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Dr Niki Vincent: SA leads on women’s equality fight — but struggle rolls on

 


I’m so proud to be a South Australian. Our history of leading innovation and social change, and our long list of homegrown pioneers – men and women who showed the courage to push boundaries and establish new benchmarks for progress – is certainly something to celebrate.

Things were very different 125 years ago.

Women at the turn of the 19th century had few legal rights, and upon marriage surrendered all ownership of property, wages and the rights to guardianship of their children to their husbands.

Divorce was rarely granted. So it’s little wonder support for the SA suffrage movement was widespread.

And it wasn’t all driven by women. Dr Edward Stirling was the first president of The Women’s Suffrage League. He helped galvanise a debate that resulted in acceptance of the landmark 1894 legislation.

Equal Opportunity Commissioner Dr Niki Vincent
Camera IconEqual Opportunity Commissioner Dr Niki VincentPicture: Supplied

It gave South Australian women the right to vote for the first time in Australia – and, in a world first, they could also become members of Parliament (Britain didn’t get these rights until 1918).

That suffrage petition was the longest presented to the SA Parliament, with more than 11,000 signatures; a remarkable achievement (although the final granting of rights in 1895, signed by Queen Victoria, was relegated to page 28 of The Advertiser).

Progress rarely comes without struggle.

First attempts to change the laws were knocked back three times, with a letter to the editor of the Register in 1886 protesting: “Women invading every walk of life (would) make the married state less honourable and the sanctity, privacy, and comforts of home to be imagined rather than enjoyed”.

In 2019, these notions seem incredible. And yet we continue to maintain an unconscious gender bias in much of our decision-making that harks back to these old-world beliefs.

Fifty per cent of the population still live in a very unequal world where more women graduate from university but men earn $244.80 per week more, have double the superannuation savings and are well over-represented at the highest levels of leadership; and where, regardless of whether they participate in paid work, women still also do most of the housework and family caring.

Clearly the struggle continues. A key for the future will be getting more men to step up as agents of change – just as Edward Stirling did 125 years ago.

While we’ve seen a massive shift of women into paid work, we’ve seen very minimal movement in the opposite direction – and so many women are combining their careers with a second shift at home.

While women with successful careers are frequently asked how they juggle work and family, we need to start asking this of men, too.

We need to reduce the stigma around men working part-time and taking parental/carers leave. Many workplaces are still designed around the notion of an “ideal worker” – a man who could devote his life to paid work because he had a woman at home to take care of him, the kids and the household chores.

Most families don’t look like this anymore and workplaces need to adapt accordingly.

In countries where men and women are more equal in their relationships – where they’re not expected to play different roles based on their sex – then sexism, sexual harassment and violent behaviour is much less common.

Greater equality and more flexible gender roles will give everyone more opportunities to develop to their full capacity – as well as reducing our horrifying rates of family violence.

Evolving this kind of social change is slow and complex because it requires new learning, changes in people’s values, priorities, beliefs and loyalties – in their sense of identity.

These painful adjustments are bound to create uncertainty and resistance in some. Of course, the newspaper features of years gone by would have been dominated by men.

What I love about The Advertiser’s focus during this 125th anniversary year of women’s suffrage in SA is that it will give so many women deserved recognition for their truly outstanding contributions.

Part of the legislated function of my role is to foster and encourage informed and unprejudiced community attitudes to eliminate discrimination.

I hope that in 2019, we can generate a more respectful, compassionate and constructive community discussion about gender equality that leads to better, fairer outcomes and less divisiveness, disrespectful personal attacks, stigmatising and toxic labelling. We need much less of an unhelpful “us vs them” narrative.

I’m sure most of us would love our kids and grandkids to be growing up in a world with less pressure to conform to gender stereotypes and where sexism, sexual harassment and violent behaviour is much less common; a world in which all children can dream about any career or life path they want – and all have an equal opportunity to achieve this.

Dr Niki Vincent is the South Australian Commissioner for Equal Opportunity





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