Rally organiser Fi Bendall with Cassandra Thorburn. Photo: Fi Bendall

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By Sarah Mclenaghan

On Wednesday 28 November, rally goers across Sydney took a stand against Australia’s gender pay gap and walked out of work to support women’s financial empowerment.

The WalkOut Oz Rally was held in Martin Place with women and men encouraged to leave work early to demonstrate their support for fair and equal pay.

Fi Bendall, CEO of The Female Social Network, said it’s time Australian women had their hashtag moment: “Let’s make it a thing; let’s make it a stigma not to pay people equally, a stigma not to treat your daughters the same as your sons.

The movement started with private meetings between women from corporate Australia who were fed up with the same kind of conversations around gender and nothing really changing.

“That’s how it started and it actually blew out to quite a few women and we’d get together privately. We actually supported quite a few initiatives just to try and turn the dial. There was an amazing shift as a result of #MeToo movement and the conversation led into a lot of issues around economic empowerment for women,” Ms Bendall said.

From this conversation a rally for change emerged. It was proposed that women and men should walk out of work at 3:50pm to demonstrate in a very tangible way how Australian women work an additional 70 minutes a day on average for free.

Ms Bendall said: “It’s not about just women walking out; it would be great if men walked out. I know a number of men who just can’t believe these statistics as well.”

Pascale Helyar-Moray, Director of Communications for the Australian Gender Equality Council (AGEC), said her organisation was approached by the WalkOut Oz team who saw an opportunity to collaborate and amplify the message, given the alignment of the groups’ missions.

“One of AGEC’s driving principles is to advocate for, and raise awareness of gender equality in Australia. This rally is a way to do just that.” AGEC’s Chair, Ms Victoria Weekes, was one of the speakers at the rally’s end point in Martin Place.

Eva Cox, Feminist Academic, was another speaker at the rally. “Women earn a lot less than men because feminised jobs, eg nursing, children’s services and care jobs are generally undervalued and underpaid, and we do most of the unpaid domestic and community work as well,” said Ms Cox.

Ms Helyar-Moray said the financial exploitation of women by the system was clear when looking at the statistics: Female graduates entering the workforce do so being paid 11% less than males. One in two women in the workforce are being discriminated against for being mothers. Women retire with 58% as much superannuation as men.

Women’s March Sydney Co-Organiser, Meagan Date, shared these concerns: “Women deserve to be treated equally and respected at work. The gender pay gap impacts all women and has wide reaching consequences, impacting on everything from our ability to save, advancing in our career, right through to not having enough in superannuation when it comes to retirement.”

As a result, Ms Date believes there are a number of significant changes that need to be made to the working conditions for women in Australia: “Acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step. Immediately addressing pay discrepancies between men and women doing the same job is crucial.

“Then there are multiple other changes needed to address systemic inequality: improving maternity leave policies, making education and training more accessible, introducing internal company policies to ensure women can advance within their careers.”

Ms Helyar-Moray emphasised the importance of making these changes: “The working rights of women in Australia is a vital issue on many levels: at a cultural level, to encourage balance between men and women, at a workplace level, to support and encourage women in the workforce, at an economic level, to assist building our economy.

“A recent report by McKinsey Global shows that with full gender equality in our workforce, Australia could add another $297 billion to the economy.

Ms Helyar-Moray suggested that more quotas be introduced to encourage gender equality in the workplace. She also argued government should have greater oversight over pay inequity in companies with penalties for non-compliance.

However, Ms Bendall believes the biggest change we need to see is a change in beliefs: “The underlying attitude and mindset has to be the most difficult but the most important and I think it’s all very easy for people to talk about quotas to put in place but at the end of the day they don’t in a practical sense operate in the workplace. It’s time to rethink and unlearn what we think about gender.”