“I was often treated as a novelty and too often, judged or commented on in relation to my appearance, marital status, age and clothing.”
It’s a familiar story for women…
In positions of power as Natasha Stott Despoja, the youngest ever woman at 26-years-old to enter the Federal Parliament back in 1995, recalls that at her swearing in, her Dr.Martens shoe choice seemed to generate as much attention as her policies.
When you consider how far behind Australia lags behind other developed nations when it comes to women’s representation in Federal Parliament (around 25 per cent according to Despoja) and in executive power, one must question how much has really changed since the mid ‘90s.
Despoja will appear alongside an all-female line-up at this year’s Women of the World (WOW) Festival to celebrate the formidable strength and inventiveness of girls and women. Held at the Brisbane Powerhouse from April 6 to 8, WOW will also examine the obstacles preventing females from reaching their full potential.
“We require diversity and difference to be reflected and represented and we must address critical issues facing women and girls in today’s society. My message is one of a violence-free society.”
The ex-politician’s list of achievements seems endless – the founding Chair of Our Watch, a foundation to prevent violence against women and their kids, Despoja served as Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls from 2013 to 2016. She’s come a long way since being brought up as a member of the women’s movement by her mother Shirley, a single parent and and an outspoken journalist.
A lifelong advocate for encouraging more women to seek positions in Parliament, Despoja says, she “supports structural measures that enable more women to enter politics so that we can overcome the gender imbalance in our decision-making institutions, especially in executive power.”
Alarming as it may be, how many of us can honestly say that this following statement is at all surprising?
“I know many women who have forgone political aspirations because of the ridiculous stereotypes perpetuated about women in politics… and the degree of scrutiny to which they are subjected, compared with their male counterparts.”
The real question is how do we change things for the better?
Especially when regardless of whether we’re talking about politics or a host of other unrelated industries, most countries are led by men and parliaments around the globe are male dominated.
“To champion better rights for women and girls, we need to ensure more women are in positions of power. That includes the Parliament, defence, business, the media and even the sporting sector. We need to ensure our diversity and difference is reflected and represented in all decision-making institutions.
“We need to make clear that not only are women’s rights human rights, but that countries and communities that have gender equality and greater diversity in representation have more prosperous countries and better performing businesses.”
Despoja believes that ambassadors for women and girls have an important role to play in progressing this agenda as they ensure representation on a global scale. She says they “symbolise a country’s commitment to the issue and to supporting other countries” and that she’s glad Australia is active in this space and in particular, within our region.
While you’d think it would be difficult for Despoja to pick out a particular highlight of her career to date, she says that her work with Our Watch has been one of the greatest privileges of her life. The foundation’s focus is on primary prevention – in other words, stopping violence towards women and children before it even occurs. It’s a mission that Despoja acknowledges may take generations, involving both long-term policy work and practical work.
“Violence against women is preventable. We know that gender inequality is at the core of violence against woman and children but we also know that gender equality is at the heart of the solution.”
So what does such an established figure have to say to anyone out there who might not exactly be feeling enthused given the current state of the world?
“Change is constantly taking place – the role and situation of women and girls around the world is constantly improving. We must take heart from that even when the backlash can seem so strong.”
Sarah Cannata is the founding editor of This Woman Can.