‘I’d like my lamington with a side of systemic change’: What we really want this International Women’s Day

08 March 2021

Our CEO Ruth Dearnley's thought-provoking commentary highlights actions that must be taken to ensure we can all get what we want (and need) on International Women's Day: continued action and progress towards gender equity and equality.

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As long as inequity exists, we must take time to acknowledge the progress yet to be made in addressing the systemic injustices, biases, and burdens that many people live with every single day. International Women’s Day provides this opportunity.

In recent years, this day has sparked many critical conversations about underlying issues that prevent gender parity for all, such as the ongoing gender pay gap, the burden of unpaid kin and care work, and the critical importance of intersectional and trans inclusionary feminism. We are starting to see significant shifts in the discourse on some of these issues.

However, every year that International Women’s Day comes round again, I approach it with an increasingly tired, reluctant and loud sigh. I can’t help but question:

Is International Women’s Day becoming one of the inequitable hidden burdens it is attempting to fight against?

Of course, focusing attention on gender inequity is absolutely crucial. But if we want to hear the reflections of gender-rights ambassadors and leading thinkers, in the many seminars and webinars that are organised internationally on this day, how are we expected to fit that in? Less paid work duties that day? Miss the school pick up? Unlikely.

Will the speakers at these events be paid for this additional work? And do people who identify as women really need another day in the calendar where they have to ‘voluntarily’ organise events and celebrations in their workplace, on top of their existing workload?

Of course, I don’t speak for all women, nor am I proposing for a ‘women’s day’ event led by men – just look at every other day in history to find out how that’s working out for us. I’m just not convinced that all the cake baking that women did ahead of office morning teas that are happening all over the country, is what women really want on International Women’s Day…

I’d like my lamington with a side of systemic change.

Starting with a gender equal economic recovery from COVID-19.

GEN VIC – the peak body for gender equity, women’s health and prevention of violence against women in Victoria – is calling for $271.2 million of investment in gender equality initiatives to drive recovery after the ‘she-cession’ caused by COVID-19. Women have lost their jobs and reduced their Super balances at a greater rate than men. They have carried the burden of increased essential care and supporting children in home learning. In Victoria alone, women have lost a deeply unsettling 109,000 jobs during the pandemic.

The economic recovery package set out by GEN VIC would also see investment into women’s health services that have not had an increase in core funding since they were established in the 1980s. How can we expect all people who identify as women, with diverse cultural, social and financial experiences, to get accurate preventative health information and access the physical and mental health support they need, without adequately funding the organisations providing these services?

People who identify as women make up the vast majority of the care economy. Everyone benefits at one time or another from the structural support system provided by this work.

It’s taken a pandemic to highlight how fundamental this work is in sustaining our economy, communities and lifestyles but this vital work has been underpaid and undervalued for a long time. Where would we be without early childcare workers, cleaners, teachers, nurses, mental health workers, midwives, social workers, aged care workers, disability support workers, family violence prevention and response personnel, community and charity sector workers?

There are around 6,000 charities delivering critical community care, social services and aged care services in Australia – making up about 11% of all charities in the country. While the sector employs 1.3 million people, over half have no paid staff and are solely reliant on a volunteer workforce of over 3.7 million – roles which are most commonly occupied by women. What would employment rates and economic gender parity look like, if these caring industries were adequately funded so that workers could be appropriately remunerated? What if these services were properly integrated alongside the public health and social services system?

Isn’t investment in these services what we really want from International Women’s Day? Isn’t this a stronger stance against the many layers of gender inequity than baked goods and some feel-good emails?

Each year, around sixty skilled birth workers volunteer with Birth for Humankind, to provide continuous support to over 140 women experiencing hardship during pregnancy, birth and early parenting. As midwives or doulas in their professional lives, they know the physical and mental health benefits that ongoing trusted relationships with care workers have for people experiencing homelessness, family violence, trauma or who are socially isolated. They see that the public maternity system isn’t adequately resourced or structured to provide appropriate support for people with these complex needs. So, they volunteer on top of their other commitments to address this gap and significantly improve birth experiences and outcomes for their clients.

Everyone who birthed during the pandemic got an insight into what it is like to go through pregnancy and birth without adequate social support. Many people were unable to have their chosen birth partner in the birth suite with them. I want International Women’s Day to be the day where we consider why such critical services are not integrated components of a well-resourced care economy and why instead we must rely on volunteers. A day where we ask the hard questions – over the cupcakes and coffee.

I want it to be a catalyst for the reform needed to ensure essential work is, essentially, paid. On March 8, 2022, I want to enjoy my lamington whilst I read the impact reports on the initiatives implemented this year, so we can continue to progress towards gender equity.

Let’s use this International Women’s Day to get just some of the things that women really want.




This article was published for International Women’s Day in Third Sector Magazine.