opinion

Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins are leading the next wave of feminism. And it's time to act now.

We were all together that day back in March. Thousands of Australian women in marches for justice because enough is enough. 

I was there with ACTU President Michele O’Neil in Canberra and I too had had enough. 

On that day back in March, I remember thinking, these women, this rally could be the start of driving needed change. 

Woman after woman shared their stories, at rallies, online, and in the media. Young women were bold and brave. 

The entire country was struck by Grace Tame’s clarity and strength, unafraid to talk about the abuse she suffered. She rejected shame, spoke directly to us all. 

Brittany Higgins showed the same clarity and strength, even as she was accusing the most powerful people in the country of cover-ups and deceit.

These women shared stories of harassment, abuse, assaults. These stories were familiar to feminists but here was something different.

These women had shed shame. They spoke with a courage that came without the crippling self-doubt which debilitates and often overwhelms survivors; that freezes, immobilises and distorts. 

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I was with two young women from the Student Representative Council at the local uni while they waited to speak. They were nervous. They’d never spoken to a big crowd before. But they got up behind the microphone and they were strong. They were articulate. And they revealed they were survivors in front of thousands and thousands of people.

There is a new liberation in the minds and hearts of survivors - and this is one in three women. They speak with a strength that is different. Unapologetic. Angry. Demanding.

We must not be distracted by symbolic change. It is utterly pointless to have a women’s cabinet when the Prime Minister himself doesn’t think these issues are important. It’s fine to have targets for women on boards but that’s not the main game. 

If our efforts are to be effective, the change we seek must be significant and real for the majority and not able to be undone. 

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Nationally, on average, women must work an extra 61 days a year to match men’s pay. Women who work in health care work an extra three months to match men’s pay.

Insecure work dominates industries that are dominated by women. Unreliable pay means a more stressful and unreliable life. Permanent jobs are simply labelled casual or converted to contracts. 

The loss of permanent jobs means the loss of permanent rights. 

People who have insecure jobs are less safe at work because they are less secure in their employment. 

They are more likely to be sexually harassed, more likely to suffer a workplace injury, more likely to experience wage theft. 

This is an issue of basic dignity and respect. We deserve better job security and the financial security that comes with it.

Researchers at the University of Sydney say that Australia has one of the most gender-segregated workforces in the OECD, made worse by the pandemic. 

Of the 800,000 workers who lost their jobs between March and May last year, women made up 54 per cent. 

Women were over-represented in part-time and casual employment in service sectors which were the hardest hit by the pandemic - retail, cafes, accommodation. And even those women who kept some work, experienced much sharper drops in their hours and pay than men. 

When schools and early childhood education centres closed across Australia, who withdrew from the workforce to manage that side of life? Women.

We know that breaks in labour force participation have what researchers call lasting wage-scarring effects, and it is worse for women. 

There is no question that the interruptions for work from COVID will have long-term impacts on women and make existing inequalities worse. This is why women retire with 47 per cent less super than men. 

What must we do to achieve equality? 

COVID has severely limited us, we all know online organising is a great add-on, but it is not an effective replacement. 

The pathetic response by this government to [email protected] would have had us out on the streets of our cities and encircling Parliament House to demand change. 

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The autumn March for Justice would have been just the beginning. The Women’s Safety Summit would have fired up the movement and been another key point to build to. Our two lives, physical and digital, would have worked together to demonstrate the strength and breath of those who want change and forced politicians to confront the people who have had enough. 

Instead, we are run off our feet working and coping with the pandemic. 

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Three quarters of the population locked down, unable to physically gather, let alone travel. Juggling and struggling. While frontline services are reporting dramatic spikes in reports of family and domestic violence.

The anger of the march, still obvious at the summit, could be controlled, stage-managed, zoomed into oblivion. Technology silencing so many voices.

But COVID restrictions on our mobilising is not forever. Their ability to control is not forever. 

It is now time to prepare for the time we can mobilise again.

The EnoughIsEnough movement has not gone away. The confidence of a generation of young women will not disappear. Their strength must be the new foundation for the next wave of feminism.

That next wave of feminism is not just these new young brave feminists. It is also extraordinary alliances, bridges across age and political divides.

Together we must fight for urgent changes to our workplace laws and to our workplaces.

One, to make it easier for women to win equal pay. 

Two, to reduce insecure work where women are overrepresented.  

Three, to make sure women are safe at work with employers having a duty to prevent sexual harassment, safe in their homes with paid family and domestic violence leave, safe from exploitation, harassment and assault.

Four, to embed stronger workplace rights for parents and carers, including guaranteed and enforceable access to family friendly working arrangements. 52 weeks of paid parental leave.

Some of what we need is about governments spending more.

If the government can pay Gerry Harvey millions of dollars his company doesn’t need, it can provide additional funding to increase actual rates of pay in underpaid, feminised sectors such as early childhood education and aged care. 

It can fund universal free childcare.

We have a massive opportunity now. Young feminists are unafraid, and they are inspiring their elders to be even bolder. 

Those days in March tell us that women’s rights are no longer considered fringe. We must act now.

Sally McManus is the 10th Secretary of the ACTU. She was the leader of her Union, the ASU in NSW representing community, public sector, and private sector workers. She commenced work with the ASU as an ACTU Trainee Organiser in 1994. Sally has also worked as a Pizza Hut delivery driver, shop assistant and cleaner, and studied Philosophy at University.

Feature Image: Getty.

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