What is International Women's Day for?

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(Image by f1uffster (Jeanie) / Flickr.)

John Passant discusses the significance of International Women's Day in effecting real change for women.  

NOTHING much has changed.

International Women’s Day (IWD) has come and gone. The demands of yesterday have become the demands of today.

Equality. Equal pay. An end to violence against women. An end to sexual harassment. An end to the long unpaid hours women work in the home. The list goes on and on. These will become the demands of the future if working women and men do nothing.

However, so far this year 13 women have been killed — most by people they know.

Of course, there have been massive gains over the last 50 years. There are now more women in the workforce; not quite a majority but at 46.9%, getting close.  

On the other hand, economic discrimination continues unabated. Women are to be found overwhelmingly in the lower echelons of the job hierarchy. They work in lower paid jobs traditionally seen as women’s work — the so-called "caring" industries like child care, teaching and nursing.

As Deputy Leader of the Opposition Tanya Plibersek said in her IWD speech to the National Press Club:

‘Women working in female dominated industries are paid, on average, $40,000 less each year than men in male dominated industries.’

Women dominate the part-time and casual workforce. For example, 68.6% of part-time employees are women. The gender pay gap is 15.3% and has ranged between 15% and 19% for the last two decades. In concrete terms, a woman working full time earns $253.70 per week less than a man working full time.

As real wages stall or fall and inequality grows rapidly in Australia, the economic pressures on workers and their families grow. This means the pressure on women to increase their (often unpaid) work hours will grow.

The alternative of better pay and closing the gender pay gap is not really on the agenda of employers. Their alternative is falling living standards and increased economic and family pressures on women, and men.

Then there is unpaid domestic and other work. According to a 2017 PWC report, women do most of the unpaid household work. They ‘conduct 76% of childcare, 67% of domestic work, 69% of care of adults and 57% of volunteering’. PWC valued this unpaid work at $345 billion in 2011-dollar terms.  

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency estimates it at about $650 billion, almost two-thirds of which is done by women. If that unpaid work were paid, women, on my rough back-of-the-envelope calculations, would get an extra $40,000 a year on average and men about $20,000. That would wipe out the gender pay gap.

Of course, as Tanya Plibersek said in her National Press Club address:

‘The Australian economy – Australian society – rests upon women’s unpaid work.’

In other words, unpaid work is one of the keys to keeping capitalism functioning. It will not become paid work (or communalised work) without a massive fight by working women and men.

Clearly, these are just some of the big gender issues that need addressing. So, what did the major parties say and do on International Women’s Day?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that the Government will appoint a "Women in Science Ambassador". She will advocate for gender equity in science. This is a worthy initiative but does not address the fundamental issues of women’s oppression in our society.

The Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer said:

"I think there is no doubt that the standard in this place can be lifted and I think there is a real public desire for the standard to be much higher than what they see today."

Again, this is a worthy sentiment but is of itself not that earth-shattering. On the other hand, if all the women working in Parliament House were to strike (illegally) against the culture of harassment and violence and for equal pay, then that would be a great step forward. Somehow, I don’t see Kelly O’Dwyer campaigning for or organising that.

Both O’Dwyer and Turnbull mentioned the lack of women in the Parliament. The Coalition has a problem with women. Only 22% of their representatives are women. In the House of Representatives, only 13 of the 76 Coalition members are women. For Labor, the figure for female representation for both Houses is 46.8%.

However, more Margaret Thatchers or Michaelia Cashes are not a win for working-class women. Neither are more female CEOs. The oppression of women is systemic. It is an expression of capitalism. Having women running the system — that is, as the oppressors of other women, won’t change that.

It is not the women who smash the CEO or Parliamentary glass ceiling we should be concerned about. It is the women who clean up the broken glass we should be supporting.

Tanya Plibersek’s National Press Club address raised a number of these issues.

She said:

‘In the three years after Tony Abbott formed government – and made himself Minister for Women – Australia slipped 22 places down the global gender equality rankings, to 46th spot. Progress is not inevitable. It’s not consistent. And it’s certainly not happening fast enough.’

Plibersek offered words, and goals, but no clear strategy. The fact that she acknowledged the gender pay gap had worsened in the past 20 years and, without mentioning it, but clearly including under former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, highlights the problem for Labor in managing capitalism.

Jeremy Corbyn is trying to address that contradiction in the UK by mobilising the masses against the 1%. Plibersek has no such strategy.

You can see the enormity of the task to address women’s oppression in the response to Plibersek’s speech. The headlines were about her commitment to remove the GST on tampons and other female sanitary products.

As symbolism, Plibersek’s proposal is good politics but fails to address the wider issues. For example, the GST is a regressive tax that adversely impacts the poor. Repealing this regressive tax, coupled with increasing progressive taxes on the well-off and capital, would be a step forward for all working women — and working men.

Even the call to remove the tampon tax highlights the selective nature of Labor policies towards women. As part of the torture program on Australia’s concentration camp on Nauru, there were claims made that refugee women were forced to ask male guards for a new sanitary product each time they required one. Plibersek said nothing about freeing these women from the hellholes Labor and the Coalition conspire to send them to and imprison them in.

In Spain, millions of women went on strike on IWD. Hundreds of thousands of women were on the streets proclaiming that "if we stop, the world stops".

In West Virginia, almost every teacher, most of whom are women, went on an "illegal" strike for pay increases from a Republican Administration, in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump. They shut down every school across the State for 9 days before the administration folded and gave them pay increases of 5% a year. Inspired by this, teachers in other U.S, States are considering or have announced similar action.

In Australia, the Fair Work Commission in February rejected an equal pay for equal work 35% pay claim for poorly paid childcare workers, 97% of whom are women. How could the Commission get away with this? Apart from a symbolic one-afternoon stoppage in 2017, there was no sustained industrial action forcing them to act in favour of the workers.

Only now is there talk of striking but, again, it is just for one day. West Virginia workers have shown the way forward: shut down the child care centres until wage equality is won.

I agree with Plibersek. Time’s up. Strike now to win real social, economic and political gains for women. That is, after all, what International Working Women’s Day was originally about.

Read more by John Passant on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassantSigned copies of John's first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016), are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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