Although it was a cold winter’s morning on Tuesday July 23, two male Resident volunteers proudly walked around University Square carrying the HeForShe banner with ‘pursuing gender equality’ printed in oversized pink text, capturing the attention of onlookers. They frequently paused to take a photo.
It was the launch of the give a flower, get a smile campaign at Graduate House, which supports the UN Women’s HeForShe gender equality campaign launched September 2015.
Close behind the banner holders were more people holding carnations, handing them out to any passers by. “Support gender equality?” They would ask, holding out a stem.
While some hurriedly walked past, others stopped briefly, and accepted this marker for change, for the pursuit of equality. “They’re beautiful, thank you,” said one passer by. “You’ve just made my day,” said another.
President of The Graduate Union, Dr Ken V Loughnan AO, Chair of Council Rhys Watson were also in attendance, as well as many Residents, Members and staff who had congregated at University Square, just in-front of the Leicester Street terraces.
Dr Loughnan, who is also Vice President of Variety The Children’s Charity, and Chair of the Victoria Police Corporate Advisory Board, addressed the crowd with profound opening remarks.
“The HeForShe program is a significant event, we’re actually linked here with the United Nations global program. Everyone of you are part of that,” he said.
Dr Loughnan is familiar with gender inequality in the workforce, having worked within a system which once saw full-time public service female employees having to immediately resign if they got married.
“There were no ifs, buts or maybes, no exceptions as far as I’m aware, anywhere that is was regulated,” he said.
Dr Loughnan said that while in some ways we have come a long way, in many ways we still have not. “The fact that we’re standing here this morning is a clear indication we’ve still got a fair way to go,” he said.
“We are not going to actually change everything unless we start to change the psyche, it’s the thought process, it’s the culture where still it very much seems to be a man’s world.”
“Whatever society [women are] living in, whatever culture or background, it’s vital that they have an opportunity to be independent and live a good life.”
He pointed out the astonishing pay gap between men and women, and the recent statistics that have shown the pay gap to be 14 to 20 percent differential, even in the area of sports where the gaps are even more pronounced.
The workforce today is still a battleground for many women who have to deal with less than favorable attitudes. The recent comment by Saatchi & Saatchi global Chairman Kevin Roberts, for instance, received such a backlash, he was then forced to stand-down.
Mr Roberts was quoted asserting that the debate on gender equality was “over” in the advertising world, and that it was “way worse” in other sectors such as finance. He also suggested that womens’ ambition “was not a vertical one”.
Prior to becoming chairman, Kevin Roberts served as CEO worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi from 1997 until 2014.
“I’m quite sure that the majority of his employees would be horrified. So we do have a long way. Today is about starting to change our attitudes, doing something positive ourselves, and showing we can do something,” said Dr Loughnan.
Dr Loughnan then thanked staff, Residents and Dr Bennett, and handed her the first flower of the launch. The crowd came together for a group photo, and then moved on to begin handing out flowers to the general public.
Chair of Council Rhys Watson, who showed his support in the lead-up to the campaign by writing a note to Residents and Members, again shared his support for gender equality.
“I think it’s very important to raise the awareness within the community for gender equality,” said Cr Watson. “It’s an ongoing issue, not just in Australia but overseas and I think it’s very important for people to respect each other.”
He said that it’s important to be aware of our behavior and actions and to be respectful to people of all genders, particularly to help and encourage women wherever possible to have equal opportunity and not to face discrimination.
“Whatever society they’re living in, whatever culture or background, it’s vital that they have an opportunity to be independent and live a good life,” he added.
Most passersby had a healthy attitude towards gender equality and women, striving for gender justice in their everyday lives.
Professor Stephen Peterson, who worked for more than 25 years at The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, spent many years working in developing countries in the field of public finance, where he said that there are “virtually no women”.
“I really pushed for women to be involved in the training and I think that had an impact and showed that they could do it and that they were as good if not better. When competence is demonstrated in training, I think that there is no issue.”
Career mentor and strategist, Agnes Banyasz, said that it is also vital for women to show more confidence day to day. “In all my work as a careers consultant I encourage women of all ages to enter any discussion as an equal because it also is up on the women to think that they are equal and don’t go in as second fiddle,” she said.
Half an hour into the launch, the flowers were being handed out and accepted at rapid speed, The Royal Women’s Hospital Foundation volunteers also receiving healthy donations in their collection tins, as all the funds raised from the launch went directly to the Foundation.
“It’s an absolutely lovely thing to do. It’s so good to see the partnership between the Women’s Foundation and Graduate House coming together,” said Jan Chisholm, CEO of the Women’s Foundation.
“What’s also so great about the HeForShe effort is that it’s men and women standing together to address inequalities that are still in place for women around the world,” she added.
Candice Jansz, a volunteer from the Women’s Foundation was also in high spirits, happy with the public’s reaction to the launch.
“I think it’s going really well. It’s so nice to see the smiles on everyone’s faces, everyone seems really happy and I think it’s making people’s day,” she said.
Further down University Square, close to Pelham Street, the other participants, including many males, were taking part.
“It’s a pretty good occasion, we haven’t done something like this before in Graduate House, it’s a simple idea and it gets the message out there,” said Avi Gandhi, a resident at Graduate House.
They believe that it’s important for males to be involved in such a campaign also. “If you have a sister, or a mother, or a grandmother, you should be out here and supporting the cause,” said Thomas Nantz. “I’m here for my sister,” he added.
People were very quick to identify as advocates for gender equality. One passerby said that he was definitely an advocate for gender equality. “Where I work one of our core principals is to promote and support gender equality, and I also try to do so in other aspects of my life, my family life and with my friends and the people that I meet,” he said.
He said that the campaign was a good way to raise awareness, “it makes you step outside of your own head for a moment, it’s a nice gesture,” he said.
Su-Yin Lew, a student at The University of Melbourne agrees with the principals of HeForShe. “I think great strides have been made in terms of sexism that’s very overt, but I think in terms of gender roles, in terms of things we need to be doing in terms of benevolent sexism, subjectively may seem fine, but there’s a lot more room for things to be made, particularly for people our age, particularly for universities, college campuses as well,” she said.
“It’s everyone’s problem, and I think that is a very important message that people don’t realise.”
It is about realisation. While on the one hand there are many men out there who are aware of the inequalities that exist they fail to step-up and be advocates for change.
The UN’s Goodwill ambassador for HeForShe, Emma Watson, at the launch of the HeForShe Impact 10x10x10, asked the question, “young men – have you spoken up in a conversation when a woman was casually degraded or dismissed?”
If you think something’s not fair, say something. The focus isn’t on men with the intention to separate, because for too long that’s what is has been about. It’s time to admit wholeheartedly that we are all, indeed equal despite gender, age, ethnicity, background, faith, occupation, and persuasion.
Thank you to all of the Residents and staff who attended the launch, founders Parisa Shiran, Chanchal Chandramouli and Fatema Samina Yasmin, Dr Ken V Loughnan AO, Cr Rhys Watson and everyone who accepted a flower of equality.