Gender equality and violence against women: separate conversations?

White Ribbon is an easy campaign to understand. The concept of gender equality and the path to achieving it, however, is less well articulated. The Flexperts — Dr Sue Williamson and Dr Meraiah Foley — on the research helping organisations go beyond the obvious.

What is gender equality, and how do we know what it looks like? As researchers, we collaborate with many organisations seeking to advance gender equality in their workplaces. We are often asked what gender equality is, and how organisations can best measure their progress. More often than not, we apply the lecturer’s trick of turning the question back around: What do you think gender equality looks like?

These are good questions, but they are not easy to answer. We have conducted interviews and focus groups with hundreds of public servants at the federal and state levels. We find that many public servants still believe that gender equality has been achieved when 50% of the senior leadership team are women.

Others, however, recognise that numerical parity does not necessarily confer gender equality. Even majority-female departments and departments with relatively high proportions of women in senior leadership positions can foster ‘ideal worker’ cultures, where long working hours are expected or implicitly rewarded, men are subtly discouraged from taking up flexible working arrangements, and occupational gender segregation still exists.

Achieving gender equality requires shifting and challenging these behaviours and norms. The question then becomes how best to achieve that shift.

Many public sector organisations are already asking this important question and implementing action plans. The Australian Public Service (APS) released its Gender Equality Strategy in 2016 and APS departments released their strategies a year later. Most state governments have also released a strategy (see for example, strategies from Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania).

Steps to progress gender equality include identifying and addressing unconscious bias in human resource (HR) processes, increasing the number of women in senior leadership and encouraging leaders and male employees to work flexibly. Some agencies are adopting a two-pronged approach to gender equity. While they are reforming workplace practices and cultures through focusing on HR, they are also specifically addressing issues around violence against women, an area which has been seen as a workplace issue only relatively recently.

In many agencies, we have seen a high level of commitment to achieving White Ribbon Workplace Accreditation, a program that recognises workplaces which have taken active steps to reduce violence against women. The Victorian government has even incorporated gender equality initiatives for the public sector into their violence against women strategy. In this case, workplace gender equality is seen as a path to reducing violence against women; rather than the former contributing to the latter, as is usually the case.

The public servants we have interviewed generally understand why achieving White Ribbon Accreditation is important. White Ribbon is an easy campaign to understand – being opposed to violence against women and girls is a no-brainer. The White Ribbon campaign also contains standards and criteria that organisations need to fulfil to become accredited. The requirements are clear, and follow a smooth procedural path.

The concept of gender equality more broadly, however, is less well articulated. While public sector gender equality strategies contain initiatives and recommendations, these are largely broad ranging in order to be tailored to the specific needs of individual agencies. The path to achieving gender equality, or what gender equality looks like, is less obvious.

The conversation around violence against women is clear and many are having their say and are actively involved. An opportunity also exists to have a similar conversation on gender equality more broadly. These conversations could be conducted simultaneously, or separately to reinforce both issues. The multiple and interlocking paths towards gender equality may then take us to places we have not yet imagined.

‘The Flexperts’ are Dr Sue Williamson, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management at UNSW Canberra and Dr Meraiah Foley, Research Fellow at UNSW Canberra. The reflections in this article were developed from work conducted with Dr. Linda Colley at CQUniversity and Professor Rae Cooper of the University of Sydney Business School.

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