International Women's Day: address by Professor Joellen Riley

8 March 2013

Professor Joellen Riley: "The 'Gender Agenda' has certainly been gaining momentum in recent times. We need now for that momentum to support the kinds of policy decisions that will enable women across the whole spectrum of society to share in the gains."
Professor Joellen Riley: "The 'Gender Agenda' has certainly been gaining momentum in recent times. We need now for that momentum to support the kinds of policy decisions that will enable women across the whole spectrum of society to share in the gains."

Dean of Sydney Law School, Professor Joellen Riley gave the following address to mark International Women's Day, 8 March 2013:

The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum, by Professor Joellen Riley

I am especially honoured to be invited to speak at this event. I imagine that I owe this invitation to my recent appointment as Dean of Sydney Law School. I am not the first female dean of this school. My predecessor takes that honour: Professor Gillian Triggs, who is now President of the Australian Human Rights Commission. It is a very good thing that all the 'first woman' accolades have largely been taken up in recent times. We have our first female prime minister, and our first female Governor-General. We now have the first female President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal in Justice Margaret Beazley. Across the nation we have had a few female State premiers, quite a lot of women judges and heads of major institutions and companies. We have had a number of women Chancellors of this university. So - on a superficial glance at least - we can probably say that the 'gender agenda' of the past 40 or so years has indeed gained momentum, and made considerable advancements in recent times in Australia.

When I look back over that period, though, it sometimes disappoints me that it has taken such a long time to reach those achievements. I was a teenager in the Whitlam years - short as they were. I went to a comprehensive state school - Moorefield Girls High in Kogarah - and our principal at the time - Ms Vera Newsom - was an inspiring principal for girls. At school assembly, I recall, she often dispensed with the singing of the school's own rather bland anthem and had us sing Helen Reddy's I am Woman instead. For those much too young to remember that particular song, it began "I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers to big to ignore" and it used words like "strong" and "invincible". We shared our assembly hall with James Cook Boys High, and I often wondered what the boys thought of our repertoire. While I was at school, it seemed that Australia was on the cusp of a new world of female empowerment, and I was going to experience a very different life from my mother's.

Unfortunately, no one explained this to my ordinary working class family.

When I left Moorefield, after completing the 1974 Higher School certificate, my parents - and especially my father - were unhappy about my aspirations to go to University to do a general Arts degree. It wasn't because they were against university education per se. They were very proud of my older brother - whom they dubbed 'the boy genius' - when he obtained first class honours in Physics and went on immediately to his PhD, here in the Physics department, under the supervision of the famous Professor Harry Messel. The problem for me was that I was a girl, and my father could see no point in investing in an education for a girl. He had already lined up a job in the bank for me. His vision was that I should work as a bank teller for a little while until I had secured myself a decent breadwinning husband, and settled down to produce some grandchildren.

The reason that I stand before you today as the Dean of Sydney Law School is that I didn't take my father's advice. In my own quiet way, I rebelled. I persuaded my father that being a school teacher was also a good job for a girl. By the time I graduated from my Arts degree I was out of his house and married, fortunately to a man who had no problem with a working spouse, and was willing to encourage me, even after having two children, to go back to university to study law.

Now I don't tell you this because I want to criticise my parents. After all, we are talking about life nearly 40 years ago. My parents wanted me to have the normal happy life that they believed was available to a person like me. I am not sure whether they knew much about some of the books I was reading at the time - The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer; Damned Whores and Gods Police by Anne Summers - but I am sure that if they did they would have thought that the ideas in those books were all very well for the daughters of the privileged classes, who would be able to afford nannies and housekeepers to manage the drudgery on the home front while they went off to illustrious careers at the top of society. But it was pretty unlikely that a working class girl from Kogarah would ever be able to manage such feats.

They were being entirely realistic. At the time, child care was very difficult to find, let alone afford. Like most parents, they desperately wanted to become grandparents. They wouldn't have been impressed to think that a radical feminist elite with private school educations, and aristocratic inheritances to fall back on, would lure me away from the life that they were convinced would make me most happy.

Fast forward almost 40 years, and I ask myself how much the world has really changed. Has Helen Reddy's embryonic 'Woman' really made herself completely heard yet?

When we take stock in 2013, we do see more women on company boards, and more women in leadership positions, but we still face a picture of gender equality for women across the workforce more broadly. Gender Pay Gap Statistics published last year by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency showed that there is still an overall gap of 17.5 percent between the average weekly earnings of full time adult males and females in the Australian workforce. When the statistics are broken down according to different industry sectors, we see that this average disguises some very high gender pay differentials in some industries. I wasn't so surprised to see a big gap in mining (of 21.8 percent). Perhaps that reflects the fact that women have not yet entered that industry in large enough numbers to produce reliable statistics. The old stereotypes of tough, hard and dirty male jobs, versus clean, tidy and nurturing female jobs may well be proving hard to crack. But I was pretty appalled to see that the dubious prize for the highest differential went to the field my father chose for me, back in 1975 - financial and insurance services - a gap of 37.7 percent. That almost takes us back to the bad old days when female pay rates were deliberately set at two thirds of male breadwinner rates. We should pay attention to that number. It shows that even though we can and should applaud the momentous achievements of remarkable women like Gail Kelly, CEO of Westpac, the achievements of a few special women are not always matched by the advancement of women in the labour market more generally.

I am not going to try to explain the Gender Pay Gap data here. Indeed, I am not sure I have yet located any research that does adequately explain why such large pay differentials persist in 2013. I suspect it has a lot to do with the same concerns that my parents had, in contemplating the feasibility of encouraging a daughter to pursue a career in the paid workforce back in 1974. What my colleague and coauthor - Professor Rosemary Owens at Adelaide Law School - calls women's reproductive work has a tendency to get in the way of women's full participation in the paid workforce. In forty years, we are still struggling to deal with the difficult policy questions around provision of paid parental leave and child care services.

These issues are difficult. How do you ensure adequate availability of affordable child care, at the same time as making sure that child care workers - who are predominantly women - are paid decent wages and working conditions? A 'user pays' system is ill-suited to achieving that balance, certainly while we define the 'user' so narrowly as the individual parent of the child.

At the risk of being written off as a radical communist, let me question for a moment the basic assumption underlying the notion that parents are the users of child care services. Is a child the property of her parents, so that it is the parents who are receiving services from the child minder? Should we not treat the child herself as the citizen who is receiving services? We have a culture of providing publicly funded pensions to elderly people who have survived past the age of hard labour and require care. Why not allow a childhood pension, to enable children to pay for their own care? When we consider the broader economic benefit of greater female participation in the labour market, it is entirely reasonable to consider the whole community as the 'user' who benefits from the provision of child care services. Of course these ways of thinking about the child care problem would involve more thinking about how we raise taxes to fund such services. And any 'Big New Tax' is politically impossible in the present climate.

I would suggest, however, that until we deal adequately with the problem of affordable child care we will still have a gender pay gap, and we will still see class-based differences in women's capacity to participate fully in public life. Educated women with strong financial support from their families will continue to achieve the milestone goals for women, but the overall average performance figures for women will be pulled down by the women in lower socio-economic groups who still face obstacles to maintaining careers in the paid workforce, thrown up mainly by their own, and their families' expectation that they will become mothers, and hence carers of children. And of course these days, women are also often expected to be the carers' for elderly relatives as well. Care and how a community pays for it, is the elephant in the room in every discussion about the advancement of women.

Some of you listening to me might be wondering how I managed to build my career. Didn't I say that I had two daughters myself? Yes, I did, and I had the usual career break of a few years while they were little. I was lucky enough to be able to spend that career break at this law school, preparing for a new career. I was lucky to have a supportive spouse to share the child care costs when I did go back to work, first in a law firm, and then here at the university. I was fortunate indeed to have two healthy, bright and sociable daughters who survived the frequent changes of child care arrangements as we juggled our way through. And I am now rewarded handsomely - not only by the privilege of leading this great law school for a time - but by seeing my own adult daughters thriving in their own careers. Both have had excellent educational opportunities. Ensuring that women can access education is vital if the gender agenda is to continue to advance. The present government is to be applauded for its vision of improving access to education for Low Socio Economic groups, and this university also is committed to and working towards that goal. My elder daughter - an alumna of the History and Education departments of this great university, and now teaching at Sydney Grammar - pleased me no end recently when she chose a costume for a fancy dress party. She dressed in full denim overalls and cherry head scarf as Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter. That's my girl. A wonderful emblem of an empowered working class woman.

So - the 'Gender Agenda' has certainly been gaining momentum in recent times. We need now for that momentum to support the kinds of policy decisions that will enable women across the whole spectrum of society to share in the gains.

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