Why 2017 was a good year for women

This year marks 125 years of women’s suffrage in New Zealand and today is International Women’s Day. We look back over the previous year and how feminism has played out.

International Women’s Day on March 8 deserves prime time on your calendar this month, but it hasn’t always been as celebrated as it is today. While it was honoured for the first time in 1911, it wasn’t until 2011 – the 100th anniversary of the day – that former US president Barack Obama declared March to be Women’s History Month. Since then, recognition of the day has soared and each year brings a new focus to promoting women’s rights.

Last year, the campaign theme was Be Bold for Change – encouraging individuals and organisations to take “ground-breaking action that truly drives the greatest change for women”.

In a sign of how much visibility the day has achieved, Facebook reported that International Women’s Day was the most talked about topic on the site, ahead of other topics such as the vote on same-sex marriage in Australia and the Super Bowl in the US. After the World Economic Forum released the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report – which found gender parity is still more than 200 years away – Press for Progress was chosen as the campaign for this year’s International Women’s Day. Organisers say “now, more than ever, there’s a strong call-to-action to press forward and progress gender parity”.

So let’s take a look back at 2017 – a momentous year in which conversations around women’s rights took centre stage.

In many ways, 2017 was a good year for women. It was off to a remarkable start, with the International Women’s Marches taking place around the world, from the US to Nairobi to Antarctica. It’s estimated as many as 4.5 million women marched in the US alone, with up to 500,000 of those marching on Washington, DC the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as president.

Here in New Zealand, around 3500 women took to the streets from Auckland to Invercargill in defence of women’s rights. The hashtag #WomensMarch became the sixth highest trending topic on Twitter for the year. And this year, hundreds of thousands of women again took to the streets for women’s rights.

Women in action

‘Feminism’ was also the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s word of the year, chosen over ‘complicit’ and ‘recuse’, while a new feminist rallying cry was born after Democrat Elizabeth Warren was silenced on the floor of the US Senate. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell remarked: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

At the box office, female-led and directed movies dominated, with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman taking out the three most popular movies in theatres across the globe – quite the feat, considering women-led movies haven’t occupied the top spots in a single year since full box office data became available 37 years ago. On the small screen, women were in the spotlight as well, with The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies taking home the top prizes at the Emmy Awards.

As Reese Witherspoon said, while accepting the Outstanding Limited Series award for Big Little Lies, “It’s been an incredible year for women on television. Bring women to the front of their own stories and make them the hero of their own stories.”

A year of women taking the spotlight – not to mention the #metoo movement – wasn’t just confined to the box office. It also saw an influx of women entering politics – most notably in the US. Anna Eskamani, who is campaigning to become a state representative in Florida, says, “When you put last year’s [2016] election in perspective with all the stories of sexual assault and harassment and the fact this has been happening for generations, that couples with this upcoming election cycle.” She adds, “The personal is very political.”

In the states of Virginia and New Jersey more women were on the ballot box than at any time in the past decade, and in Virginia’s 100-member House of Delegates, the number of women elected will go from 17 to as many as 29.

According to the Centre for American Women and Politics, 353 women have already filed to run for the US House of Representatives so far this electoral cycle, compared to 272 in the whole of 2016 It was a big year for Hollywood, with bombshell revelations of sexual harassment which led to Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Louis CK (among others) being dropped from movie and TV studios.

Most recently, Hollywood’s elite staged a ‘black out’ at the Golden Globes, with the stars donning black to stand with victims of sexual assault.

As actress and director Amber Tamblyn wrote in the New York Times: “What we are wearing is not a statement of fashion. It is a statement of action… Black because we are powerful when we stand together with all women across industry lines. Black because we’re starting over, resetting the standard. Black because we’re done being silenced and we’re done with the silencers. Tonight is not a mourning. Tonight is an awakening.”

The event shone a spotlight on the Time’s Up movement, which penned an open letter signed by almost 300 actresses including Alicia Vikander, Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep, “on behalf of [more than 1000] women who work in film, television and theatre”.

They called for “all survivors of sexual harassment, everywhere, to be heard, to be believed, and to know that accountability is possible”, as well as “a significant increase of women in positions of leadership and power across industries.”

“The struggle for women to break in, to rise up the ranks and to simply be heard and acknowledged in male-dominated workplaces must end; time’s up on this impenetrable monopoly.”

Time’s Up sprung out of the #metoo movement, which started with a single tweet from actress Alyssa Milano after the Harvey Weinstein story broke: “Suggested by a friend: ‘If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.'”

The movement spread over social media as millions of people responded, from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram, with women sharing their stories, including Anna Paquin, Debra Messing and Rosario Dawson. It soon went global as #BalanceTonPorc (French), #YoTambien (Spanish) and #Ana_kaman (Arabic).

In recognition of the cultural reckoning seen by the tales of sexual misconduct and the #metoo movement itself, Time magazine named The Silence Breakers as their 2017 Person of the Year. Among the six women pictured on the cover – representing people who came forward to report sexual misconduct – were Uber engineer Susan Fowler, singer Taylor Swift and actress Ashley Judd.

Also pictured were Adama Iwu, a coporate lobbyist who said she was groped in front of colleagues, and a woman using the pseudonym Isabel Pascual, an agricultural worker who was harassed by a man who threatened to harm her and her children. A sixth woman – a hospital worker and victim of sexual harassment – has just her elbow pictured. She was there anonymously “as an act of solidarity to represent all those who could not speak out”.

Time wrote, “These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal, gathering strength by the day, and in the past two months alone, their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results: nearly every day, CEOs have been fired, moguls toppled, icons disgraced.

“This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight. But it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries.”

Non-partisan organisation She Should Run, which helps women in the US enter politics, has also seen a huge surge in interest. CEO Erin Loos Cutraro says, “Since Election Day, we’ve seen over 4500 – and counting – women step up. To give you context, we usually see about 100 or so women each month. It’s quite remarkable.”

In New Zealand, 46 women were elected to parliament in last year’s election – the highest level of representation for women in its history – a 64 per cent jump over the last election. Of the total 120 MPs, women currently make up 38.4 per cent, up 7 per cent from the previous parliament. With Jacinda Ardern – our third female prime minister – it’s also the first time since 2001 that our governor-general, chief justice and prime minister have all been women.

And in the unending battle to reach a work/life balance, parliament itself is leading the charge, with Speaker Trevor Mallard pledging to make parliament a more family-friendly place. Following the announcement, Labour MP Willow-Jean Prime became the first woman to breastfeed in the debating chamber in November.

The push to make parliament more accommodating has also been seen in Australia. In 2016, a rule change allowed breastfeeding MPs to bring their babies into the chamber of parliament. Previously, breastfeeding mums often had to miss out on important parliamentary duties and delegate their voting power to other members to vote in their absence.

When the vote passed, Leader of the House Christopher Pyne said, “No member, male or female, will ever be prevented from participating fully in the operation of the parliament by reason of having the care of a baby.”

And in May 2017, Green Party member Larissa Waters was the first to make use of the rule change – and make history – when she breastfed her daughter Alia in parliament.

A global movement

Chile also eased restrictive abortion regulations in September, granting women the right to have an abortion in three cases: when the woman’s life is in danger; when the foetus is not viable; or when the pregnancy is the result of rape. Previously, Chile joined El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic as one of four countries in the Americas that banned abortion under all circumstances.

The same month saw women in Saudi Arabia finally granted the right to drive, and they’ll be able to drive not only cars but trucks and motorcycles too. Many activists saw it as a milestone moment after a long campaign that saw women arrested and jailed for defying the driving ban.

Meanwhile, Lebanon, Jordan and Tunisia voted to repeal an archaic law that allowed men accused of rape to be exonerated if they marry the individual they raped. Ghida Anani, founder and director of women’s right’s organisation

Abaad, says, “A white dress doesn’t cover up rape. It’s the first step to changing the mindset and traditions.”

And Tunisia saw women’s rights get support from a surprising quarter: The president himself. Beji Caid Essebsi pointed out that under the Tunisian constitution, the state was “civil”, adding that when it came to men and women’s rights, “We must state that we are moving towards equality between them in every sphere. And the whole issue hinges on the matter of inheritance.”

Levelling the field

It was a bold stand. Under Islamic jurisprudence, daughters have a right to only half of the inheritance given to sons, barring exceptional circumstances.

Widows are also systemically passed over for inheritances, in favour of brothers- and parents-in-law. Together, it means that women are usually reduced to being dependants for life.

And in Africa, women’s groups organised a Congolese Women’s Forum for peace and equal political representation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Just weeks after the forum, 80 local women were included in talks alongside militant groups in the volatile and often violent Kasai region. Women made up almost 20 per cent of those at the table – a big step forward for women’s representation in the region.

While there were momentous wins for women’s rights across the world, there are many areas where equality isn’t yet a reality.

Pay equality in New Zealand is still to be achieved. The gender pay gap has remained static at around 12 per cent for a decade – though Statistics New Zealand reported it fell to 9.4 per cent in September, the smallest the gap has been in five years. Research commissioned by the Ministry for Women last year found 80 per cent of wage inequality was due to “unexplained” factors, including conscious or unconscious bias that negatively affected women’s opportunities for both recruitment and wage increases.

Hope is on the horizon though. The government last year announced a $2bn pay equality settlement for aged and residential care support workers, which would see care workers in female-dominated industries receive page rises of up to $5000.

This year the Labour Party has pledged to build on equal pay by implementing the changes to the Equal Pay Act, as recommended by the Joint Working Group on Pay Equity Principles. As the legislation put forward by the National government has since lapsed, the Labour Party intends to introduce new legislation making it easier for women to bring forward claims if they believe they haven’t been paid equally.

Iceland has gone much further. On New Year’s Day, it passed legislation that requires companies with 25 or more full-time employees to analyse their salary structures every three years to ensure men and women are being paid equally for equal work. They must then report back to the government for certification or face penalties that include fines. Though equal pay has been enshrined in law since 1961, the new standard is seen as the first time specific steps have been put in place to try to force companies to close pay gaps.

Balancing act

Transparency around salaries seems to be the new frontier on addressing pay inequality. Back in 2016 the UK passed legislation that required organisations with 250 or more workers to publish their salaries from April 2017. The results were eye-opening. While some firms have almost closed the pay gap – or in the case of the British Museum, closed it entirely – other companies have gaps of up to 64.8%.

And it was revealed women at the BBC were paid 10.7 per cent less per hour on average than their male colleagues. Of those who earned more than NZ$280,000, two-thirds of them were men and no women ranked among the seven highest earners. That disclosure led to journalist Carrie Gracie resigning as the BBC’s China editor, citing the pay gap between herself and her male counterparts.

She said of the revelation: “For the first time, women saw hard evidence of what they’d long suspected, that they are not being valued equally.”

While Carrie was offered a raise that would increase her salary to NZ$340,000 from $255,000, the salary would still have been lower than her male counterparts. “I could not go back to China and collude knowingly in what I consider to be unlawful pay discrimination. I could not do it, nor could I stay silent and watch the BBC perpetuate a failing pay structure by discriminating against women,” she said.

She added she would return to her previous post in the TV newsroom in London “where I expect to be paid equally”.

The BBC said in a statement “there was no systematic discrimination against women”, though it has since announced that it will be making “substantial pay cuts for some men, and pay rises for some men and women” to address a series of “anomalies”.

Many companies cited the different roles men and women occupied as the reason for the gap, with men working in higher-paid and more powerful positions – an issue in itself.

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This ANZ advertisement showing kids’ reactions to the boys being paid more than the girls for doing the same jobs says it all.

A way to go yet

And while in New Zealand we may have elected a female PM, an incident at popular music festival Rhythm and Vines where Madeline Anello-Kitzmiller was groped while topless has sparked conversations around consent and sexual assault.

Both Madeline, who was wearing a ‘glitter boob’ decoration by GypsyFest at the time of the incident, and Jolene Guillum-Scott, CEO of GypsyFest, have since led the “glittery march for consent” through Auckland’s city centre to stand in solidarity with victims of sexual assault. The organisers hope the march will also open up conversations around consent, victim blaming and sexual harassment.

Progress has definitely been made in the past 12 months – some of it quite significant – but there’s still a way to go until we reach full equality. But in a world where women are speaking up and speaking out, and New Zealand celebrates an important milestone in women’s rights, here’s to the coming year bringing that dream a little bit closer to reality.

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