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MAV Opinion Editorial - How the new Gender Equality Act will make communities safer and stronger

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When it comes to achieving equality, there is often an assumption that things happen automatically once society becomes aware of the problem. However, evidence and experience shows this is not the case, and those who have been working to address gender inequality welcomed the passing of the Gender Equality Bill into Victorian law on Thursday, 20 February 2020.

The new Gender Equality Act (the Act) will require public entities, including councils, to take real steps to improve gender equality outcomes in workplaces and community, and to report on these publicly. The Act is a first for Australia and will have far reaching positive impacts for people of all genders.

Its development has stemmed from recommendations made by the Royal Commission into Family Violence in 2015. Actions required under the Act are expected to reduce levels of violence in our communities, drive better balance for all genders, increase female participation in public and community life, and create new opportunities for everyone.

As the closest level of government to the community, councils are well placed to support Victorians in implementing and embracing this new legislation. For years, councils have led their communities in action towards gender equality through services delivered such as maternal and child health, early years education, local libraries, sporting and other community facilities, planning and workforce development.

The Rural Challenge Gender Equality Leadership Program, supported by Greater Bendigo City Council and Macedon Ranges Shire Council, is a prime example. This program works with the community, through the CFA and sporting clubs, to create positive cultural change that supports women’s leadership and enriches community life.

Other examples of councils’ work and leadership in gender equality include Maribyrnong City Council’s Beyond Pirates and Princesses, a guide to assist parents and carers in challenging the gender stereotypes in children’s picture books, and Moreland City Council’s Active Women and Girls Strategy which has supported clubs to increase participation of women and girls in council owned sport and recreation facilities from 8% in 2009 to 23% in 2018.

The MAV has long advocated for policy to progress gender equality within local communities, and for opportunities and resourcing for local government to help drive this change. This advocacy contributed to the greatest ever investment in local government for prevention of violence against women and gender equality by the Victorian Government in 2018, through $2.7 million in local government grants.

We know, however, that this is just a drop in the ocean and that if the significant new requirements of the Gender Equality Act are to be implemented meaningfully, councils and other organisations will need to be properly resourced.

Currently there has been no funding allocated to implement the Act, limiting councils’ ability to map out what this might look like. Key to its success will be adequate funding and resourcing for the public sector so there is capacity to enact their obligations under the Act.

It’s especially critical that smaller councils receive support to ensure people in regional and rural communities are not disadvantaged. No one should miss out on the opportunity for a more equal future simply because of where they live.

Research shows that improved gender equality leads to reduced rates of violence at home and throughout the community and is also at the heart of better business practice.

Despite decades of work and great achievements, gender inequality in the workplace persists. For example, Victoria’s first Gender Equality Strategy, Safe and Strong, highlights the discrimination or disapproval men often face when taking on career paths, caring responsibilities and activities traditionally reserved for women. While the MAV Human Resources Management benchmarking conducted in 2019reported that despite making up almost 60% of the local government workforce, women make up only 40% of council leadership positions.

In the workplace, improving gender balance leads to better decision making, improved business outcomes and more positive work cultures. Better equality will see workplaces encourage men to work flexibly or take extended parental leave if they choose to. It will also see more women in senior leadership roles and more equitable decision making from the public sector.

As one of the largest employers in Victoria, the public sector holds enormous power to influence workplace change, and local government must represent everyone across Victoria’s diverse communities. It’s important that councillor and local council workforces reflect their constituents and involve decision makers from a broad range of backgrounds.

If you feel passionately about this and other community issues, it’s a great time to be involved in local government. This year the sector is celebrating 100 years of women in local government and has the highest percentage of female Mayors on record in Victoria, currently sitting at 48%. I encourage more women, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, to nominate in your local council elections this October.

Cr Ruth Gstrein
MAV Deputy President (Rural)

This Opinion Editorial was published on 6 March in the Ballarat Courier, Bendigo Advertiser, Border Mail and Warrnambool Standard.