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UN Women’s Julie McKay: Gender Equality Begins At Home


In her 2012 TedxCanberra talk, Julie McKay, the Executive Director of the Australian National Committee for UN Women, asked her audience who among them pay their children pocket money. Hands rose across the auditorium. Then she asked how many pay their daughters less than their sons.

“Interesting,” she smiled at the off-screen response. “And this is the challenge of gender equality.”

It is a challenge that the world has spent decades trying to surmount with frustratingly slow progress, mainly because like charity, gender equality too begins at home. And changing patriarchal norms requires great will, tenacity and courage. It is also a shift that needs to be urgently and relentlessly pursued.

“In every single country, women still take on the vast majority of unpaid work at home,” Julie told women with drive in a recent interview. “The more hours of unpaid work they do mean less hours of paid work they are able to do, which inherently creates an imbalance of economic power. But more than that, it perpetuates the norm of woman as carer and man as provider.”

Julie, who took up her current role nine years ago at the age of 23, will step down in April but will not let up on her commitment towards advancing gender equality. She continues as Gender Advisor to the Chief of the Australian Defence Force and is confident the rest of her career will be dedicated to this cause because “I have seen too much.”

Julie spoke to women with drive ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8 on UN Women’s newly launched campaign, preventing violence against women and her three wishes for Australian women this year.


UN Women recently launched a campaign called #FaceItTogether. Tell us about it.

#FaceItTogether is an exciting visual petition calling on Australians to use their photo as a visual symbol of their commitment towards eliminating violence against women. Throughout the campaign, the photos will meld together to result in one united face. This campaign is the first of its kind in Australia and possibly in the world, and aside from asking people to show their support, it also opens conversations about what it means to translate that support into action.


What short-term results do you hope the campaign will achieve?

I would like to see us raise half a million dollars for UN Women’s work in the Pacific where two in every three women experience violence. That is double the number in Australia. The work there is groundbreaking and is saving lives but it needs investment to be replicated and up-scaled around the region.


What are the biggest myths about violence against women?

I was shocked at a UN report stating that up to 80% of women in the Pacific believe they are responsible for the violence. That they have provoked it or that they deserve to be treated that way. We still need to educate women on their rights and that those rights are non-negotiable. There is also a perception that violence only happens in certain communities and parts of the world.


What needs to be done for the prevention of violence against women in Australia?

No one is doing really good work in the prevention space yet in terms of long-term systemic changes in the treatment of women. What will prevent violence against women is gender equality and for that, we need more women in leadership roles.

Each of us also needs to make a personally significant investment in a women’s organisation that is working towards gender equality on the frontline. Until we do that, we are not really putting our hearts and souls behind achieving it.

We also need to have conversations with men and boys about creating a safe and secure environment for all women. These are not things we can take photos of and expect results in three months. These are significant cultural shifts.


How can we start this shift at home?

The simplest change families can make is thinking about what a gender equal shared responsibility at home looks like and how to proactively model that for their children. This will shift a whole generation’s expectations of men and women’s roles.”

One of my pet hates is hearing little girls being told not to be bossy whenever they are being assertive. Bossy is a very gendered word. We rarely hear it being used on boys and by using it on young girls, we are criticising them for being leaders. What this does to a woman’s confidence is significant. By the time she is navigating the workforce, she has already learnt what behaviours will punish her in her career.

What fascinates me when I talk to senior business leaders is their confidence that things will change when the next generation takes over the leadership roles. They say men today have different attitudes. But those attitudes are formed by experiences in their own families, by societal norms and by expectations those norms place on them.

Over time even the most progressive young people will start conforming because that is the easiest way to survive. Which one of the future generations will decide that a shift in societal norms must start with them?


What are your three wishes for women in Australia this year?

First, I would like the Federal Election this year to deliver a gender equal Parliament. Second, I want the government to deliver on its commitment to a workforce participation strategy for women. And third, I want all Australian women to feel safe. I know that is unlikely to happen this year but we need to be ambitious.


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