Women in Australia and the Pacific

By Chloe Potvin in conversation with Julie McKay | 29 Sep 12
Julie McKay is the Executive Director at UN Women Australia (formerly UNIFEM Australia) and advocates on significant global issues affecting women including political participation, leadership, pay equity, gender-based violence and social inequality.
Right Now’s Chloé Potvin spoke with Julie McKay to discuss her perspectives on the current challenges facing women in Australia and the Pacific region.

© University of Sydney Business School

Right Now: Since being appointed to your position in March 2007, what have been the highlights of your role so far?

Julie McKay: For me the highlight of my time with UN Women was probably being able to participate in the launch of the new agency at the beginning of 2011; that was when we transitioned from UNIFEM, which was a development agency and a funding agency, to UN Women, which was the first truly global agency working towards the achievement of gender equality.

I think that to be at the general assembly and hear Michelle Bachelet give her opening address and the Secretary General speak about his hopes for what the agency would be able to do pretty special.

a lot of women from immigrant refugee backgrounds and Indigenous women who in Australia in 2012 are living in conditions that are totally unacceptable

UN Women Australia has a very large mandate; what have been the greatest challenges you have encountered while working towards gender equality?

Funding and resources are always the biggest challenge. We have a huge global mandate and an incredible amount of really difficult work to do. We’re trying to actually challenge people’s attitudes towards women and that takes time and it’s very difficult to measure the outcomes of our work. And so I think the biggest challenge is constantly how you talk to donors and to supporters about the need for them to be generous and to consider the consequences of not supporting an agency like UN Women.

That being said, I think funding limitations make you more innovative. Quite often in the corporate sector we just see money getting thrown at problems and in the NGO sector where that’s not possible what you start to see is the power and importance of volunteering and people using technology and social media in different ways.

What advice would you give other women and men working towards gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls?

It can be incredibly tiring to be the person in a room that’s always saying “What about women?” “Have you considered women?” “What are the gender impacts of this problem?” It’s quite exhausting and we see a lot of burn out in our sector. People are just literally worn out by a seemingly endless battle. I am very aware of that and what I would say to people in the sector is “You’ve done a huge amount of good.”

In Australia we technically have legal equality and that’s not something we had many years ago. The next step is obviously attitude and policy-based equality, which is at one level much more complicated to achieve. But, we have come a long way and it’s important not to lose sight of that. I think it’s important to remember that everyone that works in the NGO sector is a voice for someone who doesn’t have a voice in another state. All the things that we complain about and the problems we have are pretty minimal compared to the challenges facing women in a lot of the program countries in which UN Women works.

To say that wealthy countries like Australia shouldn’t be making a stance to change the situation for women is just ludicrous. Of course we should.

You have overseen many campaigns to raise awareness of gender equality issues, but momentum has been slow; why do you think that there is still a tangible prevalence of gender-based social, economic and political discrimination in Australian society?

What I am constantly fascinated by is that people in Australia really find the conversation about gender equality quite difficult. We find it difficult to talk about sexual violence and violence against women. We find it difficult to acknowledge that we’ve got a problem with workforce participation and access to equal opportunities and we find it very difficult to accept that inherently we have an issue with promoting women into leadership roles and when they make it into leadership roles we actually treat them incredibly poorly and that’s played out recently with the Leigh Sales commentary and also Alan Jones’ commentary about women “destroying the place”.

I think for me what we really need to think about more is how a lot of women from immigrant refugee backgrounds and Indigenous women who in Australia in 2012 are living in conditions that are totally unacceptable. As a community and as a society we’re not actually outraged enough about that to take action. There’s a bit of a wake up call needed for Australians both in terms of what’s happening here but also in terms of the privilege that we have and the responsibility we have to people.

gender stereotyping, attitudes and a lack of care and awareness from employers are the three things that allow pay inequality to continue

You mentioned Alan Jones’ comments in relation to the Australian Government’s recent announcement that it will invest $320 million in an initiative to promote the participation of women in politics in the Asia Pacific; where do you think opinions such as Alan’s come from and how can they be changed?

That kind of belief comes from one of two places. It either comes from a place of fear or it comes from a place of ignorance. Either way the problem is not with the funding allocation, the problem is wholly and solely with Alan Jones. The more we as a community can do to make opinions like Alan’s less relevant and less acceptable the better we will all be.

We’ve found a situation in the Pacific where up to 100 per cent of women in the highlands of Papua New Guinea are experiencing violence and where 66 per cent of women in Fiji experience violence. To say that wealthy countries like Australia shouldn’t be making a stance to change the situation for women is just ludicrous. Of course we should.

I think it’s fantastic that the government has made such a significant contribution and, possibly more importantly, a contribution that’s over 10 years so it’s one where we actually have some security in the future. We really need security now from the opposition around maintaining this contribution and continuing to increase the aid budget should they take government next year.

It has been proven that societies only reach their full potential when women are active participants. What do you think are the main barriers hindering women’s involvement?

I think part of it is community attitudes and the fact that we have a history where we’ve done a whole series of things that have meant that we have a very gender stereotyped model of the way societies work. Typically leadership and politics were not roles that were open to women. Partly what we see is a lot of “old-school” thinking around the role of women and the “appropriate” place for women in our society.

It’s very hard if you’re a woman in the Solomon Islands or you’re the only woman in parliament in PNG. So for women in the Pacific at the moment there are very few role models. It’s incredibly unappealing because of the consequences of taking on those roles but also the communities simply aren’t voting for women either – when we can get women candidates to run – because there is not any community awareness. So that’s why the projects that UN Women are running in the many, many countries around the world, particularly in the Pacific, are around political participation and education of voters.

But I also think, and I know a lot of people disagree with me on this, but there is also a fundamental discrimination against women. For whatever reason, our communities and our societies don’t think that women are effective and strong leaders. So instead of supporting and giving women leaders a chance to demonstrate that they absolutely are effective leaders, the media and the community tear them apart in a way that is gendered when it’s about women and not gendered when it’s about men. So I think we are equally critical of male leaders but we’re not critical of their gender.

I genuinely believe that unless we do something drastically different now, it’ll be our daughters and their daughters having this conversation and to me that’s pretty scary.

Disturbingly, in Australia less than one-third of all parliamentarians are women and when comparing the proportion of women in national parliaments internationally Australia has continued to slip further and further behind. Will this have a significant impact on Australian society?

Absolutely. There are some really scary statistics coming out of Queensland as well where there was not only a significant change of government but also a situation where they went from having about 24 or 25 per cent of women in parliament down to about 14 or 15 per cent. So, we talk about 30 percent being the critical number where women can actually really change and influence the way policies are being made and we’re seeing backflow both at the federal level and also in Queensland. I don’t have an analysis yet of the Northern Territory election but I’d be interested to see over the next couple of months with the ACT elections that are coming up what does happen for women.

Pay equity is also a key concern and the pay gap has widened over the last year from 17.2 per cent to 17.5 per cent, meaning that on average women must work an extra 64 days to earn the annual wage of a male counterpart. Why have we actually seen this inequality become worse?

Again it comes back to the fundamental devaluing and undervaluing of women’s experience and women’s contribution in our society. We have a situation where two people doing the same role are still earning different amounts of money. It is just bizarre, the fact that it still happens. We know that women do struggle to negotiate their own salaries as effectively as men and so quite often you see situations where men and women at the same level are going for a promotion and the man will end up with a better outcome financially than the woman. That’s partly around effectively negotiating but it’s also partly that our employers take absolutely no responsibility for pay equity. There’s a pay equity gap between what we pay our daughters and sons in pocket money. So from the ages of five to 14 we actually pay girls less than we pay boys. And again it’s completely unbelievable that this stuff still happens, and so to me there’s a real fundamental issue.

I think the second thing is that women, because of gender stereotyping, still tend to be encouraged into what have been traditionally feminised professions. So you see women making up a large percentage of the caring professions – the social services sectors, nursing and teaching. All of those sectors and jobs are really undervalued and so you are paid far less to do those sorts of work than you would be to do equivalent work in a different sector, which is a really big problem. Women make up the vast majority of teachers, but men make up the vast majority of school principals. Women have the opportunity and the experience and the skills to be a principal and to take on that leadership role in a school but they are still not getting those opportunities. The minority of teachers, which is men, is the pool for getting principal positions.

I think that gender stereotyping, attitudes and a lack of care and awareness from employers are the three things that allow pay inequality to continue.

How do we go about solving this deeply entrenched and socially complex issue?

I think the first step is that employers, and by employers I mean all employers – government, big business and small business – need to have a serious commitment to looking at pay equity issues in their own workforce. We’ve seen some of the big companies do pay audits where they have actually gone through and tested at all different levels whether men and women are being paid equally and by and large what they find is they’re not. So if all employers committed to doing a pay audit and reviewing where their staff are actually sitting and then make the necessary changes over a 12 or 24 month period, I think that would be the best step we could take.

I’m very aware that I absolutely don’t want to put the burden of this issue back onto women. I believe that the burden of this issue falls to employers and I do think we can do more to build the confidence and courage of women entering the workforces and women going for promotion. Women aren’t as effective at negotiating for their own salaries and don’t value their own skills as highly as their male counterparts. Giving women specific support and training to negotiate more effectively would be something we could do as well.

I genuinely believe that unless we do something drastically different now, it’ll be our daughters and their daughters having this conversation and to me that’s pretty scary.

As you work towards scalable solutions for these issues, what or who inspires you to keep working to achieve your goals?

In a job like mine you get a huge amount of humility and hope from the people that you meet and the stories that you hear about what women live through and the courage that they have. So I have a very strong recognition that in a privileged position like mine it would never be okay to say that I’ve lost hope when there are women out there who every day go through incredible challenges and don’t give up hope. I think giving up hope is not an option for people like me.

Equally I know I have a level of guilt. I know I was one of those young women who didn’t believe in feminism and who thought that everything was fine. I went to a great school. I was told I could do anything I wanted and I spent a lot of time discounting the importance of having discussions about gender equality when I was younger. So I have a level now of responsibility to try and make more people aware that this is still a problem – doing nothing and pretending it’s not a problem actually didn’t work and we now need to do something differently.