Equality is a fundamental human right, which ensures that anyone regardless of their gender, race, cultural and religious beliefs, age, sexual orientation, ability or disability, have equal opportunities to reach their full potential and lead a productive life with dignity. Feminism is a belief in, and active advocacy for, gender equality. If one truly believes in equality between men and women, then one is a feminist, regardless of your gender. I believe that gender equality is simply an important subset of equality, and that it is women’s birth right. It is a fundamental human right.
These definitions seem so simple, yet it took the suffragette movement to get women voting rights. The women's suffrage movement was the struggle for the right of women to vote and run for office and is part of the overall women's rights movement. Just over 100 years ago women had no voting rights anywhere in the world until New Zealand granted women the right to vote in 1893. Australia didn’t give women the right to vote until 1902, and then only in local elections. Certain Middle Eastern countries didn’t give women voting rights until the last 10 years, and in some countries, they still don’t have voting rights. So how do we make people understand what it is like who have never had the experience of being deprived of basic rights as a citizen, let alone a human being?
Back to experiential learning! If you haven’t had the experience, then you don’t know how it feels, and in my view don’t have the right to comment thereon, let alone tell someone to “get over it”! A group of Australian CEOs and senior leaders from different organisations were attending a facilitated session on unconscious bias. The facilitator drew two columns on the board, under the heading of Safety, one titled Men, the other Women. He asked the men first what precautions they took when walking alone at night to prevent rape or harassment. The men looked confused and most of them responded with one word “none”.
He asked the same question of the women, and every single woman had an answer which included one of the following:
• “I regularly look over my shoulder to check no one is following me”
• “I cross over the road if I see a man or group of men approaching me”
• “I carry my keys splayed between my fingers as I was taught in self-defence classes”
• “I carry capsicum spray in my purse”
• “I am careful not to draw attention to myself”
• “I avoid making eye contact with men on the street”.
The men’s column was blank, while the women’s column on the board was full! At that moment many of the men in the room had an “ahaa!” moment as they realised, they had never had to think about their personal safety in the same way as women.
This continues in the workplace during interviews, where men are never asked certain questions women are asked, and I certainly have been asked these questions:
• “Do you have children?”
• “Do you intend to have more children?”
• “Will overnight or overseas travel be a problem, given you have children?”
• “What do you do when the children are sick”?
A senior female executive was asked at an industry function last year by a male guest: “Who’s looking after her children?” She wisely responded with:” Who’s looking after YOUR children?”
In the foreword to my latest book on gender equality, Leadership Revelations III How We Achieve the Gender Tipping Point, Lt. General David Morrison (Retd.), then Chief of Army said this:
“By every credible measure, women are denied opportunities that are accorded to men as a birthright of their sex. Women face barriers, sometimes tangible, often subliminal, that constrain their lives and their contributions to the development of our world. This debilitating aspect of modern society affects us all.
We need men and women of authority and conscience to play their part, and we most certainly need women – too long denied a strong voice – to be given opportunities to lead in all endeavours, in all parts of our polity and society. We need to come to grips with our culture and how much it counts.
And so, every initiative to redress the imbalance, to restore inclusivity at the expense of exclusivity, is to be welcomed.”
I look forward to the day when discussions about feminism and equality seem outdated and quaint – may it happen in my lifetime and yours!