I was fortunate enough to meet Jo a couple of years ago, when I lived with her bestie. Whether she was reciting every lyric to Joyful Joyful in our kitchen, regaling tales of her second life as a celebrant or talking us through the trials and tribulations of building her own loft bed, Jo was always full of surprises and hidden talents. Infectiously enthusiastic and incredibly articulate, Jo’s passion for her work was always obvious. I was stoked when she agreed to tell me more over an after work pinot.
“During my bachelor’s degree, we did a topic called, ‘A Feminist Critique of International Relations.’ I remember the lecturer throwing words up on the screen and talking about the masculine and feminine dichotomy; dominant vs passive, logical vs emotional. Until that point, I’d never heard of gender as a construct. It was a woah moment for me. I’d always taken issue with these societal expectations, but I never had a name for it.
I did my essay on the topic and pursued a volunteer role with the International Women’s Development Agency and this whole new world opened up.
Volunteering at the International Women’s Development Agency wasn’t glamorous – I was collecting the mail and the milk – but I learnt so much from the conversations people were having around me and it definitely set me on my current trajectory.
After a few different roles – paid and unpaid – I did a government-supported volunteer placement in the Solomon Islands. I knew I needed to do this to really grasp what development was all about. I moved to a village an hour’s flight from the capital, Honiara, and worked on some young women’s leadership programs.
Culturally, it was one of the most different places I’ve been. I found it quite confronting how much distinction there is between men and women and how differently they relate to one another.
The women are incredibly strong, resilient and funny. They are integral to the community for their social networks and the role they play in childcare, health, wellbeing and agriculture, yet they are not represented in any formal structures and are taught to align with the views of male members of their family – which can be problematic in many instances.
Take logging for example. Men are tasked with bringing in money and because they’re the ones making decisions around logging, they tend to be more likely to sign logging agreements. Women, on the other hand, can see the negative impact logging has on health, on subsistence gardening and subsequently on food production and water supplies, but they are excluded from decision-making so their voice isn’t heard. The division of roles does not serve the people or the environment well.
I remember speaking to a female friend – she was a strong educated woman with a degree, who was successful and respected at work. But, at home she was expected to fit the traditional norm of being a ‘good wife’ – doing all the laundry and the cooking. Even when women have partners who are open and willing to share responsibilities, women will often say no, because breaking those traditional roles would bring shame to both of them.
As Australians, we often talk about being lucky and being free, but in these instances we’re often thinking about access to healthcare and education. Of course, we should be grateful for these things, but I don’t think I’d ever appreciated just how amazing it is, especially as a woman, to be whoever I want to be. My life is all about self expression and being in the Solomons made me appreciate it.
Many of the young women I worked with would self censor and curb the things they really wanted to say and do. You would see them beaming at the opportunity to talk about things they really cared about in a safe space in the workshops we ran.
Of course, you can’t rock into another country with an attitude that one culture is better than another. People are different and things work differently. There are many parts of society in the Solomon Islands that are stronger than ours – their sense of community, their ability to speak three or four languages, their connection to culture. Influencing change or decision making structures that have been around for so long requires supporting others to do so in their own ways – you can’t bring change to a community, but you can support others to achieve it for themselves.
Since coming back from the Solomons, I’ve worked on two projects aimed at preventing violence against women. It’s a huge issue in the Pacific – in the Solomons, two out of three women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and in Papua New Guinea, it’s even higher. So, I decided to come home for a couple of years and fill my toolkit – learn what it takes to stop violence before it starts. Victoria is a world leader in this space and in the future, I hope to apply what I learn here working alongside people in the Pacific.
One project I worked on was a respectful relationships education program with Victorian schools. Respectful relationships education is about creating safe spaces for students to think critically about gender and relationships and to ask themselves, ‘what makes a healthy relationship?’, ‘what gender stereotypes exist?’ and ‘what should be expected from girls and boys?’ It’s also about getting schools to ask similar questions – ‘are all the males teaching PE and IT?’, ‘are the principals always men?’, ‘is there sexism among staff?’, ‘what supports are there for women wanting to work flexibly or move up in their career?’
And for the past couple of years I have managed a project looking at what can be done in workplaces to prevent violence against women. While we don’t like to think we’re easily influenced, the attitudes and behaviors that are ‘the norm’ at work and the opportunities we do or don’t have in our careers, definitely impact on how we think about gender, and how unequal society is. Workplaces can be a really powerful space to set new social norms.
I’ve found working on gender inequality in my own community incredibly confronting. In the Solomons I was able to ‘otherise’ the work, to separate myself from it in many ways. But now that I’m home, it’s harder to leave it all at work.
Gender change is slow. People talk about ‘saving the world’, but fixing things quickly doesn’t work – you have to focus on the small changes in front of you and do your bit so the many projects happening at the same time can push things in the right direction.
In some ways, I can see such amazing progress. I compare my Mum’s options of being a nurse, teacher or secretary when she finished school, to my generation. But, when I look at the gender pay gap, the overrepresentation of men in leadership roles and in parliament, the language used to talk about women in the media and online, I see we still have a long way to go. For some people, change is terrifying and if they can’t see how it will immediately benefit them, they resort to pushing back.
When it comes to gender equality, it is so important that people don’t think it’s just about women. I don’t think you have to be gay to benefit from marriage equality. I don’t think you have to be black to benefit from a society that’s not racist. I think it benefits all of us to live in a world that is more equal and tolerant.
There’s no doubt preventing violence against women is now part of public conversation and a very short time ago it wasn’t. Those of us who work in this area are aware of this and we’re working super hard to make the most of it while it’s something people are willing to name, something more and more workplaces are willing to take action on and something that people are talking about at the footy club, in the classroom and at the pub.”
Photography: Lucy Bastick from @StreetsofMelbourne