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We were all together that day back in March. Thousands of Australian women in marches for justice because enough is enough.

I was there with ACTU President Michele O’Neil in Canberra and I too had had enough.

This nation must make change so women can achieve equality at work and at home, so women can be safe from gendered violence. When this crisis period of COVID is over, we can, and we must double down on organising to effect change.

We can do that with new alliances and the fearlessness of young feminists. We can and we must.

There must be urgent changes to our workplace laws and to our workplaces.

We must expect more. Demand more. Take Action.

One, to make it easier for women to win equal pay.

Two, to reduce insecure work where women are overrepresented.

Three, to make sure women are safe at work with employers having a duty to prevent sexual harassment , safe in their homes with paid family and domestic violence leave, safe from exploitation, harassment and assault.

Four, to embed stronger workplace rights for parents and carers, including guaranteed and enforceable access to family friendly working arrangements. 52 weeks of paid parental leave.

Some of what we need is about governments spending more. If the government can pay Gerry Harvey millions of dollars his company doesn’t need, it can provide additional funding to increase actual rates of pay in underpaid, feminised sectors such as early childhood education and aged care. It can fund universal free childcare.

The women who marched spoke of all these and more. And on that day back in March, I remember thinking, these women, this rally could be the start of driving that change. Woman after woman shared their stories, at rallies, online, social media and mainstream media. Young women were bold and brave. Grace Tame - Australian of the Year. The entire country was struck by her clarity and strength, unafraid to talk about the abuse she suffered. She rejected shame, spoke directly to us all. Brittany Higgins, the same clarity and strength, even as she was accusing the most powerful people in the country of cover-ups and deceit.

And let’s not forget the friends of Katharine Thornton, led by Jo Dyer who would not be silent. These women shared stories of harassment, abuse, assaults. These stories were familiar to feminists but here was something different. These women had shed shame. They spoke with a courage that came without the crippling self-doubt which debilitates and often overwhelms survivors; that freezes, immobilises and distorts.

I was with two young women from the Student Representative Council at the local uni while they waited to speak. They were nervous. They’d never spoken to a big crowd before. But they got up behind the microphone and they were strong. And they were articulate. And they revealed they were survivors in front of thousands and thousands of people.

There is a new liberation in the minds and hearts of survivors - and this is one in three women. They speak with a strength that is different. Unapologetic. Angry. Demanding. And it is that power which will demand change. Women across Australia urgently need that change. We all need that change.

Expect more. Demand more. Take Action.

That day back in March and the weeks that followed filled me with hope. There is so much promise in the #enoughisenough movement. So many opportunities for change. But one thing is clear. A single march on a single day is not enough, especially when the Government of the day has members who do not want women to have choices. Who do not understand that the motto Our Bodies Our Choice is an anthem for the feminist movement and not something to be used by opportunist anti-vaxxers.

We cannot have a safe and fair Australia until women and men are equal and are treated equally. But the Morrison government has approached the urgent need to make legislative change with its usual reluctance. Nowhere to be seen when there’s a crisis, not ready to lead or to do the heavy lifting.

Its response to an emergency? If you can’t go missing - deny, defer, delay again. Wait for the media cycle to be taken over by something else. Ignore the real harms being done to women across the nation and ride it out. Buy time and wait for a distraction. COVID outbreaks across the country provided exactly this.

What must we do to achieve equality?

Two things – we must be better organised to seize the opportunities when they are there. Secondly, we must unite around specific and concrete changes to laws, the only way to speed up getting to equality.

We must organise. Expect more. Demand more. Take Action.

The pandemic has severely hampered our ability both to organise and to demonstrate. That time in March is again a world away, a time when we were all living with the delusion the pandemic was behind us and we had defeated the virus. For all of us who put the health of our community first, we have had to rule out many of the effective means of public protest, which include mass gatherings. It includes eyeballing politicians. It means going to Parliament House and demanding action.

The marches in March were free-flowing, organic. But they had one important impact - they united women around core demands, including the full implementation of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’s Respect@Work report. For over a year the report was ignored. Jenkins delivered her report into sexual harassment in the workplace to the federal government in late 2019. The 55 recommendations were well considered, not everything the union movement thinks needs to happen, but recommendations that had very broad support. At first it sounded like the government would take action on all 55.

Fat chance. Only six of the 12 legislative changes and not the most important ones: ensuring employers have a duty to provide harassment free workplaces. That’s the one which would have ensured employers were forced to take action to prevent sexual harassment at work, to protect all their workers. Not the prohibition of sexual harassment in the Fair Work Act and a workplace right to fast justice. Not the increased power to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner to investigate off her own bat instead of waiting to be invited by the Prime Minister or any other employer. But no, too hard for this government to lead.

So as large parts of the country went back into lockdown with outbreaks that could not be suppressed, Canberra became its own bubble, keeping protesters out and politicians in. Larger protests than March would have occurred if we were not locked out. And with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party opposing even the six recommendations, Scott Morrison’s Government got away with doing very little and people quietly fumed alone in lockdowns.

Then in September the government hosted the Women’s Safety Summit which was another bit of spin to respond to the Respect@Work report and the uproar that ensued when the nation was confronted with the fact that women are not safe right at the heart of political power – Parliament House.

In non-COVID life, this event would have been another event to organise around. The recent documentary Brazen Hussies reminds us of what has occurred when similar summits have been held before. People would have demanded diverse and representative voices, no one would have tolerated spin and inaction. Imagine the reaction of women to having to be spoken about and to by men in power who could act but choose not to.

Instead, First Nations women had to beg for a seat at the table. Unions were not even at the table when a key focus was work and we have led every positive step for equality and safety at work. The online summit was the ultimate exercise in spin and control, able to literally silence inconvenient voices and the many. Because the way individuals without the same power as those in Government overcome this is by banding together. COVID has severely limited this, we all know online organising is a great add-on but it is not an effective replacement.

The pathetic response by this government to Respect@Work would have had us out on the streets of our cities and encircling Parliament House to demand change. The autumn March for Justice would have been just the beginning. The Women’s Safety Summit would have fired up the movement and been another key point to build to. Our two lives, physical and digital, would have worked together to demonstrate the strength and breath of those who want change and forced politicians to confront the people who have had enough.

Instead, we are run off our feet working and coping with the pandemic. Three quarters of the population locked down, unable to physically gather, let alone travel. Juggling and struggling. While frontline services are reporting dramatic spikes in reports of family and domestic violence.

The anger of the march, still obvious at the summit, could be controlled, stage-managed, zoomed into oblivion. Technology silencing so many voices.

But COVID restrictions on our mobilising is not forever. Their ability to control is not forever. It is now time to prepare for the time we can mobilise again. We need to expect more. Demand more. Take Action.
The EnoughIsEnough movement has not gone away. The confidence of a generation of young women will not disappear. Their strength must be the new foundation for the next wave of feminism.

That next wave of feminism is not just these new young brave feminists. It is also extraordinary alliances, bridges across age and political divides.

Think that’s a fantasy? Watch Annabel Crabb’s excellent series “Ms Represented” to see the way women across political divides demanded the same things. Here were women with radically different political beliefs, locked in political battle in every other way, agreeing. Gone was the minimising of male behaviour and the talk of exceptionalism to justify their place in the political hierarchy of their parties. Women politician after woman politician all talked about the culture of male power, where mediocre white man after mediocre white man, gets an easier ride to the top, even against women of much greater “calibre”.

All these women agreed to be interviewed. All agreed to ignore the unspoken rule that politicians should never criticise their parties. That tells you something else has shifted. Yep, the entire range, from Penny Wong to Julie Bishop. They all agreed patriarchy impacts them.

Julie Bishop: It's a phenomenon that I've described as gender deafness. And it occurs, not only in the federal Cabinet but I've experienced it elsewhere.
And so many women have told me, they’ve experienced exactly the same thing.

Sarah Hanson Young: It’s one of those classic frustrations that we all have as women in politics

Anne Aly: There are men who see outspoken women as a kind of, an affront to their masculinity. And so they categorize you as shrill, hysterical, they try to minimize your contribution by categorizing it in that way.

Linda Burney: And it’s like nobody hears you. Penny Wong: Of course it’s happened to me. That’s not a woman problem. It’s a way too many men problem.

There are opportunities here. It is not just unions, it is not just Labor women, now it is broader and deeper. Women want change. We all want safety and equality.

That means there are opportunities to build a consensus around an agenda – a set of demands for change. For equal pay for female-dominated industries, for new laws that mean greater conviction rates for rapists, rights to support women leaving abusive relationships like paid family and domestic violence leave.

Alliances that are both broader and deeper than in the past where these agendas have been carried by the women’s movement, trade unions and the Labor Party. Now, middle class and conservative women have also had enough. The ACTU has always been strong on protecting women from sexual harassment at work, but this year there has been a positive avalanche from organisations which don’t normally trouble themselves to stand up.

The National Farmers Federation responded speedily when it was revealed women farmhands were being sexually harassed and assaulted. In March it said the sector would not tolerate sexual harassment and would work to ensure farm employers understood and discharged their legal and ethical obligations.

The Chief Executive Business Council of Australia Jennifer Westacott said in February this year: “We see still way too many allegations of sexual harassment in the corporate sector, we see horrific domestic violence figures, we see these tremendously shocking gang rape cases and there's an issue about respect for women . . .that culture is a cancer that gives rise to these very serious events that happen in this place. Frankly, it wouldn't be tolerated in a good workplace and shouldn't be.”

So too the Council of Small Business Australia says it supports Kate Jenkin’s Respect@Work report. Both the BCA and Chief Executive women now publicly backing 10 days paid family and domestic violence leave.

That’s more than the Federal government does.

So, if we have the will to build alliances across political divides, what do we need to do?

The agenda must be concrete and it must involve badly needed and long identified changes to the law. Such changes not only give women more and better rights, but they change community expectations – they change culture. Employers will be part of doing far more to make workplaces safe when it is not just in their moral interest but also in their immediate financial interest to do so.

And we must not be distracted by symbolic change. Utterly pointless to have a women’s cabinet when the prime minister himself doesn’t think those issues are important. Fine to have targets for women on boards but that’s not the main game. Those gains don’t spread to everyone, and the benefits are not equally shared. We know that persuading the powerful to share or give up their privileges and power is not an effective means of achieving equality on its own. We know that we will never achieve equality if those are our only or main focus.

If our energies are to be effective, the change we seek must be significant and real for the majority and not able to be undone. We must lock in gains and then look for more.

Laws won’t get everything right. Equal pay laws of the 1970s did not erase the gender pay gap. There was an immediate benefit when different pay rates for men and women disappeared and union victories brought about equal pay for equal work. This made a significant difference both in a concrete sense and a cultural sense.

There was a similar lift in 2012 when the Fair Work Commission awarded increases in unions’ equal pay case for community and disability workers. Those wage rises were a direct recognition that workers in the sector were not paid fairly for their work because the sector is feminised, and the work traditionally seen as “women’s work”. Unions won both the legal argument and the political argument for funding the pay increases from state and federal governments. However, the Commission has since closed the legal avenue that this case opened up, making similar advances for aged and childcare extremely hard.

Nationally, on average, women must work an extra 61 days a year to match men’s pay. Women who work in health care work an extra three months to match men’s pay. The law needs to change. 

Insecure work dominates industries that are dominated by women. Unreliable pay means a more stressful and unreliable life. Industries such as education where permanent jobs are simply labelled casual or contract. The loss of permanent jobs means the loss of permanent rights. People who have insecure jobs are less safe at work because they are less secure. They are more likely to be sexually harassed, work likely to suffer a workplace injury, more likely to experience wage theft. This is an issue of basic dignity and respect. We deserve better job security and the financial security that comes with it. The laws need to change.

Researchers at the University of Sydney say that Australia has one of the most gender-segregated workforces in the OECD, made worse by the pandemic. Of the 800,000 workers who lost their jobs between March and May last year, women made up 54 per cent. Women were over-represented in part-time and casual employment in service sectors which were the hardest hit by the pandemic. Retail. Cafes. Accommodation. And even those women who kept some work, experienced much sharper drops in their hours and pay than men. Remember, I know you do, schools and early childhood education centres closed across Australia then and who withdrew from the workforce to manage that side of life. Women.

We know that breaks in labour force participation have what researchers call lasting wage-scarring effects, and it is worse for women. There is no question that the interruptions for work from COVID will have long-term impacts on women and make existing inequalities worse. This is why women retire with 47% less super than men. The laws need to change.

And there is much more we need to do to change the culture. We need more women everywhere. And we can see organisations which make a deliberate effort to address the gender split succeed. Most political parties and many other organisations claim they would like equal representation of men and women or that the gender breakdown is a reflection of their membership.

Because of Emily’s List the ALP has adopted affirmative action rules that require this representation. The results are clear. Labor first set targets for women MPs in 1994, with a quota of 30 per cent. By 2015, that was changed to 50 per cent. The Coalition says it doesn’t need quotas to attract women of merit. Weird they can only find just under one woman of merit to every two awesome men.

The ACTU and many unions have confronted the same issues. One quite conservative male union leader said: “The thing is, elections and power are about politics. Politics don’t change unless the rules of the game change. If it weren’t for our union’s affirmative action rules, politics would always come first and doing the right thing would have come second”.

It was only 30 years ago when only one woman sat around the ACTU Executive table and that was Jennie George. It is now 50 per cent women.

This is because the ACTU rules require 50%. Quotas and rules work. Now young women don’t just see one woman in leadership positions, they see many. What is acceptable conversation and the tone of the conversation in ACTU Executives has changed enormously. This must also be liberating for many male leaders. There is no longer a need for posturing because the dominant culture is different.

Unions are full of assertive and political women. We would not have won this change in culture by being more assertive or having better arguments. Those changes happened because women organised, and previous leaders insisted on enshrining structural change that insisted on equality. These were moments in time that women took up to insist on this change and this use of their energy has bought about the most change. We need to take these lessons into everything we do.

They expected more. They demanded more. They took action. 

Without changes to our laws, at the current rate of change it will take women about 50 years to achieve equal pay. I hope not to be working then. And without changes to equal pay and to the gender-segregated nature of our workforce, women will always be poorer in retirement.

Monash University research says the gap between women’s retirement savings and men’s retirement savings is going in the wrong direction.

So we need a raft of new laws and a mobilisation of women prepared to demand change. Can we wait for this to change organically? And who’s prepared to wait?

We need cultural change and that can only be driven by changes to systems. Changes to laws are needed to propel us forward.

We have a massive opportunity now. Young feminists are unafraid, and they are inspiring their elders to be even bolder. We have new alliances across class and political divides.

As I said earlier, the Coalition loves to deny, defer, delay again, spin and ignore the real harms being done to women across the nation and ride it out. We have to disrupt this.

Those days in March tell us that women’s rights are no longer considered fringe. We must act now. Organise our campaigns and then mobilise to act.

We must expect more. Demand more.
We must take action. On the streets. Online. Everywhere.
And don’t settle for less.


Sally McManus is the 10th Secretary of the ACTU. She was the leader of her Union, the ASU in NSW representing community, public sector and private sector workers.  She commenced work with the ASU as an ACTU Trainee Organiser in 1994.

Sally has also worked as a Pizza Hut delivery driver, shop assistant and cleaner and studied Philosophy at University.

Download Sally's speech