Standing up for gender equality this #IWD

On International Women’s Day each year, we are reminded of the fact that in no country worldwide are women equal to men. It’s 2017 as I write, and this reality is staggering. Apart from the fact that the equality issue needs to be solved because of the mere injustice that half the world’s population is put at a disadvantage, women offer so much to the world. f With the world in the state it is in today, it has never been more necessary for women to step up and take charge. Why? Because in the words of Dale Spender, a feminist and advocate:

f"Feminism has fought no wars, killed no opponents, set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, and practised no cruelty. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions, for safety in the streets, for reforms in the law."

f Perhaps one of the first demonstrations of feminism was in the example of the 1909 garment factory riots in New York. The three-month walkout by apparel workers was the first mass strike by women in American history. It is also sometimes referred to as the uprising of the 20,000. This was a victorious protest that involved predominantly Jewish women working in New York shirtwaist factories. The boycott was led by Clara Lemlich, and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and supported by the National Women’s Trade Union League of America (NWTUL). In February the following year, the NWTUL settled with the factory owners, gaining improved wages, working conditions and hours.

f These success stories show that actions taken by brave individuals coming together not only can change things for themselves, but send a message out to all other women who are being exploited. They send out messages of hope and encouragement and can have a domino effect of demanding change and justice. This strike had significant changes on the development and growth of unions, particularly for unions of the ladies’ garment industries.

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A few years later, in 1911, a deadly fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. It was said to have been one of the worst industrial disasters ever to have happened in New York City. Some 146 people perished – from the fire, smoke inhalation or jumping to their deaths from the 8th, 9th and even 10th floor of the building. Those who jumped to their deaths had been trapped because the managers, said to be mostly men, had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits during work hours to prevent pilferage and unauthorised breaks. Women made up 129 of the 146 people who died.

f Women were outraged and felt they were not seen as humans, but rather replaceable, insignificant workers. The fire did prompt the development of US legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers. Since then, a number of laws have been passed that help women in the workplace, importantly including The Equality Pay Act of 1963, because women are victims of unequal pay when compared to their male colleagues, even in same job situations, even today. So where exactly are we and why is it still the case that women are unequal in the 21st century? Firstly, in the area of superannuation there is a gap of about 47 per cent, which is reflected by the 19 per cent wage gap in Australia. With the current retirement income policy state of mind, it is predicted that within the 30-year projections, on average, women will continue to retire with up to 39 per cent less than men (Robbie Campo, 2015) and 29 per cent of women over 65 are living below the poverty line (Phil Davey, 2015). The super gap in 2012 was 47 per cent, with average superannuation balances at the time of retirement $105,000 for women and $197,000 for men – a difference of $92,000. This is not a small amount and indicates we are nowhere close to gender equality. In fact the World Economic Forum in its Global Gender Gap Report 2016 estimates it will take 170 years to achieve global gender parity in the workplace.

The largest pay gap in Australia is that of managerial positions. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, key management personnel level sits at a 28.9 per cent income difference, followed by other executive/general manager positions at 27.5 per cent, this is showing significant statistics between men and women in Australia, women being the undermined factor.

In 2015, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that ‘in 2013–14, just 26 per cent of Key Management Personnel, 24 per cent of Board Directors and 17 per cent of CEOs were women’ (ABS 2015). So the inequality spans all industries. A (not so) fun fact is that fewer women than men named John run large companies.

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The amount of gender inequality varies between countries and communities. It may seem like it is a culture that cannot be seen – sometimes it may be so deeply entrenched within a culture that they may not be aware of it. However, it’s clear to see how females suffer when compared to their male counterparts. There are poorer health, have higher illiteracy rates, longer hours, less pay and higher rates of violence. Surveys suggest that about one third of women worldwide face being beaten at home. A major study by the World Health Organization found that in most countries between 30 and 60 per cent of women had experienced physical or sexual violence by a husband or partner (WHO 2013). In Nepal we have heard countless cases of men hurling sulphuric acid on women’s faces. The acid is so strong that it melts the skin, and sometime the bones underneath. It often blinds the girls and women who fall victim to this insidious crime.

f Women are often trafficked from Nepal to India; they are valued for their lighter skin and good looks, docility and inability to speak the local language. Women who fight against their work are beaten into submission and often raped by the brothel owners to strip them of all their dignity. Many are drugged. Many catch HIV and either die in India or are sent back when they are no longer useful, only to be rejected by their families because of the work they have been doing. The US State Department has estimated that between 600,000 and 800,000 females are trafficked across international borders each year.

This International Women's Day week we have much to celebrate and be proud of, however, it's clear there is much more work to be done in the space of equality and female empowerment.

Each individual with the privilege to stand up and make a change, has the social responsibility to do so. Whilst we celebrate, think about what more can we be doing, as a community and as individuals, to lessen the injustice felt by so many. It may be through contacting your local MP about the menstrual hygiene tax, donating to an organisation working to empower women, or lifting up the females around you to be the best versions of themselves. Let us know in the comments what you'll be doing this International Women's Day week, big or small!

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Seven WomenIWD