Back in 1979, when I was in Year Five, my school changed its uniform rules. Girls were allowed to wear pants in winter. Slacks, they were called. I wore brown slacks and a yellow skivvy and I loved it. I felt warm and comfortable. But better than that, I felt I was being treated as an equal to the boys.
Around that time, my proudly feminist older sister started referring to herself as “Ms”. So I did the same. Why should I have to signify whether I was married or not, just because I was female? (Of course, being nine years old was probably a bit of a giveaway that I wasn’t married.)
Over in England, Margaret Thatcher became the new prime minister. I thought that was fantastic news (not having a clue about politics). Clearly, women no longer faced any barriers when it came to employment.
It was all very exciting. To me, it felt like we were taking the last few steps towards female equality. We were so close to being equal to men. We would get there really soon, probably sometime in the 1980s.
I was wrong. Obviously.
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At the age of nine, I had no idea how deep-rooted and insidious inequality was. I never could have imagined that four decades down the track, women in Australia would still be paying the price for being born female. And yet we are.
Women earn less than men – about 15 per cent less. There are plenty of reasons for that, but one is that industries that generally employ women, such as childcare, tend to pay less than industries that generally employ men, such as construction. That’s ludicrous, as anyone who’s ever tried to look after a group of children knows.
Women are being injured and killed by their partners at a shocking rate. On average, one woman is murdered by her partner or ex-partner every week in Australia. One in six women say their partners have been physically violent towards them, as opposed to one in 17 men. There is a deeply ingrained social problem here that can’t be ignored.
Women are doing most of the unpaid work. Census figures show that women do twice as much housework as men. Even when women are working full-time, they do more housework. The average full-time working woman spends six more hours a week doing work than the average full-time working man.
That’s not including the mental load that women carry – the organising and planning and remembering that keeps us lying awake, stressing, at night.
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Women suffer sexual harassment and abuse so frequently that it’s almost a universal experience of being female. We all saw what happened with #metoo. You too? You too? What, you too? It seems that no one, no matter how wealthy and famous, is immune.
Women are expected to meet ridiculously high standards of beauty. Perhaps in the 1970s, there was a brief glimpse of a future where women grew their armpit hair and wore overalls. Things didn’t turn out that way. Now, women of all ages feel pressure to be slim and wrinkle-free, with long straight hair and perfect white teeth and full lips.
The list of beauty procedures considered normal keeps growing. I have friends in their forties who get Botox – not because they’re TV stars, but just because everyone else is doing it. It’s time-consuming. It’s expensive. It’s painful. And it’s not expected of men, to anywhere near the same degree.
As for those advances I was so excited by almost four decades ago… well, girls at some schools are still fighting for the right to wear pants, a lot of people still refer to me as “Mrs” rather than “Ms”, and Australia’s one and only female prime minister, Julia Gillard, was a constant target of sexist abuse.
Yet some people will still insist women in Australia have achieved equality. Nothing more to talk about. Stop whingeing. Move on.
There’s a small group of men who are primed to jump in every time women discuss gender inequality. They will attempt to shut down the conversation. They feel like they’ve already lost too many of the advantages they were born with, and they don’t want to lose any more.
Well, too bad. We’re going to keep talking about it, because there’s still a lot to talk about.
I wish I could be as optimistic about female equality as I was when I was nine, but I’m no longer that naïve.
Today is International Women’s Day. Yes, we still need it.
At Mamamia, everyday is International Women’s Day.
Through Dress for Success’ Empower Hour campaign, it takes just a few minutes to change a woman’s life forever. Donate an hour of your pay this International Women’s Day and set a woman on her path to success by visiting empowerhour.org.au
Mamamia has also partnered with Room to Read, where you can keep a girl in school for just $1 a day. Educating women and girls is widely understood to be the most powerful and effective way to address global poverty.
You can help make the world a better place for women and girls by donating at www.roomtoread.org/mamamia