In the lead-up to the March 4 Justice rallies, held around Australia in March to protest against sexism and gendered violence, someone on Twitter asked women to describe the first thing they would do if they weren’t frightened of men. One of my dreams is of walking alone at night through the streets and parks near my home, feeling only the wonder and mystery of it all. But accompanying that vision is my rage at the curtailment of my freedom, and the freedom of all women, that results from the behaviour of some men. My partner and sons walk the 800 metres to our local railway station at night without hesitation – something my daughter and I never risk alone.
Reading the replies to that tweet was simultaneously enraging, moving and a comfort; so many of us feel the same way. That lesson about the power of sharing is one I have been reminded of more than once this year, through the political turmoil surrounding the alleged rapes of several women, the courage of those speaking up, and the memories rising in all of us.
A group of people speaks louder than any individual voice, and is harder to silence or ignore.
It’s easy to disparage social media as just petty arguments and vitriol. The negatives are very apparent: the outrage generated and the retreat by individuals into tribal allegiances is difficult to quell, and many commentators see this as a threat to democracy. Online activism can seem soulless and pointless, but social media can be a powerful change agent, too – identifying issues, giving voice to the voiceless, and demonstrating to others that they are not alone. That’s not a solution to the problems, but it can be an important step towards addressing them.
The shared acknowledgement of anger played a huge role in activating the 110,000 people who participated in the March 4 Justice. Standing with friends in that crowd was a moment of reckoning, an antidote to feelings of individual powerlessness, and an inspiration to take further action. The government’s belated, reluctant and partial acceptance of the ‘Roadmap for Respect’ workplace recommendations in April would not have occurred without people applying pressure. It is not the end, but it is a start.
Powerlessness, fear and abuse poison lives and workplaces. Managing our anger and despair can be exhausting. I’ve been very grateful this year for the shared experience and laughter of women friends and colleagues. For us, it is personal. How else to live with the knowledge that in the 2021 Global Gender Gap Index (a measure of gender inequality), Australian women came first for educational attainment, while our overall ranking has fallen from 15th in 2006 to 50th? For comparison, the UK is ranked 23rd, France 16th and Mexico 34th. Clearly, Australian women still lack opportunities to fully participate in our economy.
Gender bias, inequality, gendered violence and abuse can happen in any workplace – and we need effective responses. As it is still largely the victims of workplace abuse, rather than the perpetrators, who are penalised for reporting, the lessons from speaking up and the empowering effects of collective action are vitally important. A group of people – men, as well as women – speaks louder than any individual voice, and is harder to silence or ignore.
This year’s events have been a catalyst for many to speak up with more force. Of course, it is hard to make waves if you are a part-time, contract or casual worker. But all the more reason for those with greater job security to support those without, and for systems related to gender equality to be negotiated, introduced and followed.
Pushback is inevitable, but we know equality must be contested, continually, and gains held onto fiercely. I’ll hold onto my dream of walking freely at night while working for better times. This year has shown us that we must dream, hope, organise, act and fight – and, importantly, do these things in the company of others.