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  • Five minutes with Women’s health rights advocate – Tracey Spicer AM

    October 24, 2019

    Tracey Spicer AM, Award-winning journalist and advocate, Co-founder of ‘Women in Media’ and ‘NOW Australia’. Spearheading the #metoo movement in Australia.

    Tracey is an advocate for women's rights and supports Australia's bid to host the Women Deliver Conference in 2022. Discover what she has to say on the challenges and opportunities around gender equality.

    What was the turning point that inspired you to become an advocate for gender equality? 

    Growing up, I’d always been ‘the good girl’. “Be polite, fit in, don’t cause a fuss.”
    Then I became a journalist straight out of university. Working in the media in the 1980s and 90s was a bit like stepping onto the set of Mad Men. It was a ‘man’s world’, rife with sexism, misogyny, discrimination, sexual harassment and abuse.

    Of course, I did what I could to protect myself and other women, but, at the time, it seemed like this was just the way things were. I wasn’t an activist. In those days, as a young woman, you either learned to ‘cop it sweet’, or you left the industry - as so many talented women did.

    The defining moment for me came after I had my second child, Grace. The management at the television network, where I’d worked as a newsreader for 14 years, sacked me via email. It was pretty clear that, as a mother, I was no longer considered young enough, or ‘sexy’ enough to read the national news.

    The network offered me the chance to ‘go quietly’, ‘keep my dignity’, and urged me to write a media release saying I was quitting my on-air role due to family commitments. Something in me ‘clicked’ that day, and I thought, “Hell no! I’m not going quietly. I’m not putting up with this - not for myself, and not for other women!” I fought them in court and started a national conversation in the media about pregnancy discrimination. I stopped being ‘the good girl’ and I’ve been fighting for gender equity ever since.

    Would you consider Australia to be a progressive country when it comes to women’s rights and equality? What are we getting right, what should we start doing now and what should we stop?

    Australia has a mixed record in terms of women’s rights and equality. We were one of the first countries in the world to give non-indigenous women the right to vote, but it took 43 years for the first female, Enid Lyons, to be elected to parliament.

    The first female trade union - the Tailoresses Association of Melbourne - was formed in 1882. That was 21 years before the first women’s union in the USA. But today, Australian female blue collar workers are still facing gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

    #MeToo has been significant in raising consciousness, not just about sexual abuse and harassment, but discrimination in general. There is a lot of goodwill out there, particularly in corporate Australia, about making things better for women. But there’s also a lot of talk and little action.

    I’ve been saying for a long time that while efforts from individual organisations and legislative change are important, the issue with gender equality is that its systemic. You can’t change it by tinkering at the edges. Gender inequality is entrenched in our education system, our political system, our justice system, in manufacturing and industry and the media. It’s not just about writing new policies or even new laws. We have to get everybody on board with this - politicians, corporate leaders, the media and leading educators. What we need is a cultural revolution.

    We have to fundamentally change the way Australians think about gender and gender roles. Now, that sounds like ‘pie in the sky’ thinking, but we’ve done it before!
    Look how social attitudes towards smoking, drink-driving, corporal punishment, wearing seatbelts, and animal cruelty have changed over the years. What we need is a national campaign - along the lines of a national public health campaign - involving all levels of government, industry and media. It can be done, we just need to build the will to do it.

    Having said that, there are brilliant initiatives underway in Victoria, which is our most progressive state. We have a world-first national inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace, which will hand down its findings later this year. And there are hundreds of wonderful grassroots community organisations, agitating for change.    

    How can Australia’s strengths contribute to our bid to host ‘Women Deliver 2022’ in Melbourne?

    Giving people a ‘fair go’ is part of the Australian ethos. Despite the current tide of fear-mongering and populist politicking, I think most Australians still believe in fairness and equality. Look how the #MeToo movement took hold in Australia, culminating in the world’s first national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

    Corporate Australia is rapidly understanding it has not just a moral and ethical obligation to implement gender equality and diversity measures in its workplaces, but an economic imperative.

    The Australian Institute of Company Directors is committed to increasing gender equity on Australian boards. While progress has been slow, the number of female directors on Australian boards has increased by 8 per cent over 4 years. In the same period, Australia’s gender pay gap has plummeted from 18.5 per cent to 14 per cent. So, while things are moving slower than we’d like, we’re heading in the right direction.

    But Australia’s greatest strength is surely the pool of amazing feminists who are fighting tirelessly for gender equality on a number of fronts.
    Just this week, 50,000 Australian women from a grassroots, feminist Facebook group called the Mad Fucking Witches (taking their name from a slur aimed at a female journalist) have led a successful campaign to encourage advertisers to withdraw their support from Australian radio host, Alan Jones. Jones recently suggested that Prime Minister Scott Morrison should “shove a sock” down New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s throat and give her “a few backhanders.”

    NOW Australia, a not-for-profit I co-founded in 2018 during the height of the #MeToo movement, is working collaboratively with a number of organisations to develop a plan for systemic change to eradicate sexual harassment in the workplace.

    Earlier this year, I had the privilege of listening to a group of Indigenous, Koori women working to support each other, in the home and in the workforce, through an organisation called Djirra. These ‘Djirra Keepers’ are powerful change-makers.

    My friend, Carly Findlay, has been inspirational in her work as a feminist, author and disability advocate, raising awareness about intersectional discrimination faced by women with disabilities.

    Across the country, there is a huge diversity of Australian women working individually and collaboratively to effect significant and sustainable change. They’re working on issues as diverse as do-mestic violence, conditions for female migrant workers on temporary visas, sexual harassment in the hospitality industry, equality in the legal profession, transgender rights, raising children without gender stereotypes, and breaking the corporate glass ceiling. It’s inspirational.

    Australia’s greatest strength has to be the talent, courage and determination of Australian women - and their male allies - to change the world by changing how the world thinks about gender.

    What’s been the most significant shift in the media industry towards gender diversity?

    I think the “Mates over Merit” report that Women in Media published in 2016 was a huge wake-up call to the industry. It was like we’d opened the closet to reveal the all the skeletons.

    Our research showed a significant gender pay gap, lack of flexibility in working conditions, epidemic levels of sexual harassment and cyber-bullying, discrimination after taking parental leave, lack of representation and acknowledgement, few clearly defined career paths, and woeful management practices in handling complaints and grievances.

    The #MeToo movement has also had an impact on the Australian media. Exposing Australian television’s ‘most-loved’ gardening guru for decades of sexual harassment also exposed the media executives who knew about it and did nothing. Suddenly, it became clear there are personal and professional consequences for bad behaviour. #MeToo also prompted a lot of male allies to speak out.

    Australia’s bid theme is Beyond Boundaries: A sustainable future – what does this mean to you in terms of empowerment of girls and women, gender parity and equal opportunity?

    I think we have to break down the barriers created by gender roles and stereotypes. Women’s opportunities, well-being and happiness are restricted by out-dated ideas about what we should do, how we should act, and what responsibilities we should take on. But it’s not just women who suffer.

    Men are confined by these ridiculous, socially-constructed roles as well. For example, even when flexible working conditions are available to men, they’re twice as likely to have their flexible work requests rejected. We know that men are reluctant to ask for flexible hours, because they think there’s a stigma - even a career penalty - attached to even asking. In some places we’re seeing men face unemployment rather than seek work in ‘pink’, feminised industries.  

    In my research on sexual harassment in the workplace, I found that men who are sexually harassed are often those who don’t conform to male gender stereotypes. Even heterosexual men who admit to being feminists, or who’d rather go home than linger at the pub after work, can be the targets of bullying and harassment. Let’s accept the studies that are telling us diversity is great for business. Inclusive companies are more profitable companies: they have access to a greater pool of talent, better ideas, and knowledge about more markets. It’s win-win!

    We’re asking governments and industry to help us break down barriers and work towards gender equality. We’re asking them to put people ahead of profits. But, guess what? It turns out, from all the research being churned out on this subject, that promoting women, paying them equal wages, breaking down industry gender barriers, and eliminating sexual harassment is very, very good for the bottom line.

    In fact, as we move through this century, companies (and, hopefully governments) that don’t get on board will fail because they won’t be able to compete in a market-place that’s increasingly prioritising ethical investment. Breaking down these barriers is good for everyone - children, men, women, the LGBTIQ+ community, governments, business and taxpayers in general.

    How would ‘Women Deliver 2022’ provide a platform to help foster gender equality and sup-port the wellbeing of girls and women here in Australia and around the world?

    An international conference with 5,000 delegates will bring a global spotlight to the work we’re doing here. It will bring new ideas and innovations, and send international delegates home with fresh ways of looking at the issue.

    The conference hasn’t been held in Australia before and - apart from giving a huge boost to Australian women - it places the event in the Asia-Pacific Region, providing access to women from our neighbouring countries.

    For me, it’s about consciousness raising. Feminism took off in Australia in the 1970s because feminists, especially those at the National Women’s Advisory Council and the Women’s Electoral Lobby, raised their voices. Now we’re in the moving into the fourth wave of feminism, which is truly inter-sectional, it’s time for us to climb up the rostrum, raise our voices, and wave those flags again.
    Any event of this kind, but particularly this one, will help inspire, invigorate and inform Australian women, and give us a chance to share what we know with the world.

    Melbourne is a gateway to the Pacific region and brings together cultures from more than 15 small island Pacific nations. What issues and challenges have you seen facing women across our region in the Asia Pacific through your travels?

    What I discovered as a documentary maker in Bangladesh, Kenya, India, Papua New Guinea and Uganda is that women are oppressed to varying degrees, depending on their race, religion, class, sexual orientation and ability. There’s no one-size-fits-all.

    Girls’ education in developing nations is key, but boys - and men - also need an education that encourages them to see women as human beings with the same needs, talents, intellect, ambitions and human value as them. And the challenge, of course, is to work with women in those countries - and Indigenous women in this country - so that these lessons can be delivered in a culturally appropriate way. We don’t want to be stomping in like colonialists. Our role is to listen, and follow their advice.

    What positive outcomes and legacy impacts would you like to see emerge from the ‘Women Deliver 2022’ if hosted in Melbourne?

    One of the greatest positive outcomes I can see is the opportunity for networking. Women are great networkers, we’re good at team work, and, collaboratively, we can do wonders. What an incredible chance for Australian women to both learn and teach; to speak, but also to listen; to both find and offer support.

    Australia is a country with a national ethos that calls upon us to fight for fairness and equality. We often fall short of that ideal - particularly in respect to Indigenous Australians and people from non-English speaking backgrounds - but this is an opportunity to raise the voices of marginalised communities.

    It’s also an opportunity to share with the world the findings of the first national inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace, and share lessons from the first few years of the implementation of its recommendations.

    At the moment, the world seems to be lurching towards individualism, greed, authoritarianism and xenophobia. Perhaps the combined weight of the hearts and minds of 5000 women, rushing to-wards Melbourne for the Women Deliver 2022 conference, will tip the balance back towards collaboration, kindness, inclusion, equality and diversity. And, if these wonderful women happen to have the time of their lives in one of the best cities in the world - well, they bloody well deserve it!

    Click here to find out how you can support Melbourne's bid to host the 2022 Women Deliver conference.