Published: December 16, 2013 – 12:12AM
Growing up in Pakistan, a poor developing nation underpinned by a patriarchal society, I always imagined prosperous countries like Australia having achieved gender equality in all spheres of life. So imagine my surprise when I arrived in Sydney 21 years ago and started my postgraduate studies in engineering, only to discover there was only one female academic amongst a fifty odd male teachers in the school of civil engineering at my university.
Of course, judging gender equality is much more sophisticated than just measuring numbers and ratios in one particular institution and profession; nonetheless it is a good indicator of existing marginalisation. This discovery was the start of my rose-coloured glasses getting less and less of a workout in the coming years as I made Australia my home.
There is no doubt that much has been achieved through the successive three waves of feminism over the last century. We’ve fought hard and won many battles – the right to vote and to run for parliament, to join the workforce and pursue careers in all professions. We have better access to contraception and abortion services. Laws have been enacted that attempt to create equal pay, equal opportunity and protect women from violence.
While these much needed reforms have vastly improved women’s rights and opportunities, change has been painstakingly slow, and inequality and discrimination still pervade many parts of our laws, workplaces, society and democracy.
Gaining the right to run for parliament has not yet led to equal representation. I sit in NSW parliament where only a quarter of the MPs are women. The first woman was elected to the lower house of NSW parliament in 1925. It is quite unacceptable that after almost a hundred years, there are only 18 more, in an assembly of 93.
It was this male-dominated chamber that last month voted to give foetuses legal personhood status in NSW. “Zoe’s Law” is an unnecessary and dangerous piece of legislation, and will have serious consequences for women’s reproductive health and their right to choose, especially since abortion is still an offence under the NSW Crimes Act.
Even though more women complete university degrees than men, they are less likely to reach higher management positions. The gender pay gap, shamefully, still stands at 17.5%.
Not only has our journey of equality been slow but even more disappointing is the fact that we are moving backwards and unwinding some of these hard-fought rights: The gender pay gap has actually increased by 2.6% since 2004.
Women’s rights to reproductive health are yet again under threat from conservative parliaments across Australia. Following the passage of foetal personhood law in NSW Lower House, South Australia attempted to do the same. The Victorian Liberal state council has decided to overhaul abortion laws and there are fears that abortion may again be criminalised.
This year the world economic forum ranked Australia 24th in their global gender gap report, well after the Philippines, Cuba and Nicaragua – countries which have a much lower GDP than Australia. Not only this, but we have slipped 9 places in the last 7 years.
Women’s participation in politics is a key measure of women’s empowerment but in our Federal Parliament women’s representation has dropped significantly, moving from 24th to 43rd in the world in the last 12 years. We lag behind developing countries such as Senegal, Nepal and Afghanistan.
No doubt Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s decision to allow only one woman in his cabinet will slide us even further down the scale in 2014.
Given this widening gap in gender equality and concerted moves to wind back women’s rights, it was especially inexcusable for the Prime Minister to try and justify his decision by highlighting that “There are very strong and capable women knocking on the door of the Cabinet.”
Of course, there has never been a lack of strong and determined women in society. Some recent examples include our first female Prime Minister and Governor General, and of course the young Pakistani woman, Malala Yosefzai, who is the role model for a whole generation.
But more of these “very strong and capable women” need to knock down more doors, call out sexism and gender-bias for what it is and take up their rightful place in politics and in society. It’s also time for me to pack away those rose-coloured glasses for now. It’s quite clear that women in Australia cannot take their rights for granted just yet.
Let’s make sure that in 2014 we all take responsibility for closing the gap. Women’s empowerment and equal participation are a ‘whole of society’ responsibility. I already see supporters of women’s rights and social justice joining up across politics, class, gender and ethnicity It is extremely inspiring and energizing to see the fourth wave of feminists, young and old, men and women working together for equality. As a passionate feminist and the Greens NSW spokesperson for women, I will be standing up with them, and we will turn the tide, as we have in the past.
Mehreen Faruqi, Greens MLC and spokesperson for the Status of Women