International Women’s Day – A turning point

By: Julie Reilly   |   CEO, Australians Investing in Women   |

There has been a palpable awakening in the lead-up to International Women’s Day (IWD) this year. Have you felt it?

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the associated lockdown experience, has exposed many previously unseen aspects of women’s lives. It has made visible the realities of life for many women: more low-paid casual work, more jobs lost, more household chores, more responsibility for supporting remote schooling, more stress impacting mental health, more superannuation withdrawals, more likelihood of domestic violence … 

The current spotlight on the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault in our society, in our parliamentary offices, in schools, workplaces and everyday life painfully exposes the uncomfortable reality of another way women’s lives differ from those men with pervasive consequences. 

How much more evidence do we need that women carry a disproportionate load, one further exacerbated by recent disasters - that still, in the 21st year of the 21st century, gender inequality persists to the detriment of women and all of society? 

International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate the remarkable achievements of women around the world, and to inspire action to ensure that we break down the barriers that still exist to gender equality. 

Clockwise: Kate Jenkins, Jamila Rizvi, Grace Tame
at UN Women Australia's IWD lunch

This year however I have found it almost impossible to say Happy International Women’s Day. I don’t know many women, whatever their political allegiance, that feel very celebratory right now. The admiration, respect and desire to recognise women’s achievement is by no means on the wane, but most of us are feeling anything but happy about the position of women in Australia right now. Many are despairing. 

Allegations of rape, sexual assault and harassment in the nation’s parliamentary offices in recent weeks have left the country reeling and the initial response from our nation’s leaders was, at best, disappointing. 

Women across the political spectrum are calling out the unacceptable behaviour that discourages women from seeking or staying in office. In line with both the IWD themes this year ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’ and Choose to Challenge, the calls for change are loud and clear. 

Katie Allen MP, Member for Higgins, on a recent ABC Q+A program said “a wind of change” was "like a howl going down the halls of Parliament" in relation to the culture in Canberra. Senator Penny Wong spoke of a ‘serious national reckoning’. Many believe we are at a turning point. Australians Investing in Women (AIIW) Chair, Sam Mostyn AO, called for change to start by allowing more women to lead. 

Calls for an inquiry into the culture of bullying and abuse have been widespread, and ours was one of many organisations that formally added its voice to the call for action. 

I’m pleased to say that on Friday 5th March the Federal Government announced the appointment of our highly respected Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, a global pioneer in addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, to undertake an inquiry and report back in November this year. 

That same day, thanks to the generosity of Wheelton Philanthropy, I hosted a table of Champions of Change at UN Women Australia’s IWD lunch. The line-up of speakers was impressive, the speeches powerful, uncomfortably powerful at times, and I congratulate UN Women Australia, and their CEO Janelle Weissmann. 

I can’t imagine anyone who attended these events, held simultaneously around the country, will forget Grace Tame’s fearless and moving account of her story. 

At the Sydney event, author, commentator and women’s leadership expert, Kirstin Ferguson called on anyone in the room who had experienced sexual assault or knew someone assaulted, to stand. In a sobering picture, very few remained seated. 

In Melbourne, author, presenter and political commentator, Jamila Rizvi painted an all too familiar picture of overt sexism during her time as a young staffer in Parliament House and, while she believes she got off lightly having not been assaulted per se, it was clear that being a young woman forging a career in Canberra, came with a degree of risk in a male-dominated world, as it still clearly does to this day. 


So what is philanthropy to do? 

There are many ways to take action. If you are a funder or have influence over where funding goes, AIIW urges you to invest in the change you want to see for women and the rest of society. 

Everyone benefits from gender equality. 

Strengthening investment in women and girls helps create gender equality, and a fairer world for all. If you are among the growing number of Australians who want to invest with impact, passion and knowledge – and that includes giving with a strategic focus on women and girls – then please visit our website, adopt our gender-wise toolkit and explore our Project Showcase. 

Investing in women and girls has a proven multiplier effect, with benefits flowing to family and community, and women are often key to leading social change. Investing in women and girls can accelerate progress on a range of social issues and at the same time advance gender equality. 

We know that strategic investment in women and girls will accelerate progress. 

We cannot wait another 100 years! 

Click here to view the International Women’s Day campaign from UN Women Australia and watch the powerful video asking ‘When will she be right?’

If, like us, you’d like to change the ‘when’ you are in a great position to do that.  Philanthropy has the power to supercharge this timeline and help make the change in 10 rather than 100 years. 

This International Women’s Day we #choosetochallenge you to ask yourself some critical questions: Do you want your giving to have maximum impact? How does your giving affect women and girls? Do you keep data on the proportion of your giving that targets women and girls and evaluate how they benefit? 

Supporting gender equality is not just about choosing to fund programs for women and girls. It’s also about challenging the assumption that gender-neutral programs benefit everyone equally. 

We often see examples of non-gender specific programs that overwhelmingly support men or boys, simply by the nature of the program. This means that supporters may assume they are donating to a program that benefits everyone, when, in reality, women and girls often miss out. 

At AIIW, we encourage investors to think about how they want to effect change, to ask the right questions through the giving process, and to test program performance along the way.  

We offer practical tools and support to help philanthropic individuals and organisations through that process – because, as we know, gender equality doesn’t happen by accident. 

Join at us our upcoming event Philanthropy Australia in collaboration with Australians Investing in Women: Gender-wise Philanthropy for a conversation on March 30th, 2-3pm between Leading Philanthropist Carol Schwartz AO and Catherine Fox, when we will launch research to inform and guide investments that support women and the recovery from COVID-19 and share a new edition of our resources. If you’re a member of Philanthropy Australia, please save the date and register interest via

Champions of Change at UN Women’s International Women’s Day lunch - Melbourne

Julie Reilly is the Chief Executive Officer of Australians Investing in Women.

Mar. 08, 2021

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