Women in Leadership

By Autumn Pierce, Health Promotion Manager


Given the recent federal election, it seems timely to talk about government. The 2019 federal election saw only an incremental rise in women’s representation in Parliament while Tanya Plibersek passed on the opportunity to succeed Bill Shorten as Labor leader. In her words, she could not ‘reconcile the important responsibilities I have to my family with the additional responsibilities (of) leadership.’ There’s a lot to unpack in that statement, one disproportionately echoed by women around the world on a trajectory to professional success. However, given the glacial progress in securing a gender balance at a federal government level, let’s go back to the basics, and focus on why women in leadership is not only important but also beneficial for all.

Women’s leadership is a key pillar of gender equality. The equal participation of women and men in politics is an important condition of effective democracy and good governance, but the tangible benefits of equality extend beyond concepts of balance and inclusivity. In Canada for instance, researchers have found that as the percentage of women in government has risen, total mortality rates have declined. Interestingly, no relationship has been found between the political leanings of Canadian women in government and Canadian mortality rates. Women in government, whether they belong to left-wing, centrist or right-wing parties, do in fact advance population health and improve the lives of both women and men.

So why is this? Turns out that compared to their male counterparts, female politicians are more likely to hold progressive attitudes (with regard to issues such as civil rights, social equality and egalitarianism) and substantively advance women’s rights in areas such as pay equity, violence against women, health care and family policy. This builds on evidence that has previously suggested women initiate the four types of provincial government spending that we know are key to lowering mortality rates: medical care, preventative care, other social services and post-secondary education.

The recent findings support the idea that women in government tend to work in more collaborative and bipartisan ways than men in leadership, which is positioned as a recipe for success within the context of this research. But is it? When you think about how to most efficiently scale the leadership ladder, are collaboration and bipartisanship the first words that come to mind?

It’s no secret the traits and characteristics we typically associate with effective leadership validate stereotypical masculine attributes such as assertiveness and ambition, while simultaneously discounting stereotypical feminine traits like collaboration and cooperation as ‘soft.’ Masculine stereotypes are synonymous with leadership and this bias means a man is more likely to be regarded as a potential and competent leader, while a woman is less likely to receive encouragement to pursue a leadership role. The handful who do put themselves forward often find themselves having to emphasise traits usually associated with men to convince the gatekeepers that they have what it takes.

But we know that in itself to be a double-edged sword – asking a woman to choose between meeting the expectations placed on her as a leader, or the expectations that are assigned to her gender. Nice and polite equates to weakness while assertiveness equates to the b word (bossiness), neither of which are desired professional nor personal qualities. Women are twice as likely to be told they need more confidence when applying for a promotion or leadership role, compared to their male colleagues, but also twice as likely to be called bossy. This is what gender inequality looks like in 2019. It’s a rigged game.

But the game is changing. Look no further than across the ditch. Leaders like Jacinda Ardern are breaking down narrow ideas of what defines a true leader. By employing all things feminine – compassion, empathy, teamwork, collaboration, kindness – she is challenging the idea that men, because of their ‘inherent’ leadership qualities, are more equipped to run countries. Or to be CEOs. Or to stand for local government.

Let’s remember – the end game isn’t to eliminate differences between genders. It’s to hold authenticity in the highest regard. It’s to afford all genders an equal voice, and to equally value all expression of gender and all expressions of leadership. But to achieve this we must throw our weight behind initiatives that create pathways, such as the Victorian Local Governance Association’s campaign Local Women Leading Change. The campaign officially launched on 7 March 2019, with the vision for the October 2020 local government elections – 50% women by 2020. The federal election may be decided, but we’re not done fighting.

Why we need to keep the gender focus on elder abuse

By Autumn Pierce, Health Promotion Manager

As seen in Croakey.org

Earlier this year, I attended the Victorian Government’s Elder Abuse Prevention Forum on behalf of Women’s Health East, and since then I’ve been particularly interested in conversations relating to the issue.

Elder abuse in itself isn’t a new issue, but it has come into focus more lately, especially in Victoria, where it is now recognised within a family violence context. In this year’s budget, in continuing response to the recommendations the Royal Commission into Family Violence released in 2016, the State Government announced  it would invest $6 million to tackle elder abuse by extending the trial of an integrated model of care – offering specialist clinical advice, family counselling and mediation services.

The majority of the prevention funding made available after the Royal Commission was allocated towards preventing men’s violence against their female intimate partners. Coupled with the data from Our Watch’s Change the Story framework, the findings from the inquiry paint a clear picture of the epidemiology of violence in Australia:

  • The primary driver of men’s violence against women is gender inequality.
  • The vast majority of violent acts – whether against men or women – are perpetrated by men.
  • Women are three times more likely than men to experience violence from an intimate partner.
  • Intimate partner violence is the greatest contributor to ill health and premature death in women aged 15-44 .

Within this heteronormative framework, violence against women is widely regarded as a gendered epidemic. But from the limited available data on elder abuse, we know these patterns of violence aren’t reflected among older people.

For example, most abuse is perpetrated by adult children rather than intimate partners and physical and sexual abuse are the least common types of reported abuse.

Importantly, the primary driver of elder abuse is ageism, but this in no way suggests the issue is not a gendered one.

On that note, let’s get one thing out of the way. Everything. Is. Gendered. Everything. According to the European Institute of Gender Equality, gender issues include all aspects and concerns related to women and men’s lives and situation in society, to the way they interrelate, their differences in access to and use of resources, their activities, and how they react to changes, interventions and policies. In other words, women and men experience and interact with the world around them differently, which is largely due to forces outside of their control.

Not everyone views the world through this lens, but given what we know about violence against women, I am genuinely surprised to have heard more than one respected colleague within the health promotion sector claim elder abuse is not gendered.

The manifestations and implications for women of gender inequity in Australia – the wage gap, lower superannuation balances and greater vulnerability to sexual and physical violence and workplace harassment, to name a few– aren’t exchanged for your Seniors Card.

If anything, where these experiences of discrimination intersect with ageism, their effects are further compounded.

But clearly the evidence is ambiguous enough to make some people assert the opposite. So I sat down to make a compelling case for why elder abuse is without a doubt a gendered issue. As my laptop booted up I envisioned authoring a ground-breaking piece. The high-level correlations I intended to make would surely land me in journals worldwide by the end of the month.

Consensus in the evidence

After spending 10 minutes on the Internet, my vision of winning an award for excellence was dashed. The Australian Government’s Australian Institute of Family Studies, Senior Rights Victoria, and the University of Melbourne and the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health beat me to it.

Turns out there’s consensus in the evidence: Older women are significantly more likely to be victims of abuse than older men, and while women comprise a higher proportion of the older population than men, this alone does not explain the disparity. In other words, women experience elder abuse differently than men, which makes it – you’ve guessed it – a gendered issue.

In all the resources produced by the above institutes, gender is identified as a risk factor for elder abuse. The Institute of Family Studies’ report cites research pointing to ‘an association between gender roles and elder abuse, particularly financial abuse, because under traditional gender role paradigms, women have not expected, or been expected, to take responsibility for financial matters. In this respect, norms that support women’s relinquishment of financial control to others are also seen to be conducive to creating opportunities for elder abuse.’

The 2016 submission  to the Australian Law Reform Commission Inquiry on Elder Abuse by the University of Melbourne and the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health highlights the following:

‘Compared to older men, older women are more likely to outlive their male spouses, live in poverty and rely on social welfare, and suffer chronic health conditions, disabilities, and limitations in activities of daily living. All of these factors marginalise older women in society, increase their risk of abuse and neglect, and limit their access to services and support.’

Why the different focus?

So I’m sitting here, genuinely confused. Where has anyone gotten the idea elder abuse is NOT gendered? What resources or evidence are they referring to? Reflecting once again on the elder abuse forum, why wasn’t the issue framed in a way that positioned elder abuse as gendered?

Perhaps it’s the male to female perpetrator ratio that has thrown everyone off. Across Australia, 95 per cent of victims of physical and sexual violence, including threats, reported a male perpetrator. This only encompasses reported violence, but for the purpose of this exercise, let’s assume 5 per cent of perpetrators of violence in Australia are women. When we narrow the scope to abuse against older people, the dynamics shift (financial and physiological abuse become more common than physical and sexual violence) and the proportion of women who perpetrate increases.

The Institute of Family Studies report describes three studies based on data and calls for elder abuse helplines. In all three studies (across Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales), calls were mostly in relation to female victims and the most commonly reported perpetrators were male. However, in the Queensland study, 45 per cent of perpetrators were reported to be female and, in Victoria, females made up 40 per cent of reported perpetrators. Although men still perpetrate at a significantly higher rate than women, the numbers look very different than the 95/5 split upon which we base most of our current initiatives that address men’s violence against their female intimate partners.

By all accounts, men are the most commonly reported perpetrators of elder abuse, but for a more accurate picture of the issue we also need to take into consideration the fact that women disproportionally assume (paid and unpaid) care taking responsibilities of older people. Access to a potential victim is a significant risk factor for abuse, and should be included in this discussion.

We don’t have enough data to calculate the adjusted perpetrator rate for gendered carer ratio (and I’d be lying if I said I could do that even if we did), but as health promotion practitioners we should be able to recognise when the numbers aren’t telling the whole story.

So I’ll ask again, from what we do know about elder abuse, how is it NOT gendered? Our understanding of the prevalence of elder abuse in Australia is limited, but our understanding of how the issue fits into the current framework of family violence is not, and that framework is one that allows for multiple, overlapping factors of influence.

While ageism is the primary driver of violence against older people, when we start talking about older women, we have to apply what we already know about the structures, norms and practices that disadvantage women of all ages.

At a national and state level, the drivers and risk factors have been identified and the issue has been framed as gendered. The context has been set, but it seems to not have resonated with the people analysing these reports and translating the information to the wider sector.

The way a social issue is framed should reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the intended audience, and what’s most disappointing here is that something has fallen short, and as a result we are missing an opportunity to respond to nuance and unpack complexities that could help us better understand and prevent elder abuse.

As a sector, nothing we do should support a one-size-fits-all approach, but everything we do should be with intersectionality at the forefront. It is up to us to expand upon what is currently available within the elder abuse space, to participate in research that quantifies the incidence of violence, to strengthen the replicability and validity of the evidence base, and to effectively respond to the intersect of all underlying drivers of violence, including gender inequality.

A Reflection on NAIDOC Week 2018

By Jill Exon, Health Promotion Officer


Jill at Coogee Beach

As I reflect on the last couple of weeks of 2018 NAIDOC celebrations, I feel honoured to have represented Women’s Health East (WHE) at a number of key events across the eastern metropolitan region (EMR), in addition to attending a local community event with my family. This year’s national NAIDOC theme, Because of her, we can!, resonated with me on both a professional and personal level, and I’m excited to share the highlights.

On 5 July, I joined around 100 people across the east for a community NAIDOC afternoon tea held at the Memo Hall in Healesville. The event was hosted by Healesville Indigenous Community Services Association (HICSA), Boorndawan Willam Aboriginal Healing Service, Women’s Health East, Yarra Ranges Council and Eastern Community Legal Centre. The room was alive with speakers and images of local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who have paved the way in significant ways – both big and small. Among them, Miranda Madgwick (Chair of HICSA and founding member) spoke about Anne Jenkins and her significant contributions to the community as a founding member and CEO of HICSA.

On Sunday 8 July I took my two boys (aged 2 and 4) along to the Mullum Mullum NAIDOC Family Day. This was a fabulous opportunity for families to get involved. There were real-life reptiles and the chance to decorate your very own (working!) boomerang. Needless to say that I had two very excited boys, and even a bit of fun myself!

I also had the privilege of attending Day 2 of the national NAIDOC Conference in Sydney which included honouring and hearing from some of our First Nation women role-models, trailblazers and courageous leaders. There were so many stand-out speakers. Some of my personal favourites included: Linda Burney MP, Shelley Reys AO, Leila Gurruwiwi and our very own Melbourne based, Karen Milward. These women shared their own journeys to positions of leadership, whilst bringing a spotlight to the women – the mothers, aunties, sisters, grandmothers, elders and other First Nation women and leaders – who have walked before and inspired them to achieve what they have today.

In topping off a jam-packed week, WHE was invited to attend the EMR NAIDOC Ball. Thank you HICSA! Putting on my frock and heels, I joined in for more local celebrations MC’ed by HICSA’s Community Engagement Worker, Nikki Madgwick. What a brilliant night this was, shared with so many local leaders, partners and community members! A key highlight was when Aunty Janet Turpie-Johnstone presented Aunty Kim Wandin with an Elders Award. Kim was recognised as someone who is generous in sharing her culture as an artist and through schools, cultural days and community events.

From a personal perspective, I have found the week’s events both moving and incredibly inspiring.  This year’s theme, ‘Because of her, we can!’ was indeed celebrated well, honouring the women who are often the unsung heroes. So in a final reflection, I am so grateful to our First Nation women, who, as Leila Gurruwiwi noted: “built the bridges that [we] walk on today.”

As WHE continues to work toward equality, empowerment, health and wellbeing for all women, we recognise the resilience, strength and hard work of the First Nation women who have inspired and paved the way. Thank you!

Nikki Madgwick – MC at Eastern Metropolitan Region Ball

Karen Milward – Aboriginal Consultant

Local friends at the NAIDOC conference. Aunty Janet Turpie-Johnstone and Anne Jenkins, founding member and CEO of HICSA