How far we have come – and how far we still have to go.

un women australia julie mckay
Julie McKay, Executive Director of UN Women Australia.

On March 5, I spoke at the National Press Club to give the International Women’s Day address.  During the address I expressed, as I do every year on International Women’s Day, that progress has been made in achieving gender equality – but there is still a long way to go.

What then, must we be focussing on in order to close the gender gaps in society?  It is my belief that we should focus our energy, right here and right now – on three things.  Closing the workforce participation gap, ensuring women have equal access to decision making and leadership roles, and ending violence against women.  In doing this, women will be truly counted as equal, and we will all experience economic and social prosperity.

When asked at the Press Club whether Australian women have truly smashed the glass ceiling, both Senator Michaelia Cash and Senator Claire Moore responded with yes, and no.  Both made the salient point that while some women have made it to the very top of leadership positions in this country, many more women experience barriers to participating fully in the workforce.

The gender pay gap still stands at 17.5%.  Women are not being rewarded equally to men for their contributions in the workforce.  Similarly, women are not rewarded for their emotional contribution in their household.  As women take on the majority of caring responsibilities in the household, they are more likely to seek part-time work and take carer’s leave, meaning that women retire with far less superannuation than their male counterparts.  Women report experiencing pregnancy discrimination in their workplace and find it difficult to re-enter the workforce after taking leave to care for their children.

un women australia
“Women must be rewarded equally for their workforce and caregiving contributions .”

Women must be rewarded equally for their workforce and caregiving contributions – paid parental leave allowing for joint caregiving, and flexible work arrangements must become commonplace so that women can not only participate in the workforce, but reach leadership roles in business.  In doing so, it is estimated that Australia’s GDP could increase by $93 billion dollars – surely this is a benefit to us all.

We must also take action to eliminate violence against women.  The National Action Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children – begun by the previous Labor government and given wholehearted support by the current government, has been commended by the United Nations as world leading. This Plan is admirable, however I think our aspirations have gotten lost – surely what we are aiming to do is eliminate violence against women and their children, rather than simply reduce it? One in three women will experience violence in her lifetime – this is the global average.

However I believe, as I hope that all Australians believe, that one woman is too many.  Too often we refer to “averages”, which mask the gaps that exist for marginalised groups – women that experience multiple inequalities based on age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and more.  Women living with disabilities for instance, experience violence at rates far higher than their able-bodied counterparts – and we do not have accurate data and reporting to ensure that this violence is accounted for and brought to justice.  I hope that this year, Australia leads the world in change and aiming to eliminate violence, rather than simply reducing it.

The “to do” list is frustratingly long.  Progress seems glacial at best.  To advance women’s empowerment – we need courageous leadership and investment.  We need our Government and the business community to take bold decisions – invest in women and girls, develop targets for women’s leadership and commit to making workplaces and communities safe for women.  Please join UN Women Australia as we work to ensure a brighter future for women and girls this year.


Julie McKay is the Executive Director of the Australian National Committee for UN Women.

The Australian National Committee for UN Women’s support UN Women through fundraising, awareness raising, and advocacy. It also works to strengthen the relationship between UN Women and the Australian government, as well as with other civil society groups in Australia and the Pacific region. Visit the UN Women website to find out more.

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