Speech in Parliament on International Women’s Day

2.05pm | March 01, 2016

I rise to mark International Women's Day, which is celebrated this year, as it always is, on 8 March. It is important to start by acknowledging the origins of International Women's Day. On 8 March 1908, women working in clothing and textile factories staged a protest in New York City—15,000 women marched through New York. They asked for shorter working hours, better pay, voting rights and an end to child labour. The women, some as young as 16, faced down police. The police responded with violence. They attacked the protesters and dispersed them.

The protest may have been broken, but the spirit of the labour movement was not. The New York protest served as an inspiration for protests and strikes by female garment workers throughout America and Europe over the next few years. The first International Women's Day was celebrated in 1910 to mark the occasion of the New York protest.

The reason I raise this is not simply nostalgia. It is to make the point that International Women's Day is founded in acts, not platitudes. It celebrates the fact that vulnerable women took collective action to fight for their rights as the many Australian women who are members of trade unions to this day continue to do. International Women's Day has to mean a great deal more than a lapel button. It has to mean more than simply acknowledging the mere existence of women or acknowledging the fact of past injustices. We should use this day to consider the problems that women face today: from professional women who hit the glass ceiling because of the unconscious bias of the people around them to vulnerable women who have casualised jobs with unsafe conditions and low pay because they work in sectors that have been deemed women's work.

The theme for International Women's Day this year is 'pledge for parity'. It is a theme we would do well to consider at a time when Australian women face outcomes that are far from parity, from cradle to the grave. It starts young. Studies show that girls are expected to perform a larger share of household chores than their brothers but, despite this, manage on average to outperform their brothers through formal schooling. Once they start work there are real issues of discrimination. One in five women has been sexually harassed at work in the last five years. Women pay for this privilege by earning an average of $284.20 less than men every single week. That means they must work an extra 65 days a year if they want to catch up with the men who are their peers. Women are more likely to take unpaid breaks from work to care for children and family members, and they suffer the career setbacks that result. If they do not, they face being overlooked for promotion because of unconscious bias in management. Women are more likely to work casualised jobs, which, ironically, do not have the workplace conditions that were put in place to help people balance work and family responsibilities—conditions like carers leave and parental leave. So by the end of their working life, the average woman has half the superannuation balance of the average man, which is not surprising, given the gender pay gap in the gender career that is caused by breaks from the workforce. The end result of all of this is that single women over 65 are the largest single social group living in poverty.

This is the challenge that we face. On International Women's Day I urge the people in this place, and indeed all Australians, to do more than pay lip-service to ideals. I urge us all to make the pledge for parity.