Penny Griffin

Dr Penny Griffin is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations in the School of Social Sciences at UNSW Sydney, and an Australian Human Rights Institute Associate.

Her work explores the global political economy from a gender perspective, and she is currently working on the relationship between gender and economic crisis.

The campaign theme for International Women’s Day 2022 is #BreakTheBias. Can you explain what this means? 

This year’s International Women’s Day theme focuses on how biases, stereotypes and discrimination hinder the achievement of women’s equality. A gender bias can be overt or subtle, big or small, and is signalled by prejudicial treatment based on someone’s (real or perceived) sex or gender. Biases can be found across communities, households and workplaces, in formal and informal institutions, in the media and across commercial and popular culture products.

The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) came into effect in 1981 and defines discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex... in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”. Since 1984, it has been unlawful in Australia to discriminate against a person because of their sex or gender identity.

How do conscious and unconscious biases affect women?

Obvious biases include direct discrimination, the perpetuation of hostile environments, bullying and abuse. This also includes explicit gender stereotypes, such as the claim made in 2005 by former US Secretary of the Treasury and then-President of Harvard University Lawrence Summers that “in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude”. Social attitudes around women being less “technically-minded”, more “domesticated”, less “ambitious” and less “assertive” are easily translatable into excuses for sexist behaviour and practices. Less obvious biases might include discrimination in the provision, for example, of banking and financial services, so that some women receive less favourable terms and conditions than men.

Research has shown that single or divorced women and women of colour are more likely to experience discrimination across banking and financial services, while AI systems can reinforce biased credit allocation while making discrimination in lending even harder to find. Elsewhere, bias is found in the weaker delivery of appropriate medical care to women based on gendered assumptions about pain. Studies from around the world have found medical staff more likely to dismiss pain in women as “psychological” rather than “physical”. Men’s bodies are more likely to be chosen as test subjects in medical research, leading to flawed research and practices in women’s health.  

Subtle differences in treatment and behaviour towards women are often difficult to identify specifically, making implicit biases harder to quantify. Women in leadership positions might find that they work twice as hard to be taken seriously as decisive leaders, while also being careful not to flout too many gendered expectations concerning women’s nurturing and caring natures. The persistent stereotype of the “angry black woman” disciplines women of colour who dare to assert themselves. Assumptions about women’s likelihood to have children can be made in interview processes without women obviously being discriminated against. Outdated dress codes might be applied to women at work, but not to men. High ranking men might be protected in cases of sexual harassment allegations, while senior women accused of wrongdoing are publicly vilified.

Explicit and implicit forms of bias often work together. Last year, Australian women were paid on average $25,800 (AUD) less than men. Men were also twice as likely to be highly paid than women, according to Australia's Gender Equality Score Card, produced by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA). Women account for 77 percent of employees in health care and social assistance in Australia, which has a gender pay gap higher than the mining industry. Disabled women in Australia are more likely to experience sexual violence during their lifetimes, while also having lower workforce participation rates, receiving lower incomes and being more likely to work in informal, vulnerable, part-time and lower paid jobs than men. Refugee and migrant and refugee women are often excluded from full economic participation in Australian society. Concentrated in highly insecure jobs, they receive some of the lowest rates of pay in Australia, facing widespread social and economic disadvantage, systemic inequality, racism and repeated human rights violations.

We continue to see women such as Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins and Chanel Contos loudly call for change. Would you describe this as a moment of reckoning in Australian politics and society more broadly?

It would certainly be a step forward for Australian politics and society if this were a moment of reckoning. These women have been exceptionally brave in shining a light on the misogyny, harassment and abuse embedded in all aspects of life in Australia, not just in Parliamentary cultures.

There remains a lot to lose still for individual women in speaking up about their experiences and seeking to challenge harassment, discrimination and violence. Entrenched power imbalances, a widespread culture of victim-blaming and persistent financial, health and educational inequalities all impact the environment in which biases take hold and are experienced. First Nations women, in particular, struggle to report sexual harassment and assault. At least two in five of all Australian women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, but the numbers for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are higher, at up to 53 percent. Institutional racism and the effects of intergenerational trauma make reporting even harder for First Nations women. While the 2020 “Respect@Work” Inquiry Report on Sexual Harassment made 55 recommendations for action, the Australian government has yet to implement more than half of these.  

#MeToo has often been articulated as a moment of reckoning in holding misogynistic systems and people to account. I think it is important to remember where this work has come from, and the ongoing fight by advocates like Tarana Burke for survivors of sexual violence from marginalised communities. We in Australia haven’t always been great at acknowledging the work of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in challenging not only discrimination and violence but also the multi-layered prejudices of institutions and the media in framing Indigenous women as somehow deserving of the violence they experience. Groups like the National Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Forum make it possible for women in remote or marginalised communities to get the support they need, and are often the only providers of this kind of support. “Gender” itself is often defined in Western feminist terms, while little research has focused on Aboriginal gender and gender equity. Until we have a genuinely diverse and detailed understanding in Australia of gender and women’s experiences here, we will struggle to appreciate exactly what needs to change, and how genuine transformation can be achieved.

Have you observed any recent steps forward in the fight for gender equality in Australia? For example, in consent education?

When I started working in academia, it was difficult to get students to talk about “feminism” in the classroom without a lot of obvious discomfort. The “f” word was a bit taboo. I believe that Julia Gillard’s “misogyny” speech to Parliament, in October 2012, shifted the public discourse on sexism in Australia – or at least initiated enough conversations, in public and private spaces, that women felt more confident in articulating their own experiences, and their dissatisfactions. I do remember that there were a lot of rolled eyes at the time that Julia Gillard gave that speech (helped along by some considerable media backlash), and then, as the former PM herself notes, the speech “took on a life of its own”. Following the speech, the Macquarie Dictionary even added “entrenched prejudice against women” as a definition of misogyny, to appear alongside the more archaic “hatred of women”. I cannot think of anything more symbolic of the continued resonance of sexism in Australia today than the national dictionary adjusting its vocabulary because of a parliamentary speech given by our only woman Prime Minister.

Acknowledging that there is still so much work to be done does not mean, of course, that any achievements made should be forgotten or sidelined. Adding consent education to the curriculum in Australian schools is certainly something to celebrate, and is a significant win for women’s activism in Australia. Given that Chanel Contos only began her campaign for more holistic and earlier consent education in Australia on Instagram in February 2021, this success also shows just how rapidly the political wheels can spin when they want to.

It bears repeating that sexual discrimination only became unlawful in Australia in 1984. So to see now over half of employers in Australia offering paid domestic violence leave, for example, and most employers providing paid parental leave during which parents’ superannuation contributions are also paid – these are really strong indicators of evolving and systemic change. We’ve just witnessed an Australian woman, Hannah Green, win a professional mixed-gender sporting event. When a few years ago we could barely access televised coverage of women’s sporting events, women’s sport now attracts record-breaking audience numbers. Successful women sports professionals now often invest their earnings back into the sports they love in an effort to counteract ongoing issues with lagging investment in and media coverage of women’s sports. White male characters can be rewritten as women of colour in a major science fiction television series and the internet doesn’t completely lose its mind.

What are some of the challenges of achieving real, structural changes, rather than symbolic changes?

Gendered biases, stereotypes and discrimination are deeply embedded in our social, political and economic systems, so they are not easy to overcome. The high-profile Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces found considerable evidence of widespread gender inequality, structural and everyday sexism and the abuse of power within Australian Parliamentary workplaces. The Review reveals a political culture in Australia marked by evidence of poor standards of behaviour, entitlement, exclusion, and a lack of accountability. When we have this kind of culture built into the very foundations of our political system, I find it easy as a feminist and gender advocate to feel overwhelmed by the obstacles.

Meaningful change comes from the elimination of bias, and from systems that have little or no bias to reflect. In this, policy-making is a powerful tool for rewriting biased systems: affirmative action, quotas, sophisticated support systems for women and men, including better workplace flexibility arrangements and extensive paid parental leave provisions for all parents. Good policy really does make a difference. Reconfiguring superannuation systems to compensate women as they move in and out of the labour force to care for their children, families and households would help prevent thousands of Australian women spending their retirement years in poverty. Women took 88 percent of all primary carer’s leave between 2020 and 2021 in Australia. They were also the most likely to report wanting to leave the workforce or step back from their careers during this period. Australian national policy has been slow, however, to recognise the significance of women’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for better assistance for childcare services and the families that access them and the significant homelessness crisis facing older women in Australia.

System-level change happens when a system cannot continue as it is, enough people who think differently to a current norm hold authority and power and there is sustained political, cultural and social will for things to be different. Our institutions, government and the corporate world need to embrace change. Targeted approaches to supporting and advancing women, of all backgrounds and life circumstances, are needed. There seems little point working to enable some women, and not others. Ensuring that women have a seat at the table and that they can participate meaningfully across all levels of society, political culture and the economy is absolutely vital.

At a basic level, actually valuing “women’s” work would be a huge advance. This requires a significant overhaul of the cultural and economic value assigned “feminised” work. It would entail making childcare affordable for everyone, while ensuring that our childcare workers are not our lowest paid professionals. Reorientating the value of types of human labour is a huge task. Even through two years of a pandemic, we haven’t seen much support for “caring” work, while the unpaid, reproductive labour that binds communities, families and households together has barely featured in official political debate. The biggest challenge to women’s equality probably lies in the support, or lack thereof, of our political leaders. If we don’t have people in positions of power willing to even consider the problem, it isn’t clear how change can take place – change that requires looking beyond limited measures of gross domestic product, for example, or protecting and encouraging our vulnerable people and communities rather than seeing them as a drain on national coffers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, women have been disproportionately affected by job losses. Why is this, and what else have the gendered impacts of the pandemic been?

The gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been profound. Women are more likely to work part-time, to occupy informal or casualised jobs or to be working as contributing family workers in family-run businesses. This means they are often worse paid, with reduced job security, more limited opportunities for training and promotion and fewer social protections. The lack of employment protections for temporary workers combined with high numbers of women engaged in casual work, especially in service sector industries hit hard by lockdowns, have exacerbated vulnerabilities for women during the pandemic. The significant amount of unpaid caring labour undertaken by women, double the hours undertaken by men in Australia alone, has left them overwhelmed, over-burdened and economically insecure.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed an absence of sustained, policy-based consideration of the gendered implications of the COVID-19 crisis for women. Such implications include the concentration of vulnerability among women in the population, the gender disparities in earnings, superannuation, the high percentage of women working in less well-paid, often precarious, often caring-based employment sectors and women’s domination of caring and unpaid labour. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed and deepened underlying inequalities in societies around the world, yet national policy-making has struggled to establish a clear, well-followed focus on women, gender equality and social protection. Persistent gender gaps, pervasive gender-based discrimination and bias and increases in the prevalence of domestic and family violence leave women exposed to high levels of personal, social and financial insecurity.

The current global gender gap is measured in the Global Gender Gap Report 2021, which is produced by the World Economic Forum (WEF). During the COVID-19 pandemic this gap has increased by almost 40 years, to 136 years. The WEF estimates that it could take as much as another 268 years to close the gender gap in economic participation and opportunity, and likely longer given that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt. While in Australia during 2020 women experienced faster job losses and higher unemployment than men, the Australian government offered stimulus support initially only to traditionally "masculine" industries, such as construction (rather than to, say, education, healthcare and tourism). The construction industry employs Australia’s lowest percentage of women (at 12.4 percent), but in the same month that stimulus to construction was announced, the government ended the provision of free childcare, despite women’s hours of work falling throughout this period. The exclusion of casual employees from JobKeeper also hit women especially hard, inflicting further damage on workers experiencing already poor job security and low wage growth.

How can Australians get involved in International Women’s Day 2022 and the fight for gender equality?

Big and seemingly intractable issues like women’s equality, or its absence, might seem too much to grapple with. The International Women's Day homepage has some excellent resources and suggestions, including a database of events, a women-owned business supplier directory and a fundraising channel for relevant charities. It is also worth remembering that small changes are as necessary as big ones. We can each commit to reflecting openly and honestly on our own biases, to taking a stand against gendered assumptions and actions, to championing women’s voices and to raising the visibility of marginalised women and their causes. You can even test your implicit biases through the Project Implicit demonstration website.

Simply saying to ourselves, “this is not good enough”, and refusing to buy into gendered tropes and sexist narratives across our private, social media and workplace engagements is one important step. Choosing to follow, support and publicise women and their achievements is another. Applying and maintaining pressure on our policy-makers at all points is also important. Expansive, well thought out and imaginative policy-making takes the onus off individuals, shifting the responsibility for solutions to systems rather than placing burdens (and blame) on individual people.

While of course symbolism does not take us all the way, symbolic gestures of support are important. Efforts to shape the ways in which the issues are represented – across the media, political discourse and in workplaces and schools – do have an impact. Knowing that we each discriminate based on gender enables us to create space to challenge ourselves and others. Dropping the pretence that anyone gets it right all the time is liberating. Reaching a critical mass who believe sexism is unacceptable will take time and a profound cultural shift. In reaching this, we need legislation and rights-based and legal protections, and we need policy-makers, civil servants and community leaders who understand the complexities of bias and its impacts. The increased visibility of questions of sexual consent and assault, and the light shone on unacceptable political and working cultures, has been important, but we cannot afford to slip back into old habits or assume that other people will do the work that is needed - this takes campaigning, resources and political action.