By Tori Cooke
To me, International Women’s Day is important because it recognises the full spectrum of women’s contribution to the world. In such diverse ways it brings ‘balance’ to the world in which we live, work and play. Part of bringing much needed balance is challenging structural conformity to male privilege. Diversity and inclusion makes so much sense when we consider what women have achieved historically – and it makes sense for men too.
Barriers: internal and external
Women’s achievements are rarely appreciated within the context of unequal access to higher education, employment and advancement opportunities. This means that overall, women are likely to work harder to overcome internal and external barriers to achieve success in the first place. Sometimes, the external barrier is, ‘the glass ceiling’ and unequal pay. It can also be that the structures are designed for a dominant paradigm that excludes the needs of women.
Then there are the internal barriers, the ‘soundtracks’ women are taught to play in their minds that prevent some women from believing they can achieve the full extent of their potential – leading to under achieving and high levels of stress. These are the ingrained social messages.
For some of us who grew up in lower middle class families, the soundtrack focused on working in a meaningless service job until you found your prince, got married and lived happily ever after. In my family, the women’s role was to take care of your husband, the home and the children. Any employment was usually part time with your pay considered ‘pocket money’.
But listening to the men I work with, tells me too that these social messages can be stressful for some men to live up to. For example; the provider, the protector, the hero are socially constructed masculine roles that play a part in driving the need for financial and social success for men. The pressure of not living up to or not being able to participate in these roles can lead to a sense of listlessness and despair because access to the economic fortunes deemed socially acceptable and their associated status remain unachieved.
The key difference is these barriers do not impact on men’s access to opportunity or their thinking that they deserve opportunity to the same degree as women.
The fact is, gendered forms of social status were enshrined in legislation. Women who sought to contribute in the same way to society were considered highly problematic, simply for challenging the social norms of the day with ideas of inclusiveness and equality. The few men who shared and collaborated in raising a family were considered ‘not real men’.
But without these inspiring influencers, both men and women, we would not have the ongoing discussions, research and movement about the need for gender equity today.
Getting a university degree required overcoming barriers that most men do not have to experience because of what we now know and call structural male privilege. Having worked with victims of family violence and now also with the men who perpetrate abuse, it is clear to me that the attitudes and beliefs inherent in male privilege continue to heavily influence the drivers of violence against women. This violence is also a further barrier to women’s access to income equity and long term financial security. Conversely, these same issues become a cage that lock women into violent relationships.
It is a cycle that is all too often deadly.
Diversity and inclusion
This is why diversity and inclusion are important to me – to stop striving for this as an abiding social norm is simply dangerous. Violence against women is now a serious and widespread problem in Australia, with enormous individual and community impacts and social costs (Our Watch, 2019). Recently, the National Community Attitude survey (NCAS, 2018) results indicate concerns that a substantial minority of Australians do not believe women’s reports of violence. Of even greater concern is the view that this large minority believe the problem of gender inequality is exaggerated (NCAS, 2018).
Women have made many significant contributions within their families, communities and across societies. While, these alone are praiseworthy, when you consider them in context of the many visible and invisible social barriers they had to overcome, I realise that it may take more than one International Women’s Day to fully appreciate their achievements.
For inclusivity to become a valued social norm we simply must address these barriers and work hard to challenge the ingrained ideas that have no relevance for the kind of futures our daughters and granddaughters will be living in the next 100 years.
I grew up at a time when it was a challenge to finish high school and have access to higher education. My grandmother’s words often echoed as motivation in my heart, “education will be your liberation” she used to say. I am the first woman in my family to finish high school and will be the first to complete a post-grad qualification. However, the cost at times of moving past limited ways of viewing women were at times, desperately hard.
Today women are more highly educated than men, yet still earn less.
International Women’s Day continues to tell the story of why ‘balance is better’, why our collaborative work to focus on better access and celebration of diversity is absolutely critical to society’s success and an enriched life for each one of us.
Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety. (2018). Are we there yet? Australians’ attitudes towards violence against women & gender equality: Summary findings from the 2017 National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey (NCAS) (Research to policy and practice, 03/2018). Sydney, NSW: ANROWS.
Our Watch. (2019). https://www.ourwatch.org.au/
Tori Cooke is currently the Practice Specialist Family Violence & Child Safety at Relationships Australia Victoria. She is a highly regarded conference presenter, senior clinical practitioner and specialist trainer in the field of family violence in Australia. She is a White Ribbon Advocate, a current member of the Victorian White Ribbon Committee and a current Board director for the Society for Professional Social Workers. Tori is a trainer and program designer of men’s behaviour change programs. Currently, she works with clinical teams in Relationships Australia Victoria to reduce violence against women and children.