By Lauren Nicholls:
The 17th of August found women, and a few men from all reaches of NSW descend upon Cockle Bay Warf to participate in the launch of NCOSS’s freshly researched campaign ‘New Year for Women’. This initiative draws economic empowerment into the focus light; drawing lines as an interconnected web that links economic disadvantage to gendered violence, lack of representation in the workplace, and the growing group of older women that are becoming homeless. CEO of NCOSS, Tracy Howe opened the summit by explaining that whilst violence isn’t directly addressed by the forum that it doesn’t mean that the campaign is not working against it. She went on to highlight intersectional disadvantage, and the effect that compounding oppression has on people, and groups. Spotlighting that any women’s movement cannot leave behind any sisters, Tracy explained that all initiatives must consider intersectional power forces, and this theme thus continued throughout the summit.
American born women’s rights proponent Lisa Witter took the inspirational momentum built by Howe’s opening address, brought it into the light, and allowed this light to spill into and further light the audience. She encouraged the participants to engage in psychology and communications theory when pushing their agenda; arguing that facts alone will not persuade the minds of many, and that engagement with the audience is key. Story-telling, and evoking emotional responses is the name of the game, shared values are more effective at forging interest than straight policy. From there she talked of collaboration across sectors, about facilitating bridges and connections. Witter recognised that between women’s rights groups, and corporations there is a large relational gap, and this is stopping the movement’s momentum. Win-win situations are the key to forwarding empowerment for women, Lisa Witter argued that the push for rights and opportunities doesn’t have to be one of sacrifices alone. Rather through engaging business in mutually beneficial opportunities, such as guiding them in creating legitimately women friendly policies that will result in higher returns for the business, is more beneficial.
Following Witter was addresses from both Pru Goward, Minister for Women, and John Barilaro, Minister for Skills. Premier Mike Baird was not in attendance, however sent his apologies accompanying a promise of $100,000 worth of funding, which softened the blow considerably. Goward walked the economic line: advising the audience to ‘always follow the money’, saying that what a rights issue was once, she now considers an economic problem. This was shortly after linking economic empowerment to facilitating women’s ability to leave domestic violence situations, without the mention of how these situations are formed in the first place. When she wasn’t placing blame on those whom have experienced domestic violence, Goward explained that what the attendees were currently discussing, was something she was discussing over 20 years ago, conveniently skipping over the fact that she refuses to label herself a feminist. A gold nugget however was presented on the stage, when Goward stated that social change needs to incorporate a large range of sectors. Barilaro took the community track, talking of small business statistics, and how women are remarkably underrepresented; making up only 4% of Sydney’s start-ups. Where Goward urged change makers to move Australia slowly, getting society comfortable with change, Barilaro countered; saying that the ground is fertile for change to push ahead. This was before his spectacular verbal belly flop, detailing that ‘women still struggle to balance life and work’. Goward closed the ministerial address on an interesting note: the ‘Princess Problem’ where girls leave high school not taking their academic future seriously, because they are expecting to meet ‘Mr. Right’ whom will cherish, and pay for them. There was many a metaphorical head tilt during this time; highlighted by later conversations I had participated in where people disagreed ever experiencing, or witness this apparent princess problem. It was argued, that if anything girls coming out of high school experience the opposite; they have spent their entire schooling careers being told that they can accomplish anything, then come out to find that in fact they’re often not considered equal economic contributors in society.
The shadow ministerial portfolio holders to the aforementioned politicians conducted their address shortly after. Thankfully for the audience NCOSS had the forethought to have each side of the political duopoly address the summit separately, as this (at least) moderately reduced the contest between the parties and their actions. Sophie Cotsis is the Shadow Minister for Women, and Prue Car embodies the Shadow Minister for Skills. Both women reinforced each other; speaking about how literacy heavily affects economic empowerment for English as a second language women. Car highlighted how TAFE cuts resulted in the downgrading of English literacy programs, thus directly impacting these people’s education. Housing affordability, child care affordability, and retirement savings were all issues that were named as barriers to women’s empowerment, after which Costis suggested an interesting notion. She said to get into the faces of your representative MP, to be consistent, to be firm; form a delegate and force the politicians to have the conversation, make the personal political.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins; Professor of Law, Vij Nagarajan; Executive Director of the Sydney Business Chamber, The Hon. Patricia Forsyth; CEO of YWCA NSW, Anna Bligh, and Koori Mail journalist, Keira Jenkins, populated the next panel discussion. What was made very clear was that women from different groups, and different geographical locations have very different oppressions; and that these barriers accumulate from a young age, eventually forming large gendered economic differences. ‘[The gender pay gap is] reinforcing that I am not as good as a man every day of my life’ said Jenkins, whom, although by far the youngest on the panel continued to drop pearls of wisdom that had me tweeting them at a stalker-like rate. Anna Bligh noted that throughout her whole women’s movement career there have been moments where she has thought ‘we’re really cracking this’, but however quickly realized that this was not the case, reinforcing to the audience the reality of the long, winding road ahead. Nagarajan argued that the systematic oppression of women is so galvanized into society, not only because of stereotypical norms, but additionally due to the entrenchment of disadvantage in the law, and structures. The structures that exist in Australia are made for the legal and economics frameworks, both of which are geared toward the world of men. One example, although not mentioned, is the legal structures around domestic violence, and how the rights of the father to see the children so easily overrules the conditions of an AVO. There were so many topics discussed; from collaboration, to compulsory superannuation, to parental leave that needs to be accessed by both partners in respective years in order to receive the whole amount. The topic that resonated with me the most strongly was started by Keira Jenkins proclaiming that ‘women is only one layer of my identity, everyone in this room has all these different layers!’ From there it was reinforced that women are not a homogenous group that can be empowered with a one-size fits all solution, even with this in mind, the widely diverse range of people in Australia are governed by an extremely narrow group of people, that mostly share just the one identity: white, male.
Each table was subsequently requested to discuss one of the four topics: young women and financial literacy, women and employment, older women and housing, and women and superannuation. The best ideas were recorded, then tables were swapped, the same activities ensued only with different topics. Prominent Aboriginal rights activist, Jenny Munroe stood before the switch and requested all indigenous identifying women to join her in a separate group, so they could speak about the topics with a specific focus on the needs of Aboriginal communities. What ensued was remarkable, the agenda was changed from the young women’s round table wrap up presentation, to a forum featuring the group of women gathered by Munroe. Munroe immediately made every white person in the room uncomfortable – and with good reason. She first pointed out the hypocrisy of the welcome to country, explaining that the welcome to country should not be used by Australians paying lip-service to Aboriginal oppression, that it is protocol of respect used by the first people to move across territories. Emotions continued to rise, the panel of women had the undivided attention of the audience, with those live tweeting struggling to keep up with the rapid onslaught of quotes that needed to be publicised. Munroe continued ‘our people have endured a 200 year holocaust, and there is no end in sight’. People shifted in seats uncomfortably, with white privilege undeniably on display nobody could look themselves in their metaphorical faces. Dorothy entreated the participants to lift Aboriginal women up with the movement as well, with no sister left behind. She said that Aboriginal women have so many barriers to face before they even came to problems that the summit participants were discussing. She then went on to recount a story of police discrimination that you would expect to find in the United States, not in Australia. In a beautiful moment Jenkins was named by the panel as ‘the face of the movement’, and as each woman spoke, the vastness of the disadvantage that Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people face every day became palpable – the emotion was such that I have raised goose-bumps as I write this a whole day after. Lisa Witter’s closing remark was something I heard echoed multiple times afterwards: ‘my journey of learning white privilege was painful because it was shameful’.
The summit closed with summary remarks from each woman present that participated in the young women’s round table. Each of the young women were clearly inspired, I was one of them and I know that I was. Each person spoke of future collaboration, of being inspired, of pushing the movement, and of feeling emboldened by the support of all our sisters in the room. The general consensus at the end of the summit was one of awe, which is not a commonly found post-conference emotion. The sheer force of will and power of the collective was felt by each person in the room when all held the same goal at once. This left everyone with a small fire of that thing that drives movements, and pushes change; this thing has been elusive to the women’s movement for quite some time, as each campaigner encountered the constriction of the inevitable lonely stagnation, it is hope.