Reflections on International Women’s Day 2014 (or the only X in the village)
This week women all over the world have celebrated International Women’s Day. As usual I spent the week attending various functions in Canberra. This year included the launch of Australia’s new Global Ambassador for women and girls, and lunch at the National Press Club. There is more to come with a breakfast next week.
I enjoy attending these events. They bring together all sorts of women and provide a real opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements while catching up with old friends and acquaintances.
This year, though, I finally got really tired of being the only (evident) woman with disability in the room. Sure it’s been happening for years, but you never get used to it. I don’t feel token – I’m there in my own right as a woman of achievement – but you bet I’m the token crip, oh yeah. Without me there would be no women with disabilities, so I provide a handy way of ensuring that we don’t look forgotten by the various powers that be. Although, truthfully, if we weren’t there I don’t think anyone would actually notice.
So, why did it hit home so hard this year? What finally got up my nose when I should be used to what’s going on?
It was the talk of gender equality. We have a new Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women (yes that mouthful really is her title). I’m not sheeting the blame home to her, absolutely not, but the conversation has shifted a bit with the new government as it always does, whoever that government is. New governments always bring their own rhetoric and language with them, and that helps to look at things with fresh eyes. This is a good thing, but it can also highlight intractable issues.
At the launch of the new Ambassador I was in a room full of impeccably dressed well educated (mostly) white women in impressive footwear. The talk was about gender equality, a key focus for our new Foreign Minister. At the National Press Club diversity of women was slightly more evident, but effectively it was still a room full of privileged well educated white women. The young women were private school girls or similarly constituted NGOs. Once again the term gender equality was thick in the air.
Don’t get me wrong, these are all fine women, they do amazing things, and they are very pleasant to talk to. I congratulate every single one on their commitment to gender equality, their preparedness to call themselves feminist and celebrate International Women’s Day. I genuinely do.
How many of these women are aware that 15% of the world’s women are women with disabilities? In Australia it is closer to 18% of women who have disabilities. Yes, close to 1 in 5 women in Australia have a disability, yet I was the only one in the room. What?!
So, for all the language of gender equality and ensuring that women are in the room and part of the decision making, almost 1 in 5 of our women are not there. We don’t even get factored into the decision making. When all of these women have a picture in their head of what Federal Cabinet, or ASX company boards, should look like, does that picture include any women with disabilities? I bet it doesn’t.
What they probably see, and yes I guess I’m projecting, is a room that is equally split between privileged white well educated men and privileged white well educated women. How is this gender equality? How is it actually progress? What has really changed?
Can these women speak for the 1 in 5 of their Australian sisters who have disabilities? No, and nor should they. Just as they shouldn’t speak for our Aboriginal sisters, or our LGBTI or culturally diverse sisters. The experiences of women of diversity are different and relevant. We bring enormous depth and difference to any conversation on any issue. Most importantly we aren’t just focussed on our own space. Just as women generally will talk about finance, geopolitical events, and architecture (for example), and not just stick to childcare or maternity leave. Women of diversity will talk about finance, geopolitical events and architecture, but we will talk about them with very different eyes and understanding.
Equality means a presence of diversity in every room and at every level. If the women’s movement isn’t fighting for this then something has gone seriously wrong. Broadening one privileged group by adding another will not add diversity to the outcomes of decision makers.
At the National Press Club lunch ABC journalist Virginia Hausegger suggested we should be asking “where are the women”. What I want to know is “where are ALL of the women”. Just as we expect men to do something about the lack of women in Cabinet or in board rooms, women with disabilities expect women of privilege to do something about the lack of diversity in their rooms. I am not responsible for the lack of women with disabilities in your room, you are, do something about it.
I will not turn into a white well educated woman of privilege to gain access to your room, why should I? Rather I will bring me and all of my value to the conversation and you will love the richness that this provides. Some of it might be confronting and tough to hear, you will need to learn to stay quiet and think, but these are good skills that we should all have to learn. Don’t be frightened of them.
Until ALL women are in the room, have a role in decision making, and are present in numbers there can be no gender equality. I expect my privileged white well educated sisters to get this (quickly given your levels of education) and to do something about it. It is up to you to make sure women of diversity are invited to sit with you, are invited to talk, and are invited to join your networks. It is up to you to make space and to listen.