision Investment Statement, which pushes for companies listed on the S&P/ASX 200 to have at least 40% of senior leadership roles held by women.

“Companies that fail to achieve diverse representation on their boards and senior leadership teams risk creating cultures that tolerate sexual harassment alongside other ethical or conduct failures, risking delivering less value to investors, while also failing to meet community expectations, ” said Danielle Welsh-Rose, ESG investment director for Asia Pacific at Aberdeen Standard Investments, which is a signatory to the pact.

A 2020 Australian study conducted by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency found causation between gender representation at senior management levels and company performance.

Away from the corporate world, however, some still remain pessimistic on the pace of change.

Protests Signal a Reckoning in Australia’s Struggle With Sexism

Leonora Risse, who specializes in gender differentials in the economy at RMIT University in Melbourne, said she doesn’t see any convincing signs among the current government that its leaders truly understand the nature of the problem, and the engrained factors that contribute toward gender inequality.

“I sense that many people believe this should be a tipping point,” said Risse. “If not this, then what will it take?”

At Monday’s March 4 Justice protests held across cities in Australia in response to the recent allegations, protesters demanded swift action on gender equality. Rally organizer Janine Hendry said that she rejected an offer to meet privately with the prime minister beforehand. ”They have had enough advice about what to do,” she said.

Protests Signal a Reckoning in Australia’s Struggle With Sexism

A surprise appearance at the Canberra rally was Higgins, whose allegations she was raped at Parliament House lit the fuse of public anger.

“We are here because it is unfathomable that we are still having to fight this same stale, tired fight,” she told the sea of placard-waving protesters.

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