Is Australia going backwards on gender equality?

I left Pakistan to live in a society that was supposedly free from bias and discrimination. What happened?

Mehreen Faruqi
16 August 2015

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Credit: All rights reserved.

I was born in Pakistan, and grew up and studied in its busy, vibrant metropolis of Lahore. In 1992, my husband and I packed up and moved to Australia with our one-year old son and two suitcases. Over 23 years, we’ve built a new life for ourselves in our adopted country, and in 2013 I became the first Muslim woman to be elected to any Australian parliament—a small but important milestone in making our government more representative of the diversity in society. 

So when a member of a visiting Pakistani delegation to Sydney stood in front of me and declared “Australia is so backward,” it rocked me on my heels. “No, that’s not really true,” I stammered in reply, despite a niggling voice in the back of my head telling me I was just being defensive. The delegation from the Depilex Smile Again Foundation was in Australia to highlight the alarming level of violence against women in Pakistan, and to raise funds for reconstructive surgery for the victims of brutal acid attacks.

Why backward, I asked her?  High rates of domestic violence and the increasing gender pay gap in Australia formed part of her reasoning, but what really irked her was the sexism surrounding the departure of Julia Gillard, our first female prime minister, in 2013.

Gillard faced incredible sexism from the media and her political opponents during her short time as leader. She was regularly labelled with disgusting and offensive terms such as “witch” and “bitch.” One radio shock jock even proposed that she should be put in a sack and taken far out to sea. Gillard had to endure a running commentary on her physical appearance, character and competence that would never have been heaped on a male politician. The views of the then leader of the opposition (and now Prime Minister) Tony Abbott on women are both primitive and well-established—though somewhat ironically she was forced out of her role as prime minister by a man from her own party, Kevin Rudd, in the last of three leadership contests during her first term.

Despite their position at or near the bottom of global rankings on gender equality, women in many South Asian countries have been at the forefront of political leadership. While the United States still awaits its first woman president, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have all elected women into the office of prime minister. So has Australia in the shape of Gillard, until she was hounded out. Disappointingly, it seems that Australia just isn’t ready for a female leader.

As I digested my Pakistani interlocutor’s critique I began to think of other areas in which Australia is lagging. The Upper House of the New South Wales state parliament in which I sit, for example, has only ten women in an assembly of forty-two, the lowest it’s been since 1981, and well short of the 30 per cent considered to be the minimum necessary to influence decision making processes and political agendas. That’s three fewer women than in the last parliamentary term.

Macho displays of political point-scoring, alongside continuous yelling and talking over each other, has earned the New South Wales Parliament the infamous nickname of the ‘Bear Pit.’ This adversarial approach engenders an aggressive culture in which everyone is expected to ‘act like a man’ in order to succeed. It’s deeply off-putting, and something I reject completely.  

According to a recent report by the OECD, the current Australian federal government is one of the worst in the industrialized world in terms of gender equality. In fact the gap between number of men and women in ministerial positions has increased since 2012, and now there are only two women left.

Australia’s gender pay gap is also on the rise and now stands at nearly nineteen per cent, the highest it’s ever been. Violence against women is reaching epidemic proportions with an average of two women being killed every week in 2015. And we have consistently failed to acknowledge and redress the deep trauma and inequalities that have been inflicted on Indigenous women who have borne the brunt of racist policies for generations.

Aboriginal female life expectancy in Australia is 9.5 years below that of non-indigenous women. Thousands of children were removed by the state from their Aboriginal mothers, something that’s now referred to as the ‘Stolen Generations.’ They were moved to ‘missions’ or ‘homes,’ and in many cases subjected to horrific and institutionalised sexual abuse. Almost half of all Aboriginal Australians were, or have family who were victims of these cruel policies.  

In Pakistan, I was used to being one of a handful of professional women engineers, and became accustomed to widespread gender disparities. But I had much higher expectations of Australian society. So when I arrived in Sydney in the early 1990s I was shocked to discover that there was only one female academic among the fifty-odd teachers in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of New South Wales where I enrolled to do my postgraduate studies. Since then I’ve observed the small numbers of  female professional engineers and the struggle to increase the proportion of women on corporate boards in Australia.

So maybe my Pakistani critic was more right than wrong? On reflection, my instinctive unwillingness to accept the truth about gender inequality in Australia was partly about defending my adopted country, but mostly a manifestation of the dominant view I had grown up with—that it was always the poor countries that had the problems and always the rich ones like that had the solutions. Living in Pakistan, I imagined that ‘developed’ countries would already have achieved equality in every sphere of life. Indeed, one of the reasons we came to Australia was to live in a society that was supposedly free from bias and discrimination. That’s obviously a view of the world that was marred by crude generalisations and a Western supremacist narrative which filtered through to me in Lahore.

But this isn’t really a story about Pakistan versus Australia or rich countries against the poor, it’s a universal story about the pervasiveness and sticking power of gender inequality. There’s no doubt that women right across the globe have been denied equal access to decision-making and representation in the workplace, the boardroom and in government. The universality of sexism unites women regardless of where they live.

And while sexism is alive and well in both Australia and Pakistan, so is feminism and the courage to fight back. What matters going forward is purposeful solidarity and vigilance. Of course, rich nations have much more economic capacity and a better educated population, so one might expect them both to ‘put their own house in order’ and to support other countries to narrow their own, much larger gaps in access, opportunity, rights and resources.

The basis for doing that is partnership, but not the paternalistic variety that’s so often practiced in the unequal world of foreign aid with its mind-frame of ‘the rich know best.’ Instead, we need more critics like my interlocutor in Sydney, who forced me to reconsider my assumptions about my own adopted country. Perhaps with more self-reflection, openness and courage like this, Australia will claw back the ground it has lost and close the widening gap in gender inequality.

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