The Orma’am dinner a few weeks ago was a wonderful celebration of the female mentors who have shaped who we are or what we aspire to be. It was also an occasion for reflecting on what it means to grow up female and what work is still to be done in terms of gender equality in the twenty-first century. Around the table sat women from all different generations, ranging from grandmothers to mothers, sisters to close friends. Over the course of the evening, we shared stories about girlhood and university life, and listened to anecdotes about motherhood and the world of work. These exchanges revealed stark generational differences. Next to me sat Stef McMahon’s grandmother, a woman from a different era who never attended university but married young and took up the full-time occupation of raising five children. Nearing the completion of my second year at Melbourne University, this story was a powerful reminder of how different the lives of young women were sixty years ago. Studying the suffragettes this semester only served to confirm just how far we have come in the struggle for gender equality. While female suffrage was contested terrain for the suffragettes, I gave it no second thought as I strolled up to the polling booth to place my vote on September 7th.
In light of my renewed elation at being a young woman in 2013, who could vote in elections and attend uni, it certainly felt a bit jarring when Maryjane, Ormond’s first female chair, launched into a speech at the dinner on her experience of gender inequality in the workforce. To a room full of ambitious young women, her discussion of wage-disparity and the under-representation of women in top ranking positions could well have been a mood-killer. And at first, there was a part of me that felt an urge to tune out from the depressing stats; to shy away from the harsh truths about pursuing a career as a woman. I sat there thinking to myself, ‘I know what she’s saying is right, but do I have to accept these realities just yet?’
Maryjane’s speech exposed very real challenges facing women today, but it was by no means a damning commentary on the hopelessness of our situation. The speech was a call to action; it called on us to dream large, to remain committed to our own professional fulfilment, to defend our career aspirations, and to be prepared to tackle the challenges that arise along the way. In particular, Maryjane emphasised the need for both women and men to engage with these issues and for couples to share the burden of balancing careers with family life so as to ensure that both could realise their potential.
Maryjane was not trying to dismiss the progress we’ve made in the West on gender equality; nor was she suggesting that our problems are comparable to the kind of oppression and violence experienced by many women across the globe. Her speech was, however, alerting us to the important role that feminism still has to play even in progressive countries like Australia. Because contrary to popular opinion, feminism is not obsolete nor is it a man-hating ideology. It is a movement devoted to gender equality, which cannot be guaranteed by formal legislation alone. Education may gives us all the chance to enter the workforce on an equal footing but it does not ensure that men and women enjoy the same career opportunities or outcomes. For this change to happen, we need to be aware of the subtle, insidious forms of gender bias and inequality that persist and, as Maryjane highlighted, see this is an opportunity for men and women to work together. Gender equity relies on the actions of both men and women. So what made for an inspiring Orma’am event might now inspire broader discussions across Ormond’s dining hall tables.