Advance Australia Fairer: Canberra should Lead the World in eliminating the Gender Gap


by Alannah Croom


Executive Summary

  • This article looks at the issue of gender equality in Australia, prompted by the forthcoming implementation of the amendment to the Paid Parental Leave Act in January 2013.
  • Australia historically has followed the lead of the United Kingdom and the United States in the fight for gender equality, but to advance even further in future we need to loosen these ties.
  • This article considers the impact that First Wave Feminism, the Second World War, and Second Wave Feminism had on altering the course of gender equality in these three leading western democracies.
  • The Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum in 2011 ranked Australia at a disappointing 23rd position in terms of the Global Gender Gap Index.
  • Scandinavia, particularly Iceland, is currently leading the way in gender equality. Australia needs to learn from Scandinavian successes — and failures — when implementing its own gender equality policies.
  • The Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian public as a whole have important parts to play in the changing status of gender equality in Australia. Indeed, it is up to everyone — collectively and individually — to stand up and fight for gender equality.
  • The article concludes by challenging the Australian federal government to create a nation where gender inequality no longer exists, surpassing the Scandinavian countries to become the first country to achieve total equality between men and women.

The Australian Government’s adjustment and implementation of Paid Parental Leave for fathers is an outstanding achievement. There is still a very long way to go, however, for us to achieve true gender equality. This article traces Australia’s major achievements during the twentieth century in gender equality in comparison with the leading western nations the United States and the United Kingdom (UK). All three are socio-politically progressive and lead the world in many regards. Yet, when it comes to gender equality we are years behind Scandinavia. Australia, then, needs to break this pattern of mirroring Anglo-American trends and instead draw inspiration from Scandinavia for more innovative polices. In fact, for Australia to become a nation where gender inequality is no longer an issue, it must even look beyond the Scandinavian lead and develop ‘revolutionary’ new policies that ensure we lead the world in all aspects of gender equality. This is the challenge put forward to the Australian federal government, the Australian Human Rights Commission (previously the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission or HREOC), and the Australian people throughout the following paragraphs.

First Wave Feminism

Historians first introduced the term ‘First Wave Feminism’ in the 1970s at a time when ‘Second Wave Feminism’ was at its peak in western countries. The term was used to describe protests of ‘Second Wave’ feminists’ predecessors who had fought for women’s rights around the turn of the century. For the UK and North America, the creation of the first progressive feminist movements and organisations can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century. For Australia, however, the fight for women’s rights did not emerge until later that century. As Audrey Oldfield states, in her piece ‘Putting the Queensland woman suffrage movement into its wider context’, Australian women were influenced by literature coming out of the UK and the United States during the nineteenth century. Also, as immigration started to flourish from the mid-1800s onwards, women from these countries entered Australia and participated heavily in women’s rights campaigns.

First Wave Feminist movements in the UK and the United States fought for women’s rights in many areas including: a better education; more career opportunities; economic and legal dependence for married women; sexual and moral double standards; meager wages; and women’s exclusion from politics as epitomized by suffrage. The desire to fight for these same rights made their way to Australia, where women began similar campaigns. Their extensive and persistent fighting saw Australian women win various concessions in the later nineteenth century resulting in the gender gap closing ever so slightly. Women were granted the right to attend some universities and the first woman, Bella Guerin, graduated from the University of Melbourne in the 1880s with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours). From 1883, all Australian states introduced the Married Women’s Property Acts, which gave married women the same legal position regarding property as unmarried women. Perhaps most significantly, the newly established Australian federal government granted women the right to vote in 1902, with the inception of the Commonwealth Franchise Act.

The Second World War and the changing roles of women

Australia continued to follow the UK’s lead during the Second World War and allowed middle-class women to enter the paid workforce on a large scale. The British government had allowed women to leave their traditional role in the private sphere and participate extensively in the paid workforce and auxiliary services during the First World War; this trend re-emerged with the outbreak of war. After a visit to Britain and witnessing first-hand the success of women in the paid work force, Australian Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies promoted the importance of women’s participation in the workforce. Australian women, to some extent, also were allowed to enter auxiliary services, but were considered second-rate ‘soldiers’ in comparison to their male counterparts.

Despite the increased participation of middle-class women in the paid work force during wartime, upon war’s end many were expected to return to their original work in the private sphere — the home. Women’s fight for equal pay in Australia, the UK, and the United States also remained unchanged, despite their aid in the nation’s economic stability throughout the war. Many women had hoped that their entrance into the public sphere during the war would have prompted the government to allow them greater freedom. Unfortunately, however, this was not the case. Women did not experience significant change until almost thirty years later, when Second Wave Feminism came to the fore in many western countries.

Second Wave Feminism

Two major developments in gender equality for Australia, the UK, and the United States during Second Wave Feminism centred on equal pay acts and sex discrimination acts. Again, Australia followed behind both the UK and the United States in the implementation of these policies. The United States introduced the Equal Pay Act in 1963, followed by the UK in 1970; Australia did not introduce the policy until 1972. It was a similar story for the various acts denouncing sex discrimination: the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 led the way; the UK followed in 1975; and, finally, Australia passed its Sex Discrimination Act in 1984.

Moreover, Australia experienced other immense changes in the fight for gender equality during this time. Some of those outlined in the Australian Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) publication Milestones in Women’s History include: Sen. Annabelle Rankin becoming the first woman administered to a government department in 1966 as Minister for Housing; and the Australian Council for Trade Unions (ACTU) set the standard for 52 weeks unpaid maternity leave for women in 1973. Australia’s gender equality status has continued to be altered and strengthened rapidly throughout the twentieth century. Australian men and women certainly are more equal now than ever before, and often are considered leaders by many other countries. As the following pages show, however, there still is a long way for us to go to achieve true equality.

Gender equality today

In 2011, the World Economic Forum published The Global Gender Gap Report. This report uses The Global Gender Gap Index as the ‘framework for capturing the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities and tracking their progress’. The Index is based on four key areas when drawing conclusions on global gender gaps: economic; political; education; and health-based criteria. According to the report, these factors provide ‘country rankings that allow for effective comparisons across regions and in-come groups, and over time’. The World Economic Forum uses various reliable sources to measure this data, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for education statistics and the International Labour Organization for economic participation and opportunity statistics.

The findings of this report ranked Australia 23rd in the world in terms of gender equality. Australia’s traditional allies, the UK and the United States, ranked only marginally higher. Australia’s position is not something of which to be proud. Many other countries look up to Australia as a socio-politically progressive nation and we need to prove that we are worthy of this status. For Australia to advance it is time we stop looking towards the UK and United States; instead, we should draw inspiration for our future policies from the world’s leading nations for gender equality. Australia needs to take into consideration what these countries have done in the past (successes and otherwise), and are doing now, to combat inequalities that still exist between men and women.

The case of Scandinavia and leading gender equality policies

According to The Global Gender Gap Report the world leaders in gender equality are the four Scandinavian countries Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Instead of following behind the leading western democracies the UK and the United States, these Scandinavian countries have surpassed the rest of the world and steamed ahead in terms of their policies pertaining to gender equality.

Iceland, the country that has been granted the prestigious first position in the World Economic Forum’s study, has not always been so progressive in its pursuit of equality. From studying its history it becomes evident that, for a long time, Iceland followed the same worldwide trends that Australia still continues to follow. It was not until recent decades that Iceland surpassed the rest of the world and moved closer to total equality between men and women. Iceland has continued to achieve the number one ranking since the 2009 Global Gender Gap Report.

Moreover, Iceland introduced the same Paid Parental Leave policy in 1997, a similar policy to the one Australia will be implementing in January 2013. For Iceland, the introduction of this policy led to the creation of much more progressive gender equality policies. In 2003, Iceland’s Paid Parental Leave policy altered, and instead of fathers receiving the right to a meager two weeks paid parental leave the government granted fathers the right to three months leave.

According to a report published in 2012 by the Centre for Gender Equality in Iceland, the Icelandic government has altered and introduced many significant policies in the past two decades, and recent ‘stepping stones’ include: Iceland’s first female prime minister in 2009; and the first government with equal number of men and women also in 2009; a law passed in 2010 that requires companies to have a minimum of 40 percent women or men on their board; and, most recently, in 2011 the government passed a law authorizing the removal of a perpetrator from a home when domestic violence is suspected.

It is important to note, however, that despite Iceland’s number one ranking and the introduction of these groundbreaking policies, the nation still falls behind in two of the four critical areas outlined in the Global Gender Gap Report: economic participation and opportunity; and health and survival. Consequently, Australia should not merely follow the lead of Scandinavia, but rather draw inspiration from its best policies and changes to include within our own legislations. By drawing on and learning from the successes and failures of the pathbreaking Scandinavian countries, Australia has the potential to become a, if not the, world leader in the Global Gender Gap Report.

Total gender equality, Australia’s future?

In July 2010, Elizabeth Broderick, the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, launched the Gender Equality Blueprint, which identifies five key factors ‘for addressing sex discrimination and promoting gender equality in Australia: balance paid work and family responsibilities between men and women; ensure women’s lifetime economic security; promote women in leadership; prevent violence against women and sexual harassment; and strengthen national gender equality laws, agencies and monitoring. All of these aspects, which the Blueprint outlines in detail, are extremely important to Australia’s future.

It is important the HREOC continues to pressure the government to understand the importance of gender equality, and for the federal government to understand how important gender equality is for the progression and future of the Australian nation. Total gender equality, as the Blueprint stresses, also requires ‘commitment from all people in Australia – women and men – to counter the attitudes and assumptions that lead to discrimination and unequal outcomes’. To achieve equality, then, all men and women need to stand up and fight.

Canberra must cultivate a nation where gender inequality is no longer an issue in the twenty-first century. It is time to stop following behind other countries and especially to break our traditional ties with the UK and the United States. The Australian federal government needs to consider what other countries, such as Iceland, are doing to successfully combat the gender gap. The new policy of paid parental leave is a step in the right direction, but there still is a long, long way to go to experience true gender equality. We can learn from others’ successes and failures to become the benchmark and surpass all other countries in the pursuit of gender equality. In 1902, a year after its federation Australia became one of the first nations to grant women the vote. Why can’t we be the first nation to succeed in having total equality between men and women. What’s stopping us from achieving this? It is time we create a country that prides itself on the equality of ALL men and women. Julia Gillard — our current leader and first female prime minister — repeats ad nauseum that Australia must keep ‘moving forward’. Let’s hope that we achieve this by eliminating the anachronistic gender divide while we advance Australia fairer!


Relevant websites for further reading:

Australian Human Rights Commission (HREOC) available at: http://humanrights.gov.au/


Australian Human Rights Commission (HREOC) Gender Equality Blueprint 2010, available at: http://humanrights.gov.au/sex_discrimination/publication/blueprint/index.html


Australian Human Rights Commission (HREOC) Sex Discrimination, available at http://humanrights.gov.au/sex_discrimination/index.html


Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) available at: http://www.eowa.gov.au/Research_And_Resources.asp (* Provides links to all of the EOWA’s research and resources files)


Ministry of Welfare – Centre For Gender Inequality Iceland, available at: http://eng.velferdarraduneyti.is/departments/gender-equality/


The Parliament of the Commonwealth Australia – Paid Parental and Other Legislation Amendment (Dad and Partner Pay and Other measures) Bill 2012, available at: http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id:legislation%2Fems%2Fr4780_ems_ab861f3a-0d48-4d64-93ec-00baea4fc3c0


© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Alannah Croom, Advance Australia Fairer: Canberra should Lead the World in eliminating the Gender Gap. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/advance-australia-fairer

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/advance-australia-fairer