Opinion pieces

By Frances Crimmins, published in Women’s Agenda on 15 June 2020

Last week I visited one of YWCA Canberra’s six early learning centres. On the day of my visit, this centre had 10 children in attendance, less than 10 per cent of its capacity. It was against the backdrop of this visit, that the government announced its plans to remove the Early Childhood Education and Care sector from the JobKeeper wage supplement, saying the life-line thrown to the sector in April had “succeeded in keeping services viable”.

As a provider of early learning and school aged care in Canberra, our staff have experienced the impact of COVID-19 first-hand. They worked throughout the shut-down period, allowing parents to keep working, despite the risks to themselves, They watched their centres emptied as parents withdrew children from their care, and then welcomed them back when the service became free. The uncertainty across the sector was palpable.

The sector relief package that mixed JobKeeper and 50 per cent of regular government Child Care Subsidy, though flawed, allowed us to continue to provide a vital and essential service to the community. Collectively, we worked hard to keep our people employed, particularly those whose visa class disqualified them from accessing JobKeeper. The Prime Minster’s ‘guarantee’ that all workers could depend on the supplement until September provided the sector with a much-needed, though short-lived, assurance.

The relief package mandated free access to services which resulted in a foreseeable increase in attendance. It was the subsequent increase in enrolments during this fee-free period, however, which the Government claims has reached 74 per cent capacity, that prompted the end of JobKeeper for the sector.

The fact a free service often prompts greater demand may have been lost on the Government but it has not been lost on us or the parents who, faced with a return of fees in the face of a loss of household income or jobs, have once again commenced withdrawing their children from our services. The assumption that parents would continue paying for a service many already considered unaffordable, while the national economy contracts is both illogical and reckless. As a provider, we knew that fee-free services would come to an end. What we don’t understand is why the Government would pre-emptively cut the sector from JobKeeper before the economy has been given the chance to “snap back”.

According to the Government, there are no plans to remove other workers from JobKeeper before the forecasted review of the scheme is completed in July. In removing only early childhood educators from the stimulus, the Government has singled them out as having negligible political or economic influence. This approach fails to register the unique position early learning occupies in the economy and carries substantial consequences for the sector, working women and the broader economy.

Women’s entry, retention and return to the labour force has been the demographic game changer for the Australian economy over the past forty years and is estimated to have added 22 per cent to national GDP since 1974. Despite the disincentives in the Child Care Subsidy matrix that hamper women’s return to full-time work, the availability of early childhood education and care has been pivotal to economic growth.

The impact of COVID-19 on women’s economic participation is now evident. Labour force data shows that more women than men dropped out of employment between March and April with female-dominated industries like Accommodation and Food Services particularly affected. The gender divide does not end there and research by The Australia Institute shows the Government’s stimulus measures have disproportionately benefited men as a workforce.

Early educators have been on the frontline during this challenging period; their labour has meant the national economy has been able to grind through this period of uncertainty. The value of early education has never been more apparent.

If our economy is to “snap back” it will require thriving children’s services capable of meeting the demand of all parents who require it. More significantly it will require a recalibration of how policy makers value early educators and early learning; not as ‘babysitters’ but as professionals and an investment in the future workforce.

By Frances Crimmins, published in the Canberra Times on 30 October

It includes some startling statistics that show gender-based discrimination and abuse are still a significant part of the lived experiences of an unacceptable number of women.

Our survey found women are acutely aware of their safety and surroundings at night, with 55 per cent of women feeling “somewhat unsafe” or “very unsafe” when accessing public spaces after dark.

Abuse sadly remains a part of too many women’s lives in Canberra, with 16 per cent of women having experienced physical, emotional, verbal or financial abuse in a domestic or interpersonal relationship in the last year alone.

This was again significantly higher for women aged 18 to 24, where the number who had been abused in a domestic or interpersonal relationship in the last 12 months rose to 24 per cent.

It saddens me that these statistics remains so high despite decades of feminist advocacy, publicity campaigns and public discussion on domestic and family violence.

More than half of all respondents said they had experienced instances of sexism in the last 12 months. One respondent said sexism “impacted my daily behaviours and how I went to and from work, where I walked my dog, and if I should stand up for others”.

Of those who had experienced sexism, 41 per cent said it occurred in the workplace. According to one respondent: “men seem to be the first considered for acting positions at higher levels and often get approached … women, on the other hand, seem to need to prove themselves worthy and constantly put themselves forward”.

Interestingly, the survey found an inversely proportional relationship between age and experiences of sexism and, yet again, it was young women who were suffering.

The only age group of respondents that didn’t have a majority state they had experienced sexism in the last 12 months was women over the age of 55, while 80 per cent of 18 to 24 year old women reported experiencing sexism in the last year.

With younger women participating more fully in the labour market as well as the night-time economy and social scene, their heightened responses are possibly a reflection on how they move about the city.

The divergence could also be a result of older and younger women perceiving the same behaviours differently, as younger women are more empowered to call for and expect equal rights and treatment.

These results are not good enough. They show that our governments are still failing women, particularly young women, in providing a safe place to live.

YWCA Canberra continues to call for age-appropriate respectful relationship education for all staff and students from K-12 and the university setting, as an effective and systemic measure to prevent violence against women.

This is needed to tackle not only physical violence but raise awareness of other forms of interpersonal violence, such as technology-based harassment, abuse or control, which are less well understood.

We also continue to call on the ACT government to develop a new and funded ACT Prevention of Violence against Women and Children Strategy, in line with national commitments.

The work of the Family Safety Hub, while significant and important, does not negate the need for an up-to-date strategy, and we call for a local plan to be developed as an urgent priority.

We need to work towards a day where women are truly equal, where girls and women can thrive alongside their male counterparts.

YWCA Canberra will continue to provide a platform for diverse women’s voices to be heard, and to advocate for change. But we can’t do it alone.

By Frances Crimmins, published in the Canberra Times on 6 August

For one week every year, in the middle of the Australian winter, the issue of homelessness and housing stress features heavily in public conversation.

National Homelessness Week runs from 6-13 August and this year’s theme is ‘Ending Homelessness Together’. It is typically a week of campaigning by community stakeholders and legislators to bring attention to the plight of more than 116,000 people who are homeless in Australia and to maintain the momentum for change.

Canberrans are fortunate to live in an inclusive and tolerant city, with an educated workforce and high average incomes. Ours is a city that we can be proud of in many ways. But this standard of living masks very real inequalities that exist below the surface of our city.

To coincide with National Homelessness Week, YWCA Canberra is launching a mini-documentary titled Hidden Women that explores one such inequality; the experiences of single, older women who are homeless or in insecure housing.

These women are hidden, and their plight often goes unnoticed, even during National Homelessness Week, because they do not neatly fit into assumptions about homelessness.

After decades of wage and superannuation inequality, compounded by a disproportionate amount of time in unpaid caring roles, older women can often find it hard to manage when relationships go awry, when domestic violence forces them from their homes or when their spouses pass on.

Out of shame and fear their situation becomes hidden; shame that after a life of conventional housing tenure and caring for others they now find themselves dependent on others for shelter and fear for their safety when they are forced onto the street or into emergency shelters.

The confluence of these life events often mean single, older women are forced to “couch surf” or find shelter in their cars, away from public view.

Making an already terrible situation insurmountably worse, is the fact that common eligibility criteria for traditional public and social housing models often inadvertently exclude single, older women.

YWCA Canberra has a proud history of providing housing support through our supportive tenancy services. Our houses for older women, including those who feature in Hidden Women, provide an innovative solution to women who fall through the cracks in traditional housing models while providing them with an immediate support network.

The women who bravely feature in Hidden Women will be familiar to many of us; they could so easily be our grandmothers, mothers and neighbours. What I believe Canberrans will find most striking is how everyday their stories are.

Hidden Women is a timely reminder of how structural and institutional sexism can have consequences, most particularly toward the end of our lives. And it is also a reminder that deficits in housing policy and service design as well as generational inequalities around income and superannuation are all part of the complex web that can lead to homelessness amongst older women.

Ending homelessness together, as we are urged to do during this National Homelessness Week, requires consideration of all these factors as well as input from across the community and government.

Addressing older women’s homelessness and housing insecurity is a key priority outlined in YWCA Canberra’s Leading the Change report.

YWCA Canberra continues to call for a national action plan to address older women’s homelessness and housing stress as well as the underlying causes of their economic inequality.

Because until we identify and correct the fundamental causes of structural inequality, from childhood to retirement, we will continue to consign Canberra women to a life of financial and service based discrimination that catches up with them when they are most vulnerable.#NWH2018 #NWH2018 #NWH2018

This opinion piece was published in the Canberra Times on 7/8/18

By Frances Crimmins, published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 15 August

The release of the Human Rights Commission’s damning Change the Course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities, 2017 confirms that sexual assault and sexual harassment are occurring at unacceptable rates at Australian universities.

The Australian Human Rights Centre at UNSW subsequently launched a complementary report On Safe Ground: A Good Practice Guide for Australian Universities, with 18 recommendations relating to sexual harassment and assaults on campus.

The report also highlights the fact that addressing this issue is most successful against a backdrop of concerted, nation-wide government action.

In many cases, the starting point for such strategies is primary prevention, where young people are educated about respectful relationships, gender equality, and consent.

While the ACT government has not commented on the UNSW report, Chief Minister Andrew Barr has added the discussion of the report’s implications to the agenda of an upcoming vice-chancellor’s forum.

While our universities spur into action, the ACT government cannot abrogate its responsibility for ensuring that women have equal access to health, education, economic participation, and decision-making power.

For all its progressive intentions, the ACT government is limping behind other jurisdictions when it comes to creating a gender equal community.

The Victorian government has committed to establishing a “Gender Equality Act” as part of its Gender Equality Strategy. The legislation includes gender equality education from early childhood to tertiary settings, quotas and targets, parental support for work and life and anti-discrimination, violence and sexual harassment strategies.

These are the kinds of measures that we know are needed to make a real and lasting impact on issues like sexual assault and sexual harassment.

As the leader of a feminist, not-for-profit organisation that has served this community for more than 80 years, I cannot emphasise strongly enough the fact that gender equality will not just happen organically, or even with the best efforts of those running our educational institutions. It needs to be driven by strong leadership, legislative and regulatory reform, and appropriate resourcing.

Experience from Australia and overseas demonstrates that institutional location is critical to advancing gender equity, and that the agency or office supporting gender equity needs to be located in the chief coordinating department of government.

Recognition of this is expressed in the United Nations Beijing Platform for Action, which recommends that responsibility for driving gender equity should be located at the highest level of government.

Maximising the effectiveness of gender-equality agencies or institutions requires clearly defined mandates, authority, and mechanisms for key functions; adequate budget, resources and staff to implement the mandate; strong political commitment; and location at highest possible level of government.

Unfortunately at the ACT level, we are sorely lacking across the majority of those critical areas. YWCA Canberra has advocated strongly for our Office for Women to be relocated in the Policy and Cabinet Division of the Chief Minister Treasury and Economic Development Directorate, yet our calls have fallen on deaf ears.

This central location would seem to be a natural fit, given women represent half of the population in the ACT. The work of our Office for Women is also strongly aligned with that of the newly established Office for LGBTIQ Affairs, also located within the Chief Minister’s directorate.

We’ve long known that government policy and budgets have a powerful impact on social and economic inequalities in the ACT. Expenditure and revenue measures have different implications for, and impacts upon, women and men.

Gender policy analysis and gender budget analysis can reveal these differing impacts, which helps to improve the effectiveness, efficiency, accountability and transparency of government policy, as well as making significant contributions towards gender equality and the realisation of women’s rights.

Applying a gender analysis to ACT government policy must be routine, rather than an optional component of a broader analysis framework. Undertaking gender analysis must also be adequately resourced and carried out by people with appropriate skill sets.

The government, through its parliamentary agreement with the Greens, has promised to run programs in the city’s schools to help children and young people “to engage in respectful relationships, including to prevent violence and sexual assault”. While there was $615,000 funding – or $2500 for each school – allocated in 2015-16, the latest budget did little to shed light on how these commitments will actually be honoured.

Let’s hope that the renewed focus on the unacceptable state of sexual assault and sexual harassment on our university campuses shines a light on just how much more our government could be doing to prevent these cultural norms from being perpetuated. 

By Frances Crimmins, published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 16 March 2017

This Wednesday is International Women’s Day, which can be a day of mixed emotions for many people who believe in progressing gender equality. On the one hand, we want to celebrate the many achievements we’ve made; but on the other, the extent of gender inequality that still pervades our homes, workplaces, and communities is unacceptable.

Just last week we heard about the recent submission made to the Human Rights Commission on sexual assault on university campusesacross Australia, and the lack of action taken to appropriately hold perpetrators to account. The horrific incidents reported in this newspaper show we have a long way to go to see meaningful cultural change when it comes to gender equality.
This year, the International Women’s Day campaign urges us to “be bold for change”, and work together to drive better outcomes for women – a timely theme for us to consider here in the ACT.

Back in October last year, we saw a female majority elected to the Legislative Assembly, with women making up 13 of 25 members: 52 per cent. That’s the first time women have had an equal voice in government in the territory. While this milestone is a reason to celebrate, it’s important we don’t lose sight of the work that must still be done.

At the ripe old age of 87, YWCA Canberra is one of the longest-standing women’s organisations in the ACT. We’ve worked with women, men, boys and girls to advance gender equality and social inclusion through our community services, children’s services, training and education programs, and advocacy.

However, despite the best efforts of many individuals and organisations, current research paints an alarming picture of just how far we still need to go to improve outcomes for women and girls:

ACT women who work full-time hours still earn, on average, more than $300 less than men each week ($1,209 versus $1,536).
Women account for 65 per cent of the ACT Public Service, but only 42 per cent of senior executive positions.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s 2016 scorecard reported the gender pay gap in Australia to be 23.1 per cent, with men earning, on average, $26,853 a year more than women.

The social and economic case for gender equality is clear: women make up a half of the population and deserve equal access to health, education, economic participation, and decision-making power. Ensuring that we adequately use half of our “talent pool” improves economic growth, competitiveness and future-readiness.

Not taking action is costly, with research suggesting that failing to address gender inequality costs Australia $195 billion, or 13 per cent of gross domestic product.

So where to from here? At YWCA Canberra, we know that a gender equal society must be driven by strong leadership, legislative and regulatory reform, and appropriate resourcing.

As a former chairwoman of the Ministerial Advisory Council of Women, I oversaw the development of the ACT’s new women’s plan. The document articulates priority areas for action across health and well-being, housing, safety, economic security, leadership and domestic violence.

It’s now up to ACT government directorates to implement the plan by identifying meaningful and effective actions to deliver on these priorities.

However, as history has shown us, women’s rights can quickly be swept to the margins through the mainstreaming of issues and policies. Without a central agency with the oversight and resources to drive accountability, there is a real danger that the women’s plan will never see its intended changes.

That’s why we’re calling for the Office for Women to be moved from the Community Services Directorate to the Chief Minister’s Directorate. This will allow it to play a coordinating role in supporting all directorates to meaningfully progress gender equality.

We also urge decision-makers to show their commitment to gender equality by prioritising practical and evidence-based changes. If we take these first, critical steps, the ACT has the potential to be the leading jurisdiction in the country for gender equality, a change we would all be proud of. 

By Karen Hardy, published in The Canberra Times on 18 August 2016

One of Canberra’s leading advocacy groups for young women has called on the ACT Government to continue its support of school-based prevention programs to prevent violence against women in light of the most recent pornography ring scandal.

While YWCA Canberra welcomed the government’s 2015 election announcement of $615,000 to support learning programs in the ACT, Executive Director Frances Crimmins said the one-off funding was spread thinly over two years and across a range of prevention, early intervention and tertiary activities.

“Unfortunately, this is consistent with the fact that many programs in Australia have been one-off, ad hoc and lacking the gendered perspective and quality curriculum needed.” Ms Crimmins said.

“The fact is that early intervention and tertiary responses must have an ongoing and secure funding base.”

She said a recent study of ACT schools concluded that those who were teaching sexuality education tended to focus narrowly on anatomical and biological aspects, neglecting key issues such as relationships, gender, consent and communication, decision-making, and intimacy and desire.

“Sexuality education and social and emotional learning programs in the ACT also often neglect sexual and gender diversity, overlooking the needs of same-sex attracted and gender diverse youth, as well as issues such as homophobic and transphobic bullying.”

Ms Crimmins said she was disturbed by the latest story, particularly as it followed on from similar cases in Melbourne.

“It shows that misogynistic attitudes are still commonplace in Australia, as evidenced not only by this recent story, but by rape culture, everyday sexism, and entrenched biased attitudes,” she said.

“The users of this website are committing acts of violence against young women, and the root cause of this behavior is gender inequality.”

She said perhaps there was a need for such programs to be delivered in primary schools.

“The University of New South Wales and White Ribbon’s 2015 report into young people’s attitudes to domestic violence strongly supported the need for respectful relationships education for young people prior to reaching their teenage years,” she said.

She also drew attention to a recently released report from Our Watch into youth perceptions of respectful relationships. The report found that 1 in 3 young people don’t think that exerting control over someone else is a form of violence; 1 in 4 young people don’t think it’s serious if a guy, who’s normally gentle, sometimes slaps his girlfriend when he’s drunk and they’re arguing; and 1 in 4 young people think it’s pretty normal for guys to pressure girls into sex.

“These trends are deeply concerning, and strongly indicate that primary prevention programs that teach respectful relationships need to be targeted to young people prior to these attitudes becoming entrenched.”

By Frances Crimmins, YWCA Canberra Executive Director

This year, we’ve heard a lot of public commentary on the shocking prevalence of violence against women in our community. We’ve seen significant action from our governments, heightened awareness in the media, and a broader acknowledgement that this is an issue that affects us all.

We’ve seen funding announcements at the federal and state and territory levels, and our Australian of the Year is a woman known for her bravery, integrity and resilience in the face of truly destructive domestic violence. Research has been released, and a Senate inquiry was conducted.

But it’s still not enough.

As reported by the Destroy the Joint Counting Dead Women researchers, 77 women have died as a result of violence this year. That’s more than one a week. And even if the number was smaller, even if it was halved, it would still be utterly unacceptable because no woman should ever have to die from violence at the hands of her former or current partner. It just shouldn’t happen.

This week ACT Policing have been sharing how many call-outs for family violence incidents they have responded to each day, and the numbers are astounding. Twenty-three over last weekend alone – that’s 23 women in danger, 23 families experiencing trauma.

The organisation I lead, YWCA Canberra, is committed to a world free from violence. Ultimately, until we address the root cause of violence – gender inequality – I believe we won’t see change.

This year we will be participating in the annual global campaign, 16 Days of Action to End Violence Against Women.

Some of the facts we’ll be highlighting during this campaign are:

  • 59 per cent of women who experienced partner violence and had children said that their children had witnessed the violence
  • Women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who are victims of violence face not only cultural barriers, but a lack of access to interpreters when seeking to report their experience
  • 87 per cent of Australian women have experienced at least one form of verbal or physical street harassment
  • One in four young people don’t think it’s serious if a guy, who’s normally gentle, sometimes slaps his girlfriend when he’s drunk and they’re arguing.

On November 10, Our Watch released the world’s first framework for primary prevention of violence against women, and the key call to action is to “promote and normalise gender equality in public and private life”. Gender inequality is the root cause of violence against women, and acknowledging this is the first step to truly eliminating it.

Gender equality needs to be instilled from an early age through our schools, and also through numerous other avenues, including the media, arts and culture, workplaces – in every part of society. We need long-term, adequately resourced primary prevention, backed up by appropriately funded crisis and support services and effective law enforcement.

I believe it is possible to see a future free from violence against women in Australia within the next generation. But key to achieving this and ending gender inequality is ensuring that women’s voices are heard, that women’s lived experiences are acknowledged, and that ultimately, women are given space to champion the issues that affect them most.

This 16 Days of Action, I call on all Canberrans to actively listen to women. Seek out women who can share their experiences, read what you can online, ask the women you know about their views on gender equality and on preventing violence against women.

I know that ending gender inequality will eliminate violence against women, but it needs a whole-of-community approach and support from both men and women. The necessary first step is opening the door for women to advocate, educate and be heard.

For more information on all the activities for our 16 Days of Action, including a planned Day of Action on the lawns of Parliament House, visit ywca-canberra.org.au.

Frances Crimmins is the Executive Director of YWCA Canberra.

This opinion piece was published by The Canberra Times on 21 November 2015.

By Frances Crimmins, Executive Director of YWCA Canberra

NAIDOC Week is a time that I, as Executive Director of YWCA Canberra, reflect on our organisation’s reconciliation journey.

Our vision for reconciliation is that through progressing reconciliation and healing, we will improve the wellbeing of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the wider Australian community. Acknowledging the continuing custodianship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of land and culture, we embrace a grass roots approach involving the whole of the YWCA Canberra community – clients of our programs, external Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander partners, staff, members and Board in our reconciliation journey.

YWCA Canberra has been committed to reconciliation throughout its long history. For many years now we have worked to develop relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and organisations, build respect and identify and pursue opportunities for reconciliation.

YWCA Canberra’s first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), launched in 2009, provided us with a tool for identifying and articulating actions that the organisation could undertake to contribute to reconciliation. Our second RAP, launched in 2011, consolidated our achievements and learnings and helped embed reconciliation within the organisation.

We had many achievements and learnt a great deal during our 2011-2013 RAP. One notable achievement was that staff from across the organisation had access to opportunities to engage with reconciliation, whether it was through increasing their knowledge and building their understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and contemporary issues, or by participating and contributing firsthand in events and activities that foster reconciliation.

During NAIDOC Week in 2014 we launched our Stretch Reconciliation Action Plan, which continues until 2016, setting real tasks and targets for us to achieve across our organisation. We are pleased with the progress we have made on this reconciliation journey, but acknowledge there is still further to go.

A central part of this is our commitment to creating ‘safe spaces’.

YWCA Safe Spaces is a model for creating lasting change in the lives of women and girls. This model helps develop the leadership and collective power of women and girls around the world, by striving to maintain unique women-led spaces that foster strength through leadership.

Through our Mura Lanyon Youth and Community Centre in Tuggeranong, we have created a safe space for a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups who access the centre for meetings and activities, including the ‘Nannies’, a group of Ngunnawal women Elders.

Since 2011 we have facilitated a leadership conference for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Themes explored in the workshop, designed in consultation with Indigenous women, includes values-based leadership, finding mentors and identifying role models, complexity of women’s roles, and understanding advocacy and influencing change. The two-day workshop also provides participants with an opportunity to hear from women leaders and advocates from the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, providing examples of positive Indigenous role models.

I am acutely aware that in raising my voice to celebrate NAIDOC Week, I am speaking from the position of a white, feminist woman. I am aware that when I speak it is from my values and my framework. It is with this awareness, that I acknowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in our community have different frameworks.

Through many of our programs and experiences, we have been enriched by becoming more informed about styles of Aboriginal women’s leadership, which are intergenerational and emphasise the whole rather than the individual.

YWCA Canberra’s vision is ‘Women shaping our communities’. For me, it’s vital that this includes all women; this drives my passion to continue on this rewarding reconciliation journey.

By Frances Crimmins, YWCA Canberra Executive Director

A survey of political, media and social media commentary this week proves one thing: Australia’s attitudes to working women are stuck and need a good shove to get them moving again.

Yes, society says, it’s fine for women to work. But there has been a systemic failure to remove the barriers to women in work.

Working women are expected to bend their work and career aspirations around societies’ expectations, rather than society – and government – providing the means for women to engage meaningfully in work on an equal footing.

Look at the government rhetoric around changes to Paid Parental Leave this week that played into those negative attitudes to women combining parenthood with work, using words like “rorting” and “double-dipping”.

It has taken many years to move businesses to recognise and value the contribution of women. An employer that offers paid parental leave should have government policy that supports and encourages that, not detracts from it.

A negative dialogue around women accessing child care was also loud and clear, in the news and social media this week.

Women being in work is desirable and legitimate. It increases the tax base, boosts productivity and provides economic security.

Increasing female workplace participation by just four percentage points would increase Australia’s GDP by $25 billion every year.

Having children is also desirable and legitimate in Australia.

These sound objectives should be backed by government policies that recognise the contribution women make to our economy.

So why are we so quick to scapegoat working women in Australia? And what can we do to change it?

At YWCA Canberra, we believe parenting responsibilities are not defined by gender. We are working towards a future where responsibilities for parenting are shared equally as the norm, not the exception.

The Equilibrium Challenge, launched recently and endorsed by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, will follow men in different industries as they ask their employers for flexible work arrangements to support their parenting responsibilities.

The resulting micro-documentary will be fascinating, and highlight the discrepancies in how men and women are treated by employers.

There is a tolerance for women accessing part-time or flexible work arrangements to support parenting responsibilities. But there is a price paid for this ‘tolerance’. The price is lower pay, fewer opportunities for training and advancement, lower numbers of women in positions of power and influence, and a general perception that women are less desirable as employees due to caring responsibilities.

Women statistically earn less than men, with the current gender pay gap sitting at 18.8 per cent, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The female workforce participation rate is 68 per cent and has barely moved in the past decade.

Re-couching paid parental leave, child care and flexible work arrangements as issues for society as a whole, not just women, would begin to change those attitudes and inequalities.

We also need to introduce quotas for leadership positions. The need is clear and unequivocal: if we wait for organic change, progress will be excruciatingly slow. A recent ASX200 survey found there are more men named Peter running top 200 companies in Australia than there are women.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr ought to follow the lead of his Victorian counterpart, Daniel Andrews, in legislating that 50 per cent of all government board appointments must be women. The Victorian quota applies to all paid government board positions and all Victorian courts.

In making this change, Mr Andrews said, “I’m sick of walking into meetings and seeing a room full of blokes sitting around the table.

“Many of the boardrooms of our public bodies are lacking a balance of skills, a balance of views, a balance of experiences and a balance of knowledge.

“Because they’re lacking perhaps the most important balance of all – they’re lacking women.”

Next Tuesday, YWCA Canberra will be hosting the She Leads 2015 Conference, where women will have the opportunity to network, be inspired by an incredible array of speakers and panelists, and develop their leadership potential.

But we need society to back these aspiring women leaders.

Equal participation of women in the work force, and particularly in decision-making leadership roles across all sectors, is vital for Australia, as a progressive, innovative society, to move forward.

This opinion piece was published by Fairfax Media on 14 May 2015, and in the print edition of the Sunday Canberra Times on 17 May 2015.

By Frances Crimmins, YWCA Canberra Executive Director

After three weeks of consistent lobbying, it’s gratifying to see primary prevention of violence against women receiving the attention it deserves from the Federal Government inquiry into domestic violence.

In the interim report released last week, the Senate Committee responsible for the inquiry called for respectful relationships education to be implemented in all schools through the national curriculum, as a primary prevention measure to end violence against women in the long term.

This recommendation coincides with the release of a report from the University of NSW this week, that surveyed perceptions of domestic and dating violence among young people aged 16-25. The report was prepared for White Ribbon Australia and Youth Action NSW and contains some worrying trends.

For a start, 75.7 per cent of the survey respondents felt that domestic violence was common or very common in Australia. And 72.4 per cent felt that disrespectful attitudes towards women was a key cause of domestic violence.

Compounding this was the fact that male respondents were more likely to agree with gender stereotypes than females and younger respondents were more likely to agree with attitudes that support domestic violence than older respondents.

For example, 18.8 per cent of male respondents agreed with the statement, “men are supposed to be the head of the household and take control of the relationship”, compared with 3.8 per cent of females.

These findings highlight the need for respectful relationships programs that work with young people to address gender equality, respect, diversity and specifically work to dispel gender stereotypes – all things that are included in YWCA Canberra’s award-winning, evidence-based primary prevention program, Respect, Communicate, Choose.

Critically, Respect, Communicate, Choose works with young people aged 9-12, before these attitudes become entrenched. If delivered consistently, the program could help enact a cultural change to end domestic violence in the long term.

The recommendation to implement primary prevention programs through the national curriculum is an important step in the right direction – but I welcome it cautiously, acknowledging the potential for this issue to become trapped in funding responsibility limbo between state and territories and the Federal Government.

Already, since the adoption of the National Plan for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Their Children (the National Plan), we have seen responsibility for domestic and sexual violence prevention funding shuttled from the Federal Government to states and territories. In the ACT, this has resulted in a complete absence of primary violence prevention programs in primary schools.

Respect, Communicate, Choose was funded through the Department of Social Services from 2012-13, which saw us deliver it to more than 900 students across the ACT and South Australia. Following the end of that funding period, the ACT Government has discontinued its support for the program.

It is disappointing that it takes something as horrific as the deaths of two women in the space of three weeks as a result of domestic violence to see any action on this issue and we’re still waiting to see if primary prevention will rate a mention in the ACT Government’s response to this crisis, as well as in the next budget.

Last Sunday, YWCA Canberra members and staff joined the estimated 5000 people who attended the Walk in Honour of Tara Costigan. We spoke to hundreds of members of the public about our Respect NOW campaign, which is calling on the ACT Government to fund Respect, Communicate, Choose for delivery in all ACT public primary schools and we were overwhelmed by the response.

Our petition on Change.org has received more than 600 signatures and the comments from signatories are telling – one woman writes, “I’m a survivor of domestic violence; and I believe in the importance of universal education promoting equal, safe and respectful relationships.”

Another says, “I was a victim of domestic violence. As a survivor, I think this education is imperative.”

People are passionate about preventing domestic and sexual violence, and agree that respectful relationships programs for young people need to be an absolute priority in our community. The UNSW report just released certainly demonstrates that the need for education on respect and gender equality is still very high.

Inclusion of respectful relationships programs in the national curriculum would be an incredibly positive step for Australia and would demonstrate a visionary approach from our governments to ending violence in the long term.

If this were to occur, we would advise the Federal Government to work with local organisations in the roll-out of such programs, to ensure that they use existing expertise and knowledge in this area, and ensure that programs are tailored to local community needs.

We are glad to see that prevention of violence against women and children is becoming a priority for our governments, and to see the rallying of the community in addressing this issue.

What we need now is a consistent and clearly articulated approach from both the Territory and Federal Governments that translates directly into funding for primary prevention programs.

Published in The Canberra Times, March 25 2015.

By Frances Crimmins, YWCA Canberra Executive Director

When Julia Gillard was asked about feminism at YWCA Canberra’s event on Monday night at the National Portrait Gallery, she said simply, ‘Do the maths’.

‘When you look at any instance – in government, in the judiciary, in business – and you don’t see half-half, then you think “There are women of merit who aren’t there”. We need to have them there, it’s important.

‘That’s feminism.’

She went on to say that when a system of merit exists but women are not accessing it, you have to look at the barriers and remove them.

So let’s do some maths. Women make up more than 50 per cent of the Australian work force but the percentage of women on boards in ASX 200 companies is just 18.6 per cent (August 2014).

This is why initiatives like the recently announced Employer of Choice for Gender Equality (EOCGE) citations are important. Judged by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), one of the key criteria in 2014 was to demonstrate a formal board appointment policy that actively promotes gender equality.

WGEA Director Helen Conway said it was about removing the barriers to women achieving these positions of merit.

‘We know sustained and multi-faceted interventions are required to address the structural and cultural barriers that prevent women and men from equally participating at all levels of an organisation,’ Ms Conway said.

So how did companies measure up to this standard?

Again, let’s look at the figures. In 2012, 125 companies met all the requirements. This year, the requirements were more stringent and only 76 companies across the country were able to meet them.

Only 76 are demonstrating they are actively working to remove the barriers that prevent women from accessing board positions.

As one of those who did receive this award, YWCA Canberra knows that the standard required is demanding but not impossible.

We believe these policies should simply be inbuilt and embedded throughout organisations.

To not do that is to reinforce the barriers that keep women out.

We know that developing women’s leadership is fundamental to advancing gender equality. We also know that leadership should be transformational and intergenerational.

We support and develop women’s leadership both within our workplace and in the broader community through initiatives such as our Board Traineeship Program. This program provides our members under the age of 30 with the opportunity to actively participate on our board, without the financial or legal responsibilities of being directors.

The program is strengthened by our commitment to quotas, with 30 per cent of our board positions being filled by young women under 30 years of age.

This ensures that we maintain a culture of diversity on our board and foster an intergenerational dialogue, which guides the work we do.

In short, we know that diversity on our board makes us a better, stronger organisation.

And by helping to show the way, we aim to inspire other organisations to do the maths and then remove the barriers. It’s that simple.

YWCA Canberra hosted former PM Julia Gillard on her national book tour at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra on Monday 10 November.

By Paul Trezise, CEO of St Vincent de Paul Society Canberra-Goulburn, and Frances Crimmins, Executive Director of YWCA Canberra, co-chairs of Anti-Poverty Week ACT.

The word ‘poverty’ is rarely used in Canberra. We tend towards synonyms like ‘financial stress’ or ‘economic hardship’ that can somehow soften the reality.

But Anti-Poverty Week (October 12-18) provides an opportunity to strip all that away and focus on the stark realities. Advocates are given permission to speak plainly about poverty, for this one week at least.

So let’s be clear: despite our relative affluence, poverty exists here in Canberra, in all its inglorious variations.

As co-chairs of Anti-Poverty Week, we see the impacts first-hand through our organisations – when serving soup to those who don’t often get a regular feed, providing a place to sleep for those who’ve run out of options, giving someone a bus ticket who might otherwise not get to the doctor, and paying a family’s electricity bill in the middle of a freezing Canberra winter.

The relative affluence of Canberra makes the contrast with those living in poverty even greater. Some of our poorest live cheek by jowl with our most well off. Yet, those suffering can be invisible.

Unemployment, housing stress, and gender issues are particular indicators of poverty in the ACT. For example, the unemployment rate for those aged 15 to 24 is 11.3 per cent, and census data in 2011 showed Canberra had the second highest rate of homelessness nationally. Meanwhile, women – particularly older women – are over-represented in the housing vulnerability stakes.

A report by St Vincent de Paul (Housing Stress in Canberra Goulburn, 2012) showed an increasing number of Canberrans are just one or two missed pay days away from homelessness.
This is a new kind of poverty, in the sense that people are being pushed into poverty purely by economic circumstances. This has, until recently, been unusual and short term in Canberra.

In the ACT, a single parent could expect to pay 74 per cent of their weekly income on rent for a two bedroom unit, while an age pensioner would pay 68.8 per cent of their pension on a one bedroom unit. Those with part-time or casual work are similarly hard hit by high rent costs. This creates a domino-effect, leading to a lack of funds to pay for school supplies, medical expenses and basics like food and petrol – and vulnerability in the face of unexpected circumstances such as a higher-than-usual power bill.

As a result, people who would otherwise be able to manage on a low income without asking for assistance are turning to organisations like those involved in Anti-Poverty Week for assistance.
For YWCA Canberra, the issues facing older women and housing vulnerability are particularly searing.

ACT Shelter recently released a report into housing issues for older women (Home Truths: Older women’s housing vulnerability in the ACT), which points out women in this group have “travelled many different pathways to housing vulnerability”. Having led relatively conventional lives, life shocks, such as relationship breakdown, death of a partner, illness or job loss, has pushed them into tenuous living situations.

In a recent article in this newspaper, Matt Wade raised the issue of the gender wealth gap, pointing out that single women have 14.5 per cent less wealth, on average, than single men. In the 15-34 age range, the average wealth of single women was just 57 per cent of the average wealth of single men. The numbers only get worse for women as they age, with women’s superannuation taking a hit when they typically break or stop full-time work in their 30s or 40s, to care for young children.

As Wade pointed out, “… as the population ages, and life spans edge higher, disparity of wealth among older people is likely to become a major political challenge”.

These are the day-to-day realities of life for too many in Canberra, and many more teeter on the brink of poverty with job uncertainty hitting our city hard and youth unemployment on the rise.

We are asking Canberrans for one week to shine a spotlight on poverty in the Territory in order that increased awareness can lead to more action. We ask that each one of us rise to the challenge and respond to Anti-Poverty Week’s call to action, #DoSomething.

Events across Canberra during Anti-Poverty Week include a headline event at UC, ‘Pathways out of Poverty’, ‘Eat, Pay, Love’ dinners at three Canberra restaurants, the inaugural Social Determinants of Health Alliance oration by Julian Disney (National Chair of Anti-Poverty Week), a youth unemployment forum and research launch by Anglicare, a Vinnies Sleepout on the ANU campus, and lots of neighbourhood activities. A full calendar of events is published on www.antipovertyweek.org.au.

Published in the Sunday Canberra Times 12 October 2014.

By Frances Crimmins, YWCA Canberra Executive Director

There is a silence in our society when it comes to the continued gender biases that exist in our workplaces.

The strides that we have made towards gender equality have been bold, but the fact remains that women are hugely underrepresented in leadership positions in Australia. As at 2012, only 12 of the top 500 public companies in Australia had female CEOs, and our current Government has only 17 per cent of its ministry positions held by women.

Perhaps most alarming is the continuing gender wage gap – women still earn 17.5 per cent less than our male counterparts for the same work, and female graduates can expect to earn $5,000 less per annum than male graduates.

These statistics are real. They demonstrate an attitude and an unconscious gender bias that form a significant barrier to women participating in the workforce.

At the YWCA of Canberra, we speak to many young women who haven’t experienced gender discrimination in the workplace. That is, until they take that pivotal first step towards a leadership position, whether it’s applying for a management role within an organisation, or for a board position.

They are hit again with the realities of gender inequality when they reach what is considered to be child-bearing age. It is at this point that the differences between the treatment of men and women become a real barrier – despite having the same level of education, the same professional experience, and the same level of skill as their male counterparts. Young women are suddenly faced with new challenges based entirely on their gender.

These barriers are twofold, in both perceived notions of women’s capabilities when it comes to leadership, and on the real systemic barriers to women engaging in demanding executive positions while balancing parenting responsibilities outside of work.

Workplaces in Australia are not responsive to the needs of women when it comes to balancing both motherhood and their careers. We know that 28 per cent of the discrimination claims investigated by the Fair Work Ombudsman in 2012-13 were pregnancy related.

The YWCA of Australia conducted a pre and post-pregnancy survey with members in January this year, producing some alarming results. Women reported a decrease in their responsibilities at work following pregnancy, a lack of support to return to their positions post-pregnancy, and, in particular, an emphasis on the views of individual managers in determining working arrangements for pregnant women or recent mothers.

To make matters worse, a lack of affordable, quality childcare often prices women out of the workforce entirely. With women still more likely to be primary caregivers than men, this significantly impacts on women’s ability to fulfill their responsibilities as mothers as well as their career ambitions and goals.

More insidious than these systemic barriers, however, is the common perception that women lack the inherent skills and traits to hold leadership roles in our communities, governments and workplaces. The male-dominated image of what leadership is still prevails, and there is a dearth of women in leadership positions to hold up as an alternative.

In Australia, we don’t yet know what a sustained, gender-equal playing field looks like. For a brief period in our history, the sun shone on women leaders with both a female Prime Minister in Julia Gillard and a female Governor-General in Dame Quentin Bryce.

We have since returned to the ‘status quo’, however. And despite some hand-wringing in the public domain about the current lack of women in leadership roles, there has been little effort to make real and lasting change.

The YWCA of Canberra is a supporter of quotas, as they have proven to be successful mechanisms to create a pipeline of young women into leadership roles. Until young women feel empowered to pursue leadership opportunities and have role models to look to, we will continue to be underrepresented at the decision-making tables, be they in business, politics, education, or any other sector.

We need to celebrate and support our current women leaders, and encourage more women to take on executive and managerial roles. Unless this inequality is challenged, it will only become more entrenched and more difficult to break down.

That is why the YWCA of Canberra is hosting its inaugural She Leads Conference on Tuesday, building on our decades of work in developing leadership pathways for aspiring and established women.

The Conference will provide a forum for women to develop their management and leadership skills, while also connecting them with women leaders in fields stretching from public policy and advocacy to the media, arts and community services.

The speaker line up includes pioneering feminist Dr Anne Summers, Deputy Secretary (People Strategies and Policy) at the Department of Defence, Carmel McGregor, the Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Helen Conway and many others. These women have carved out their own pathways to leadership, and can now share their experiences and advice with others through the She Leads initiative.

As it currently stands, leadership in Australia is not equally accessible to men and women. The YWCA of Canberra recognises this through its leadership programs, which are focused on equipping women with the emotional resilience, skills and experience to excel as leaders, and to learn how to mitigate the impact of gender bias on their own leadership journeys.

Next Tuesday’s inaugural She Leads Conference is an important step towards addressing these issues, and ending the silence around gender barriers to leadership positions in Australia.

Published in the Sunday Canberra Times 11 May 2014.