March 7, 2019

Almost Equal

I had the pleasure of hearing the formidable Anne Summers speak earlier this week,  discussing her memoir, “Unfettered and Alive”. It is a title that is appropriately fit for purpose; borrowed from the Joni Mitchell lyric library.

Summers, along with other formidable women of the mid-late 20th Century such as Dame Quentin Bryce AD, CVO and Elizabeth Evatt, pioneered the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 – a simple document that changed the future of Australia unlike any other piece of legislation.

Before I move on, let’s just focus on that date…1984. This was not ‘the olden days’. This was in many of our memories.

This is very modern history.

Summers described her experience as a young woman thus… “I was born into a world that expected very little of women like me.” And, this living human library was right. The women as recently as our mother’s and grandmother’s generation were destined to be of little influence and little impact on the world’s events and to faithfully fade into irrelevance as her erotic capital is left in savage abandon by the forces of time and childbearing. Women who did not conform to this trajectory were ‘outsiders’ and so the pressure to conform would have been enormous.

Summers described a world of commerce that we can bearly contemplate today. Marriage as a grounds for termination of employment, but without the outrage. Pregnancy as a life sentence, with the female party bearing the onus of fault. Very unequal pay for equal work and a very clearly gendered division of work.  Even access to ‘purchase’ goods and services could be restricted based on gender – or on grounds of conformity to specific gendered expectations.

A single woman having access to a home loan is a grave challenge in living memory of most adult women.

This type of society would have continued, unpunished if it wasn’t for the adoption of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984.

1984.

As late as this date is in history, I can’t help but hold some pride that as a country, these women were able to move from the ‘outside’ to the ‘inside’ as lawmakers normalised and codified the idea that collectively, we could establish a floor that would be the prohibition of discrimination based on gender.

The prohibition of discrimination is not quite the same as equality. We would like to pretend it is and certainly there are some symptoms that we are getting there. One of the things that Summers remarked on when describing the pre-protection era is how those native to a world with the Sex Discrimination Act might take it’s achievements for granted, and here is the part that hit me…”And, so they SHOULD,” said Summers.

And, so they should.

But they cannot take it for granted – no one can because equality is not something you need to assert. It is, as the Americans so eloquently describe it, “self-evident”. The prohibition on discrimination means that there is protection, however, there is a process to access that protection. A legal process that requires an evidentiary basis, beyond a reasonable doubt, of the discrimination. A legal process that requires the toll of adversary. A legal process that is abstract and delayed from the real world crises that these prohibitions are purported to relieve.

Equality, by contrast, would not rely on a complaint. It would not rely on advocacy nor adversary. It would be taken for granted by all.

And, so they should.

Talent does not discriminate. Opportunity does.