By Helen Makregiorgos, Women’s Health Promotion Manager and Kate Hauser, Health Promotion Worker
On 26 June 2013 the first female Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, lost her leadership of the Labor Party to Kevin Rudd. In her final speech as Prime Minister, Gillard stated, ‘What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that and I’m proud of that’. In order for this to be the case, we still have much work to do.
While the presence of strong female leadership in our parliaments, board rooms and communities is an important step in the journey toward gender equality, we must also name and redress the gendered threats and harassment that expose persistent institutional and attitudinal resistance to change.
In her recent book, The Misogyny Factor, Anne Summers highlights a resistance to both the idea, and the reality, of women’s leadership and their equality with men. This is clear at a structural level in the gender pay gap, in the low value and insecure conditions attached to sectors marked as ‘women’s work’, and in the lack of affordable and flexible childcare. The resistance is also clear in the treatment of women who do step up and challenge traditionally male-dominated spaces.
During her time in parliament, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard has seen her body and her status as a woman targeted as grounds for debasement. Her ability to understand the needs of Australian families was questioned when Senator Bill Heffernan labelled her ‘deliberately barren’ and later when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott offered to ‘make an honest woman of her’. We can also be sure that if Gillard did have children, her ability to balance her home life with her leadership responsibilities would have been challenged. More recently, a menu for a Liberal fundraiser included the following item, ‘Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & a Big Red Box’. The sexual nature of this menu tells young women across Australia that they live in a society where their body is a liability to their success. Though Gillard’s male counterparts were also subject to public scrutiny, it is important to note that their gender was not targeted as a source of shame. It was never suggested that they were not fit to lead because they were men.
Outside the political sphere, gender stereotypes coupled with threats of sexual violence are being used with increasing regularity to intimidate and silence women who speak out in both online and offline spaces. Attacks are usually framed as correctives; a ‘necessary tactic’ for keeping women in their gendered place. For example, UK journalist Caroline Criado-Perez experienced a flood of violent threats over Twitter after leading a local campaign to increase the representation of historic female figures on British bank notes. One tweet read, ‘Wouldn’t mind tying this bitch to my stove. Hey sweetheart, give me a shout when you’re ready to be put in your place’.
In 2012 feminist video blogger, Anita Sarkeesian, also faced a staggering level of abuse after calling for support to fund a project that explored the persistence of gender stereotypes in video games. In addition to countless emails and comments containing threats of rape and physical violence, trolls created an online game that prompted players to physically assault Sarkeesian.
These distinct experiences of gender inequality play a role in shaping the general attitudes, behaviours and values that create the conditions under which violence against women can flourish. As we work to redress gender inequity in our society it is critical that we do not trivialise the harassment and violent threats levelled at female leaders. This treatment sends the message that men have the right to control women and to remind them of ‘appropriate’ feminine behaviour. This message not only limits women’s active participation in public spaces, it also makes women and girls vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual violence by men.
Women’s Health West has worked in collaboration with individuals, organisations and the community for 25 years, with a focus on redressing gender inequities faced by women in the western region. Our family violence services and health promotion programs cover a broad spectrum of interventions that work towards improving women’s health, safety, wellbeing and status in our society.
It is now widely acknowledged that violence against women is preventable and that the key determinants of violence against women include unequal power relations between men and women, adherence to rigid gender roles and stereotypes, and broader cultures of violence. As a result, WHW’s primary prevention initiatives, including leading the collaborative western region action plan for prevention of violence against women, focuses on stopping violence before it occurs by promoting gender equity. This includes building equal and respectful relationships between men and women, promoting non-violent social norms, building workplaces and communities that are safe and supportive for women and men, and improving access to resources and supports.
Similarly, our work with young women from culturally diverse backgrounds to develop leadership and advocacy skills within and outside their communities is another critical aspect of building gender equity. But it doesn’t stop with encouraging individual women to lead and speak out; our community leaders, sports champions, media and politicians are all responsible for shaping the behaviours, attitudes, values and environments that create and condone violence against women. Sadly, the experience of our first female prime minister has communicated the notion that Australia has a long way to go before women, whether in the private or public sphere, are treated with the same respect, and afforded the same rights and opportunities as men.
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