Opinion pieces

By Bernadette Carbin, published in Crikey on 9 February 2022.

The dreaded phone call came sooner than I expected. It was 6 January, and I was at the beach on a much-anticipated holiday when I got the message that a Covid-19 case had been detected at one of our largest early childhood education and care services in Canberra.  

What followed was a chaotic and stressful period of rapid response. Myself and my incredible team jumped to action – calling the regulator, then the ACT Government, then notifying all parents and educators, creating a spreadsheet of contacts for ACT Health, coordinating the service closure and Covid-19 clean, supporting staff with their isolation, notifying other organisations that share a building with the service, the list went on.  

That first night, we worked until 12.45am, and over the next days the process continued.  

What we didn’t know then was that this was just the first go around of a ride we would become very accustomed to over the coming month. Since then, we have undergone the process of shutting down and re-opening six services this year alone, and no doubt there will be many to come as Omicron continues to tear through our community.  

While the early childhood sector is not alone in being significantly impacted by Covid-19, as we enter the third year of the pandemic, we can’t help but wonder how much longer we can continue in this cycle without meaningful support from governments. 

Aside from the enormous emotional and mental stress it places on educators when managing exposures at our services, there is a large economic impact to the service. When a service is forced to close as a result of a Covid case, understandably parents expect the gap fee to be waived while their child isn’t able to attend. But this means services are facing periods of earning 50% or less of their usual income while still having the same expenses.  

The flow on impact is significant, on the viability of our services, the employment of majority female educators in a highly feminized workforce, and our ability to keep ensuring we provide the quality education and care for children that is vital to assisting women – the vast majority of Australian care givers – to participate in employment.  

Early childhood education is typically undervalued in our community. We know this because of the continued issue of low wages for educators and a lack of recognition of the professionalism of the sector. 

It is timely to remember the famous statement by a sitting MP in 2017 that ‘childcare’ jobs are basically ‘wiping noses and stopping kids from killing each other’.  I would love to say that government has moved on from this thinking but unfortunately, evidence and inaction clearly demonstrates that this is not the case.   

At the time of writing this  I note that the Prime Minister has announced a retention bonus payment for Aged Care workers.  Although the amount on offer would appear to some as paltry, I note there was again no mention of the early childhood sector and the staffing challenges we are facing.   

I have a large team of passionate and dedicated educators, who are proud of the work they do and are driven by their values in giving children a strong educational foundation in their early years – something that is widely recognized as having a significant impact on their future outcomes.  

But with the risk, anxiety and lack of support through the pandemic, we’re facing a drain of talent from the sector as educators exit in hordes, unable to justify the stress of continuous infections and closures, and the fear of contracting and spreading the virus themselves.  

With each case that’s detected at one of our services, staff must isolate, and this means that we’re often scrambling to get our ratios for educators when we reopen, which in turn creates more uncertainty and confusion for our staff and for parents.  

And for those who are isolating, accessing Covid-19 disaster payments is complex and confusing, adding to the broader stress of the situation. Staff are genuinely concerned that they will run out of leave entitlements and will have to exist on $750 per week, always assuming this payment remains accessible.  

If it’s difficult to navigate support payment availability and eligibility as an individual, trying to assess and apply for ‘disaster’ relief payments as a Service is equally opaque and convoluted. It does beg the question of when the government will stop acting on the basis of one-off ‘disaster’ support packages and instead undertake a more rigorous assessment of how to properly support the sector in what we know now is not a temporary crisis but a new normal. 

The directors of our services have reported an increasing feeling of burnout and anxiety within their teams, as they look forward to a year where this scenario could be on repeat without a clear end in sight. No matter what way you look at it, things can’t continue as is without having severe ramifications for the sector, for children’s educational and care outcomes, and for the millions of parents who rely on early childhood services across the country. If Covid is here to stay, and it looks like it is, urgent action is needed to make sure our educators stay in the sector as well.  

By Frances Crimmins, published in The Canberra Times on 17 December 2021

It feels like a new early childhood service is cropping up in Canberra every month.

This sounds great for working parents but the underlying reality is that these services are all pulling from a small pool of qualified educators – a pool that shows no sign of growing to meet demand.

According to Australian government labour market projections, the childhood education and care sector needs a 20 per cent increase in educators between 2019 and 2024 (about 30,000 people) to keep up with demand.

This is not a trivial number, especially in a heavily regulated sector that has minimum qualification requirements.

People working as early childhood educators, even at the entry level, must hold or be working towards Certificate III qualifications in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC).

At least half the educators in a service must hold a minimum Diploma qualification. There are also strict ratios of educators to children at all times during the day.

Without sufficient staff with the right qualifications, early childhood services must reduce their capacity. This is exactly what is happening in Canberra, and across Australia.

Between 2016 and 2019, enrolments in the Diploma of ECEC across Australia declined by more than one-third. We now have a massive shortfall in the early childhood workforce, with services scrambling to attract qualified staff. A recent search of the term “early childhood educator” on a leading recruitment website found 175 available jobs in Canberra alone.

Even offering above award wages and conditions, we have found it difficult to recruit quality staff to YWCA Canberra’s early childhood services. This concerns us both as a service provider and as an organisation dedicated to increasing the rights and freedoms of women.

At YWCA Canberra, we have been offering early childhood education and care services since the 1970s, to help enable more local women to enter the workforce. The need for these services has only grown since then, with women now comprising 47.4 per cent of all employed people yet still undertaking the majority of caring duties.

Lack of access to early childhood services is a significant impediment for mothers in the workforce. In a 2018-19 ABS study, unemployed and underemployed people were asked why they weren’t able to start a job or work more hours. Almost half of the women surveyed cited “caring for children” as a barrier; this was only a factor for 3.2 per cent of men.

When asked about what would incentivise people to return to the workplace or increase hours, the most common responses were related to childhood education and care. Half the women surveyed stated there should be greater access to childhood services and more financial assistance with the associated costs. This demonstrates the clear links between women’s workforce equality and access to early childhood education and care. When a lack of staff limits spaces in early childhood services, it doesn’t affect working parents equally; the impacts are disproportionately felt by women who are typically the second income earner in the family.

Some work is being done to increase the numbers of people entering early childhood careers, such as government grants programs and targeted supports. The Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority has recently developed a 10-year national workforce strategy. I was pleased to see that it included consideration of how to better recognise the professionalism of the early childhood sector, both in remuneration and in social standing, which I and many others have been calling for over several years.

At YWCA Canberra, we are dedicated to building a pipeline of qualified and confident ECEC professionals as part of our work to address gender inequality. But we are only one organisation. This needs to be a larger discussion across our community, in our workplaces, and in our governments.

The difficulties of achieving gender equality at work are well-known, but ensuring access to quality early childhood education and care is an essential part of the solution.

By Frances Crimmins, published in The Canberra Times on 8 December 2021

Homeless and jobless for 15 months.

Forced to move due to rent increase.

DV escalated during COVID-19 and I had to leave my house.

I couldn’t land a job despite more than 18 interviews.

Any savings are gone, and I’ve sold all my valuables.

Reading these statements, it may be hard to believe that these are the words of women living in Canberra. But they are some of the responses to YWCA Canberra’s survey of 1200 women and non-binary people, Our lives: Women in the ACT.

The data we collected paints a bleak and compelling picture of how gender and economic inequality are defining the lives of many, and how assumed safeguards against personal financial crisis such as having modest incomes, a good education, some personal savings, affordable housing and access to an adequate safety net are no longer doing the job.

When we launched Our lives in 2019, we had some idea that the picture presented to us would provide an insight into the impact of gender inequality in our city. But we had no idea what the coming 12 to 18 months would hold, and how the COVID-19 pandemic would destroy what little buffer many women were relying on to keep afloat, consigning even more to housing stress and income insecurity.

Now YWCA Canberra has released the results of the second Our lives survey, which collected responses from June to October this year, and once again asked respondents to share their experiences of work, housing security, safety, and mental health.

The responses we received have shown yet again that the typical impression we have of Canberra as an affluent city, where the majority of people live with economic security and privilege, is one that applies to an ever-diminishing number of people. In fact, more and more people are being shifted over the line to the growing cohort of Canberrans who are living in severe housing stress; despite being in paid work, those on lower incomes are increasingly vulnerable to homelessness.

These are people who do not fit the stereotype typically applied to the most vulnerable members of the community. Rather, they reflect a growing cohort of working women experiencing financial crisis and poverty. Here are some of the key findings of the survey, to give you a sense of the picture it has painted:

  • 42 per cent of respondents who had accessed homelessness services were working
  • 26 per cent of renters said they would be unable to meet one cycle of rent if they suddenly lost income
  • A strong majority of single parents said they would be unable to meet one cycle of rent if they suddenly lost income
  • Single parents were also the most common household to access the early superannuation scheme
  • One-third of young people told us they felt negatively about their future
  • What this tells us is that there is a very thin margin of vulnerability for many women in Canberra, who are just one crisis or unexpected expense away from being in dire circumstances. The way we view what security looks like needs to shift drastically.

If asked to describe someone teetering on the brink of homelessness, many of us would think of someone who is unemployed, perhaps dealing with addiction or mental health challenges, who exists on the fringes of society.

Would we consider the women in low-paid, feminised industries – who may have run down their savings as work dried up at the beginning of the pandemic and who didn’t qualify for federal COVID-19 relief payments – as being in crisis? What about the older women who are rebuilding their lives after enduring domestic violence, only to find themselves having to pay 50 per cent of their modest single income on rent? Or the young person trying to find employment in a labour market that is still to fully recover from the pandemic, whose short work history means they have limited savings to draw upon as a buffer in the interim?

Patently unaffordable housing, a diminished capacity to put aside savings, and a return to austere and deliberately cruel welfare policies has meant the fallout from COVID-19 has effectively broken what these buffers were just barely holding together.

The message from Our lives is one that has the potential to reframe who we categorise as disadvantaged in Canberra. We expect women, particularly single women, to comprise a strong proportion of this growing population of working poor, and we urge all policymakers, legislators, and advocates to refer to the Our Lives findings as they look to build a Canberra that is more inclusive, affordable, and safe in the future.

Just as those who have decision-making powers need to do their part, so can all Canberrans reflect on the increasing vulnerability of so many among us to insecurities and stress we’ve uncovered through the survey. I hear time and again from the women we work with at YWCA Canberra that they never expected to find themselves in the circumstances of housing insecurity and homelessness that they are experiencing; it’s a reminder that a whole-of-community response is needed when it comes to supporting those who are most vulnerable amongst us.

As we are now starkly aware, by living through the pandemic, none of us is immune to a sudden and devastating change to our lives, and we may all need the help and support of our communities in the future.

By Frances Crimmins, published in The Canberra Times on 8 September 2021

This week, as large parts of the country continue to battle coronavirus, decision-makers at all levels and across numerous sectors are turning their heads to another significant epidemic taking lives in Australia: violence against women.  

As politicians, service providers, policymakers and advocates attend the online National Women’s Safety Summit, many like myself who work in the sector supporting women experiencing domestic violence are eager to see meaningful outcomes to address this urgent issue.  

But despite the gravitas associated with the Summit’s title, I must admit a level of scepticism when it comes to my assessment of the potential impact of the meeting. As the CEO of a leading provider of housing support, including supported housing for women and their families experiencing violence, I know that one of the biggest issues that affects women’s safety is access to secure accommodation.  

And if my experiences of the past several weeks have shown me anything, it’s that this fundamental issue is languishing in the hands of (predominantly male) bureaucrats, with decisions driven by factors that aren’t grounded in providing a safe landing place for women in need. 

As a delegate to the National Women’s Safety Summit, I am eager to see how housing is addressed in the context of the dialogue.  

It is a well-documented and acknowledged fact that the critical lack of affordable and secure housing options for women is a fundamental factor in a woman’s decision to leave a violent relationship. Many women are forced to decide between making themselves and their children homeless or staying with their perpetratoran awful choice with no safe answer. The shortage of affordable and safe housing sees nearly 8000 victims of violence a year return to their perpetrators. 

The eye-watering increase in property prices and market rent in the aftermath of a very difficult year in 2020, and an unsettled economy still coming to terms with the impacts of COVID-19 mean there is a vacuum in housing options for vulnerable women across the country. Both older women and those trying to leave or rebuild lives after leaving a violent relationship are the most vulnerable in this national housing crisis. 

Solutions are being sought. While I acknowledge the $60M in funding has been provided through the Safe Places Emergency Accommodation program from the Commonwealth Government, it is simply not enough.  YWCA Canberra is excited to be a recipient of this funding, with a grant of $1.2M to contribute to building homes for women with children and older women who have experienced violence. The ACT was awarded a total of $2M from the program for two projects. Our housing project will be built on a block of land purchased by YWCA Canberra 30 years ago and we still need to fund the other $1.2M to complete the project. The project will deliver 10 units.  

This is an important contribution to a problem that affects everyone in our community, and one that needs more than just a government response, but a whole-of-community commitment to finding solutions. Although many may not wish to acknowledge it, domestic violence does not affect one cohort of society. There are women and children living with violence in every suburb of Canberra, from a wide swathe of socio-economic backgrounds and education levels.

Sadly, despite receiving approval from the ACT Planning and Land Authority, our supported housing development has hit a roadblock, with a small group of locals opposing the project on the premise it is not suitable for the site. This is despite the Territory plan including supported housing as allowable on community zoned land, and the fact that, prior to our proposal, there was no interest from the community in using the land for other purposes.  

In responding to this opposition, I have been exposed for the first time to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal system. The experience has left me reeling at the realisation that our projectdriven by women for women’s safety—is now in the hands of predominantly older white men. That includes the parties representing opposition to the development, the senior members of the Tribunal, and the ACT Government’s counsel. YWCA Canberra is reliant on an all-male team of experts, and I thank each and all of them for their contributions. 

However, during the five days of Tribunal hearings,  I was required to be silent apart from 45 minutes being cross-examined on what support we provide and how much road traffic the development would generate. I was not even permitted to read a letter from a recently housed woman on her experiences in finally securing safe housing through YWCA Canberra, to demonstrate the potential impact of our development.  I was silenced, and the women who I hope will eventually live in our Y Homes units were silenced.  

Throughout the process,  the men made cricket analogies, batted curve balls, and passed the next innings to one another, none the wiser of the experience of what it is like to make a decision to stay living in a violent relationship or to leave in the hope a service like YHomes will be waiting to give you back your dignity, hope, and a safe place to call home.   

While we debate and explore the status of women’s safety in Australia, it is vital we turn that gaze inwards, and examine the systems that control the delivery of key resources, like housing, to women experiencing violence. How are we enabling solutions that are focused on supporting women to live free from violence? And what is more important: the impact we could make for women in need, or the potential increase in parking on a residential street, where other families are able to enjoy the peace and beauty of their suburb free from the horrifying experiences that so many of the women we support have had to endure?  

By Frances Crimmins for The Canberra Times on 20 July 2021.

The crisis of 2020 was about far more than a virus. It was a change in how we lived and how we perceived the world around us. We became scared of something we couldn’t see, and this fear left us feeling powerless. Many of us suddenly had to work from home, meet via Zoom and stay away from loved ones.

And this uncertainty is lingering, as recently demonstrated by the outbreak in NSW. There is no end in sight until our vaccination rate is high enough, and the shifting timeframes for that make it difficult to retain hope for even the most optimistic of us.

This uncertainty and lack of control over our lives contributed to higher rates of mental health distress in 2020, and led to one of the worst years for domestic violence on Australian record, given domestic violence is an expression of control of one person over another.

As we moved out of the immediate crisis phase, we all heard talk of the “new normal”. But so far much of that has focused on superficial aspects of our society. Something that needs to be part of this social redefinition is a new concept of what power is. And that is something we can control.

Our society’s current model of power, whether in the workplace or at home, is heavily based on individual success and goal attainment. At work we’re encouraged to compete to climb the hierarchy to achieve power; at home, traditional gender roles, earning capacity and age often determine who has power and who doesn’t.

To make it worse, our culture frames power as something to have over people, not something to be used to bring others up with us. It tells us that to have power we must be more assertive, seek authority over others and hide any vulnerabilities. We must push others down so we can succeed. The less in control we feel, and the more control we want, the worse the impact on those “below” us.

This patriarchal power structure fails not only women and non-binary people, but also most men and people of minority groups – basically anyone not considered the “norm”.

Feminists have long been fighting for a different model of leadership and power, favouring approaches that are more focused on sharing, consensus and flexibility, to harness a range of skills and create a positive outcome for the collective. These approaches frame power and leadership around our values and relationships, not a hierarchy with subordinates.

This is part of why Jacinda Ardern has been lauded throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Her concept of strength and power comes from a desire to improve the world around her. She isn’t scared of vulnerability, but expresses it freely to connect with her community. And this has left her country stronger.

Contrast this with the more traditional and patriarchal example of Donald Trump, who was more concerned about retaining his position of power than caring for his constituents. Not only did nearly half a million US citizens die of COVID-19 in the final year of Trump’s presidency, but the country became more divided on the lines of political beliefs, race, religion and gender, as he chose to lay blame instead of use the opportunity to harness the best of the US for the benefit of the whole country.

At YWCA Canberra, we challenge Western society’s traditional concept of what power is. Instead, we see power – whether at work, in the community or at home – as the capacity to transform and empower oneself and others.

Power isn’t a one-size-fits all situation. We can each define our individual power based on what is meaningful to us, and contribute based on our own skills and values.

Although reimagining something so ingrained in our society as power structures isn’t easy, we are at a point in our history where we have an opportunity to change the frame. To acknowledge that we all have capacity for leadership and power, and we can use that power together to accomplish great things.

We are exploring this concept further in our upcoming She Leads Conference, with the theme “Power: have it, own it, challenge it”. We believe these are each important parts of our leadership journeys, whether they be in the home, the community or the workplace.

By changing the power dynamics to a more inclusive model, we will not only create a better world for women, but provide spaces for all marginalised peoples to stand up and thrive within our community.

By Frances Crimmins, published in The Canberra Times on 17 May 2021

Sexual consent has been a hot topic over the past few weeks, and with good reason. But while much of the country is preoccupied with milkshakes and tacos, there is a more complex issue under discussion in the ACT Legislative Assembly, relating to the act of ‘stealthing’.

Judging by the blank expressions I see when the term ‘stealthing’ is raised in conversation, its definition is almost certainly not commonly known, but it’s time for that to change. ‘Stealthing’ is the non-consensual removal of a condom during an otherwise consensual sexual encounter that was agreed to on the condition that a condom is used. The term itself has been around for at least the last decade, referred to in hushed circles between women and gay and bisexual men who had experienced it first-hand. But like so much of the shifting public awareness of violence and sexual consent, ‘stealthing’ is emerging from the shadows.

In the ACT, the materialisation of ‘stealthing’ in public conversation follows a proposal by Leader of the Canberra Liberals, Elizabeth Lee to criminalise it as an act that negates consent.  For many, it might seem bizarre that this isn’t already the case, but it really just reflects the still nascent and at times murky understanding we have as a community of the dynamic nature of consent.

YWCA Canberra have been longstanding advocates for legislative reform where it relates to the legal framework of sexual consent and participated in the earlier Crimes (Consent) Amendment Bill 2018, giving evidence to incorporate an affirmative definition of consent into the ACT Crimes Act. In the period since this 2018 inquiry however consent has received significant attention throughout the public sphere, lifted by those like Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins, women who endured terrible abuse and who have since brought the dynamics of consent into the public consciousness. While this social awakening is welcomed, it is a reminder that neither legislation nor the education setting has kept pace.

To inform our comment to the ACT Government on the ‘stealthing’ amendment, we conducted a short survey targeted to young people aged 16-24 who were likely to be receiving consent-based education or whose exposure to consent education is sufficiently recent. The survey asked respondents of their awareness of ‘stealthing’, their understanding of the current law and their exposure to and reflections of the sexual consent education they may have received.

Responses to the survey indicate that awareness of ‘stealthing’ among young people was reasonably varied, and while the overwhelming majority of respondents said they had been exposed to some instruction on sexual consent, a much less impressive proportion said the consent instruction they received was sufficiently nuanced to present sexual consent as an evolving and dynamic agreement between parties. Unsurprisingly, the peer networks that young people moved in, their engagement with social media and the sexual experiences of their friends or themselves were foundational in learning about sex and consent.

The very nature of individual sexual development, establishing boundaries and safely exploring pleasure relies heavily on the influence of peer networks.  Responses to our survey however indicate there remains immense scope for the formal education setting to have a role in facilitating a contemporary understanding of consent and the realities of less overt forms of sexual assault among young people.

I agree with the Minister for Women that legislative reform is only one element to address the inconsistency between the low prosecution rates of sexual assault despite a concurrent increase in formal complaints of sexual assault.  I go further, however, to argue that understanding how to set the terms of a sexual encounter and facilitating access to justice following an alleged sexual assault demands both a legislative and social response.

For women of my generation, yes means yes and no means no was part of our launchpad into feminism with a mantra that was in hindsight, only partially correct. It’s somewhat alarming to see the same archaic language being taught to young women and girls multiple generations later, which is what we found from our survey. The reality is, this model of consent is outdated, binary and wholly insufficient. It plays into the myth that if no-one says ‘no’, then the sex is consensual. Today, the conversation on consent has moved on to a point where court procedures and directions are being contemporised to better reflect the myriad of ways people respond to threats of imminent sexual violence including freezing or acquiescing to avoid escalating the violence at hand. But what good is this progress if the instruction provided in our formal education settings still consign young people to a sexual development that is tainted with ignorance and assault?

‘Stealthing’ occupies a unique position in the dynamics of consent. Because it takes a previously consented to arrangement (sex with a condom) and changes the terms of that arrangement (sex without a condom), it highlights how consent is an ongoing negotiation and that consenting to one specific act does not imply consent to other acts. By talking publicly about ‘stealthing’ we are compelled to begin talking about consent as an evolving process of mutual pleasure, and boundaries. YWCA Canberra supports the criminalisation of stealthing, but legislative reform cannot be siloed. It is incumbent on government, policy makers and the community to ensure that this reform becomes part of how we approach violence prevention and that begins with an adequate and contemporary approach to consent education.

By Frances Crimmins, published in Women’s Agenda on April 15 2021

We have all heard the adage to ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’. It’s a nice sentiment, but the reality is that people should be appropriately compensated for their work, regardless of how much they enjoy it. And far too many people are unable to do what they love because of the low pay in their preferred industry.

Take, for example, the early childhood education and care sector. People who, day after day, spend their lives caring for and educating our children. Qualified staff subject to strict regulatory requirements, dealing with diverse groups of children with varied needs. Educators who constantly juggle priorities to provide for each child’s mental, physical and emotional development and wellbeing.

It takes a love of the sector to do such an amazing but demanding job. A passion for providing high-quality early education, which has a proven and demonstrable impact on future outcomes for children in their services.

Sadly, that love is often the only reason early childhood educators have to work in the sector, and it isn’t enough for the many staff who leave the sector every year because of the low pay on offer for their hard work. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a study showed that one in five early childhood educators and teachers planned to leave the job within the year. Staff turnover rates can be as high as 30 per cent a year.

This has been exacerbated by COVID-19, when so many skilled educators were faced with job insecurity and had to seriously decide whether it was worth staying in a sector that the government and public seem to give little regard or appreciation for.

To show how little these staff are respected, the award rate for a full-time adult early childhood educator (who must have at least a Certificate III qualification) is as low as $20.29 an hour as of November 2020. Compare this to the national minimum wage of $19.84 and the average Australian full-time weekly earnings of $1767.20 in November 2020 (which, for a 38-hour week, equates to $46.51 an hour).

A person with mandatory qualifications, working to a National Quality Framework under intense legal scrutiny, caring for a developing human being, gets as little as $0.45 an hour above minimum wage, or less than $20 extra a week (based on a 38-hour week).

This, for a sector that has not only been proven to provide significant positive effects for children’s skills development and future competencies, but is also a cornerstone of our economy, allowing parents to work. One recent study suggested that providing a single year of part-time early childhood education in the year before school would provide billions of dollars in benefits to the economy.

At YWCA Canberra, we are proud to provide above-award wages for staff at all levels within our early childhood education and care services. We are also proud to run programs like Educate, Inspire, Excel (EIE), through which we are training the next generation of early childhood educators.

We started this program in the height of the COVID-19 crisis, which so clearly demonstrated that the early learning sector is vital to our community and our economy. We wanted to ensure a pipeline of skilled educators in our region, while providing participants with the opportunity to study and work in a supportive, inclusive environment.

Through EIE, we provide work readiness and on-the-job training, link trainees with workplaces, and provide any social, health, housing or wellbeing support they might need through our community services. This helps students complete their qualifications and supports employers to retain trainees during their studies.

We are lucky to engage with our own early childhood staff and trainees who are passionate about their work. As one of our EIE trainees told us recently, “This job is challenging and enjoyable at the same time. You support young children to be independent and, at the same time, you are part of their development process. I am humbled to be involved in moulding the great future generation of Australia.”

But until the early childhood education and care is publicly recognised and remunerated appropriately for the professional sector that it is, there is almost no chance of being able to recruit and retain staff at the levels they are required.

Love of a job can only get you so far.

By Frances Crimmins for The Canberra Times on April 5, 2021

Over recent months, we have seen a heightened interest in the community to address the issue of homelessness. The recently launched ‘Sleep Bus’ in Queanbeyan is an example of this – community members seeking to provide a solution to this incredibly complex and difficult issue.

As the CEO of a specialist homelessness service provider, YWCA Canberra, I know I speak for many in the sector who welcome the positive intentions and the interest from our community in ensuring that all Canberrans have access to a roof over their heads.

But equally, I think it’s important to make sure that the desire to provide a solution doesn’t result in temporary and potentially problematic bandaid housing options, which may result in significant issues for the people they seek to support.

The circumstances of an individual’s homelessness are often complex, intertwined with social, health and economic factors that require holistic responses grounded in identifying and managing those circumstances. In December 2020, around 1700 Canberrans were registered with Specialist Homelessness Services, including nearly 500 women who were victims of family violence.

Homelessness includes those sleeping rough on the streets as well as people sleeping in cars, on spare couches with family and friends, and in insecure tenancies, while navigating the network of services that can provide support. For the many who are also managing their own trauma, wellbeing and even workplace presentation, the stress can be overwhelming.

With public and social housing waiting lists nearly three years long and a dearth of affordable rentals in Canberra, the community is keen to see an end to homelessness. This ripens the field for new ventures to enter the marketplace of ideas to respond to what is an intractable social problem.

Let’s look at the Sleep Bus, a project where those in need of a bed are provided a sleep pod in a retrofitted bus that is parked in a public space. The venture originated in St Kilda and has since migrated to Queanbeyan with a future bus planned for Canberra. Despite the positive energy and goodwill that has driven this project, the provision of temporary sleeping space, outside of the structure of a resourced and staffed shelter or transitional housing, brings with it significant risk.

Those who work with Canberra’s homeless are professionally trained and trauma informed with considerable knowledge of the labyrinthine system their clients are navigating and the complex ramifications of homelessness on every aspect of a person’s life.

At YWCA Canberra and across the advocacy and specialist  homelessness housing organisations we collaborate with, our priority is bricks and mortar housing that provides safe, dignified, and sustainable options and pathways out of homelessness. With an understanding of the complex issues at play, we also deliver case-management services and support to clients across a range of accommodation services including shared accommodation, community housing, transitional housing, and outreach support. We are well-placed to understand both the causes of homelessness and be part of creating longer-term solutions.

While YWCA Canberra appreciates that good intentions and generous donations have contributed to the construction of the Sleep-Bus, we are deeply concerned that this model fails to demonstrate any real appreciation for either the individual trauma or the underlying circumstances of those who are in housing crisis or homelessness.

The Sleep-Bus aims to provide a safe, comfortable night of sleep, based on the well-established concept that a good night of sleep improves mental and physical health.However, a model that blends users regardless of circumstances, trauma and needs into a confined space for a night before setting them off, still homeless, into the waking day is not a sustainable response to homelessness nor the causes of homelessness, which for women are typically family violence, relationship breakdown and financial stress. Without a permanent home, the people using the Sleep-Bus will still spend their days concerned about their next night, their next meal, and how to maintain any work or social security payments without an address to put down on their paperwork. Much better is a response that firstly acknowledges the unique circumstances of individuals experiencing homeless, providing them with targeted and trauma-informed support based on those circumstances. This may involve helping them to maintain existing tenancies or linking them with housing that meets their needs where they can feel safe and confidentially draw upon support services.

The Sleep Bus follows in the footsteps of a number of other community-led projects that service the homeless on the street – food vans, mobile laundries, there are even projects in the works to provide portable bathrooms for rough sleepers to access through the day.

Unfortunately, despite their positive intentions, these solutions are founded in aiming to make sleeping on the streets more bearable – when what we really need to do is pour our energy, donations and effort into providing secure accommodation to end homelessness entirely.

Solutions such as the Sleep Bus that are developed outside the established network of advocacy, evidence base, social and specialist housing organisations, sadly can create the impression that a solution has been found, when in fact the entrenched issues driving homelessness have not been addressed. Why the Sleep-bus has not been utilised by those experiencing homelessness in other Australian cities, needs to be considered. This includes the risk factors of mental health, drug and alcohol use, fear perpetrator may locate a women and children escaping violence and violence from other users.

We encourage the community to follow the work of local social and specialist housing organisations and to throw your support behind the construction of bricks and mortar homes that are affordable, dignified, and secure. When people have a stable place to call home they can connect with community, neighbourhoods and opportunities and get comfort and work towards regularity back into their lives.

By Frances Crimmins published in Women’s Agenda on March 4, 2021

Celebrations for one are miserable.

For the seventh consecutive year, YWCA Canberra has received a citation from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) as an Employer of Choice.

And this is the second consecutive year that we have celebrated alone, as the only ACT registered employer to receive the citation.

While we may be celebrating alone in the ACT, 17 new citation holders have been added to the list for the 2020-2022 application period, including Australia’s largest private employer Woolworths. Furthermore, the new list also sees companies registered in both Tasmania and South Australia achieve citation for the first time. It would seem that private sector employers are realising the benefits of facilitating gender equality in the workplace.

The Employer of Choice citation is bestowed on those employers who comply with the Workplace Gender Equality Act (2012) and meet all the assessment criteria which include preventing gender-based harassment, discrimination and bullying, driving change beyond the workplace, and mainstreaming flexible work, among others.

The citation is a voluntary initiative for employers that recognises those workplaces which have demonstrated a genuine and structural-level commitment to gender equality. It is additional to the compliance reporting program requiring non-public sector employers with 100 or more employees to submit a report to WGEA. While the 2020 report scorecard showed more employers were participating in the reporting scheme, I am conscious that the previous 12 months have been tumultuous for women in the workplace and that the time for corporate and public sector leadership is not so much now but yesterday.

COVID-19 had a disproportionate impact on the lives of working women who shouldered an even greater share of unpaid care as schools closed and heavily feminised industries such as retail, hospitality and tourism took a crushing hit. In many instances, women working part-time were the first to be shown the door, others were transitioned from full-time to part-time arrangements and, perhaps most appallingly, the 97 per cent feminised workforce in early education were the first to be prematurely and exclusively removed from the JobKeeper wage subsidy.

For a long time now, the benefits of gender equality in the workplace have been well known.

Research from the global consultancy group McKinsey & Company has consistently found a statistically significant correlation between board and workplace diversity and productivity. On the flip side, those companies which delay efforts to diversify their staff and executive profiles suffer in terms of profitability.

Similarly, the evidence base also exists to show that workplace policies supporting gender equality are important in staff retention and facilitating competitive recruitment. It is not altogether surprising that staff simply want to work in an environment where parental leave is equitable and encouraged for all who parent, where diversity is celebrated and where transparent workplace policies exist to address harassment, discrimination, and abuse.

Our 2019 survey of more than 1000 Canberra women, Our Lives: Women in the ACT, highlighted the persistently high rates of workplace sexism experienced by young women living in Canberra and our advocacy work has responded to this finding by advocating for structural and cultural change to stamp out workplace sexual harassment. Our survey findings were also reflected in the national survey on workplace sexual harassment conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2018 which found that more than 85 per cent of Australian women had been sexually harassed at some point in their lives, with 23 per cent experiencing workplace sexual harassment in the last 12 months.

And it has not gone unnoticed that we are celebrating our citation at the time of intense scrutiny on the culture of the Australian Parliament House as a workplace. The alleged criminal behaviour endured by women working in what should be a benchmark workplace, simply highlights that there has never been a greater impetus for change and that that change must involve both government and political workplaces.

While Government workplaces are currently exempt from participating in the WGEA reporting schedule, the 2018-2019 State of the Service report shows the gender divide between the feminised APS level staff and the SES remains. Further, the same report found that gender-discrimination is the most perceived form of discrimination with carer-based discrimination also a significant concern.

Political staff on the other hand are distinct from public servants and employed under specific legislation which, along with their workplace agreement, has comprehensively failed to provide a protective framework in what is a combatively partisan and ruthless environment.

The power to fix these legislative and administrative gaps to progress gender equality and set a benchmark for government and political workspaces lies with the parliament itself. Among the 55 recommendations from the Human Rights Commission’s landmark Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry report, were suggested amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to expressly prohibit sex-based discrimination and introduce a positive duty on all employers to take reasonable measures to eliminate sexual discrimination. The government, however, wherein the power to progress legislative reform exclusively sits, are yet to respond to the report’s recommendations.

Cultural change takes both vision and leadership and I implore employers and government to take the steps needed to put words into action. Pursuing gender equality in both private and public sector workplaces delivers both fiscal and personnel benefits to employers, but without demonstrable leadership in the form of action and legislative reform the cycle of discrimination and inequality will continue, ouroboros-like.

By Frances Crimmins, published in The Canberra Times on 22 February 2021

The most recent Report on Government Services (the ROGS) data on homelessness unveiled some alarming trends with regards to housing and homelessness in Canberra: Persistent rates of overcrowding in public housing dwellings; a 22 per cent increase in unmet need for housing support; and an average 81 day wait to move into a vacant property even as 200 more people were assessed at the highest need for housing were added to the wait list.

It would be easy to raise these issues as the beginning of an argument on the need for governments to lift public housing stock and invest in social housing, and we wouldn’t be alone in doing so. A recent survey of Australia’s leading economists, conducted by UNSW, found that an overwhelming majority considered the absence of social housing investment in the COVID-19 stimulus measures to be a poorly judged omission. The same survey also found broad support for the role of the not-for-profit community housing providers in channeling social housing investment now and into the future. Clearly, the community housing and not-for-profit housing sector have a valuable and legitimate role to play in responding to the housing crisis that shows no sign of abating.

At YWCA Canberra, we have been providing supportive housing to women and families in the community for nearly eighty years. We are well placed to understand the dynamics and demographic trends of homelessness among women and provide a gender and trauma informed response that recognizes the agency of our clients. That’s why we have been working to respond to the increased levels of homelessness amongst women, particularly among older women.

Our Y-Homes project pledges our own funds and secured Commonwealth funding to build 10 units on land we own in Ainslie. These stable homes would provide affordable housing for older women on modest incomes and go some way, however small, to responding to the chronic undersupply of social and affordable housing in a city known for its comfortable and progressive status.

While the solution to homelessness is an increase to supply, which will create positive social and economic outputs, the greatest barrier can often be community antipathy and even hostility.

Despite the overwhelming evidence supporting the need for this build and the pride we hold in Canberra for being progressive, educated and inclusive it turns out that when presented with an opportunity to put these principles into action and support inclusivity within our own suburbs, many are unwilling to welcome newcomers to their neighborhoods.

We all have preferences about how and where we want to live, preferences which correlate directly to our privilege. The older women we support have had their choices narrowed due to the impact of a lifetime of low wages on their retirement savings often compounded by time spent out of work to care for children. Their already dire financial circumstances can be exacerbated by relationship breakdowns, the death of a spouse, domestic violence, declining health and acute social isolation.

These are the women our Ainslie build will support. The exclusionary attitude shown towards these women who did everything society asked of them, however, is disheartening; they worked until their pregnancy or the marriage bar excluded them from the workforce, they raised children, they cared for parents and spouses and, in some cases, are still caring for grandchildren, yet some among us who would most strongly align to that core Canberra identity of “progressive”, would seek to ensure these women never call their neighbourhood home.

Data simply does not lie – there is a growing and increasingly tangible level of homelessness among older women in Canberra. You are unlikely to see these women on the street however because they are sleeping in their cars or trying to not to be a burden as they sleep on the couch or floor of a friend or adult child while they desperately search for another rental in a competitive and unaffordable market. Our sector has the potential to change lives for the better by bringing safety and stability to women as they enter-into or live-out their retirement, things that so many of us take for granted.  Modest builds such as ours are a critical part of the coordinated response to an urgent economic and social need and our place in that response has been recognised by economic policy experts, government and the broader community. If it takes a village to raise a child, then it can simply take a welcoming neighbourhood to give peace of mind and a sense of security to women living out their retirement in modest comfort.

By Frances Crimmins, published in Women’s Agenda on 15 June 2020

Last week I visited one of YWCA Canberra’s six early learning centres. On the day of my visit, this centre had 10 children in attendance, less than 10 per cent of its capacity. It was against the backdrop of this visit, that the government announced its plans to remove the Early Childhood Education and Care sector from the JobKeeper wage supplement, saying the life-line thrown to the sector in April had “succeeded in keeping services viable”.

As a provider of early learning and school aged care in Canberra, our staff have experienced the impact of COVID-19 first-hand. They worked throughout the shut-down period, allowing parents to keep working, despite the risks to themselves, They watched their centres emptied as parents withdrew children from their care, and then welcomed them back when the service became free. The uncertainty across the sector was palpable.

The sector relief package that mixed JobKeeper and 50 per cent of regular government Child Care Subsidy, though flawed, allowed us to continue to provide a vital and essential service to the community. Collectively, we worked hard to keep our people employed, particularly those whose visa class disqualified them from accessing JobKeeper. The Prime Minster’s ‘guarantee’ that all workers could depend on the supplement until September provided the sector with a much-needed, though short-lived, assurance.

The relief package mandated free access to services which resulted in a foreseeable increase in attendance. It was the subsequent increase in enrolments during this fee-free period, however, which the Government claims has reached 74 per cent capacity, that prompted the end of JobKeeper for the sector.

The fact a free service often prompts greater demand may have been lost on the Government but it has not been lost on us or the parents who, faced with a return of fees in the face of a loss of household income or jobs, have once again commenced withdrawing their children from our services. The assumption that parents would continue paying for a service many already considered unaffordable, while the national economy contracts is both illogical and reckless. As a provider, we knew that fee-free services would come to an end. What we don’t understand is why the Government would pre-emptively cut the sector from JobKeeper before the economy has been given the chance to “snap back”.

According to the Government, there are no plans to remove other workers from JobKeeper before the forecasted review of the scheme is completed in July. In removing only early childhood educators from the stimulus, the Government has singled them out as having negligible political or economic influence. This approach fails to register the unique position early learning occupies in the economy and carries substantial consequences for the sector, working women and the broader economy.

Women’s entry, retention and return to the labour force has been the demographic game changer for the Australian economy over the past forty years and is estimated to have added 22 per cent to national GDP since 1974. Despite the disincentives in the Child Care Subsidy matrix that hamper women’s return to full-time work, the availability of early childhood education and care has been pivotal to economic growth.

The impact of COVID-19 on women’s economic participation is now evident. Labour force data shows that more women than men dropped out of employment between March and April with female-dominated industries like Accommodation and Food Services particularly affected. The gender divide does not end there and research by The Australia Institute shows the Government’s stimulus measures have disproportionately benefited men as a workforce.

Early educators have been on the frontline during this challenging period; their labour has meant the national economy has been able to grind through this period of uncertainty. The value of early education has never been more apparent.

If our economy is to “snap back” it will require thriving children’s services capable of meeting the demand of all parents who require it. More significantly it will require a recalibration of how policy makers value early educators and early learning; not as ‘babysitters’ but as professionals and an investment in the future workforce.

By Frances Crimmins, published in The Canberra Times on 8 March 2020

International Women’s Day is a time for us to pause to celebrate women’s achievements, acknowledge trailblazers, remember victims of tragedy, and highlight opportunities for progress toward a gender equal world.

The ACT is a relatively progressive jurisdiction that prides itself on embracing diversity and inclusion, but we still have a long way to go to achieve gender equality.

Last year, YWCA Canberra launched a report based on a survey of nearly 1100 Canberra women, which sadly showed just how unequal living in Canberra can be.

The report showed that discrimination against women is still common, and that domestic and interpersonal violence is something that an unacceptable number of women experience.

This International Women’s Day we call on the ACT Government to lead the way on creating a truly gender equal and inclusive Canberra.

Introducing a comprehensive, age-appropriate respectful relationships education program in all schools and universities in the ACT is a great place to start.

While the ACT Government supports initiatives to manage student behaviour in schools, these do little to change deeply engrained behaviour and beliefs that are grounded in gender inequality.

We need an evidence-based, whole of community program that gives young people the tools and strategies to form respectful relationships. This needs to start from preschool, which is an important formative stage in children’s understanding of the world.

We’re also calling on the ACT Government collect gender disaggregated data on women’s perceptions of their safety in public places.

This includes understanding the nuanced experiences of women with disability, LGBTQIA+ people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and those from culturally diverse backgrounds.

Our report showed that women are acutely aware of their safety and surroundings, with 55 per cent of respondents feeling ‘somewhat unsafe’ or ‘very unsafe’ when accessing public spaces after dark.

Current police data only provides a homogenous view, leaving a sizeable blind spot for government in developing better planning and public policy.

We’re also calling for positive consent legislation to be prioritised.

As the case against fallen Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein demonstrates, notions of consent are still shrouded in a cloud of power imbalances.

It is outrageous that a maker and breaker of Hollywood dreams can proposition his way to a ‘consent’ that is legitimised when it isn’t met with demonstrable resistance.

Just as women are still told that the way to avoid harassment is to dress conservatively, the burden of preventing our own rapes (as well as proving that they happened) has also fallen to women.

If we freeze in terror while under attack, this can be interpreted as granting consent.

As with respectful relationships education and better data and research on women’s experiences, YWCA Canberra has called for the ACT Crimes Act to introduce a positive model of consent.

A bill to address this was subject of an Assembly inquiry, which recommended the proposal be revisited once the NSW Law Reform Commission reviewed the state’s consent laws.

Released last year, the Commission’s recommendations found “consent is not just an internal state of mind, but a communicated state of mind”.

Despite this progress, the ACT Government remains silent on when it will revisit this important piece of legislative reform.

Through accessing levers in policy, legislation, procurement and regulation, the role of government in addressing gender inequality cannot be understated.

This International Women’s Day, I call on the Chief Minister and the wider ACT Government to heed the experiences and perspectives of women in prioritising resources and focus ahead of the ACT Election.

We comprise more than half of the ACT’s population, and we deserve a government that backs us.

As an organisation that has served this community for more than 90 years, YWCA Canberra is willing and ready to be part of the solution.

By Frances Crimmins, published in the Canberra Times on 30 October

It includes some startling statistics that show gender-based discrimination and abuse are still a significant part of the lived experiences of an unacceptable number of women.

Our survey found women are acutely aware of their safety and surroundings at night, with 55 per cent of women feeling “somewhat unsafe” or “very unsafe” when accessing public spaces after dark.

Abuse sadly remains a part of too many women’s lives in Canberra, with 16 per cent of women having experienced physical, emotional, verbal or financial abuse in a domestic or interpersonal relationship in the last year alone.

This was again significantly higher for women aged 18 to 24, where the number who had been abused in a domestic or interpersonal relationship in the last 12 months rose to 24 per cent.

It saddens me that these statistics remains so high despite decades of feminist advocacy, publicity campaigns and public discussion on domestic and family violence.

More than half of all respondents said they had experienced instances of sexism in the last 12 months. One respondent said sexism “impacted my daily behaviours and how I went to and from work, where I walked my dog, and if I should stand up for others”.

Of those who had experienced sexism, 41 per cent said it occurred in the workplace. According to one respondent: “men seem to be the first considered for acting positions at higher levels and often get approached … women, on the other hand, seem to need to prove themselves worthy and constantly put themselves forward”.

Interestingly, the survey found an inversely proportional relationship between age and experiences of sexism and, yet again, it was young women who were suffering.

The only age group of respondents that didn’t have a majority state they had experienced sexism in the last 12 months was women over the age of 55, while 80 per cent of 18 to 24 year old women reported experiencing sexism in the last year.

With younger women participating more fully in the labour market as well as the night-time economy and social scene, their heightened responses are possibly a reflection on how they move about the city.

The divergence could also be a result of older and younger women perceiving the same behaviours differently, as younger women are more empowered to call for and expect equal rights and treatment.

These results are not good enough. They show that our governments are still failing women, particularly young women, in providing a safe place to live.

YWCA Canberra continues to call for age-appropriate respectful relationship education for all staff and students from K-12 and the university setting, as an effective and systemic measure to prevent violence against women.

This is needed to tackle not only physical violence but raise awareness of other forms of interpersonal violence, such as technology-based harassment, abuse or control, which are less well understood.

We also continue to call on the ACT government to develop a new and funded ACT Prevention of Violence against Women and Children Strategy, in line with national commitments.

The work of the Family Safety Hub, while significant and important, does not negate the need for an up-to-date strategy, and we call for a local plan to be developed as an urgent priority.

We need to work towards a day where women are truly equal, where girls and women can thrive alongside their male counterparts.

YWCA Canberra will continue to provide a platform for diverse women’s voices to be heard, and to advocate for change. But we can’t do it alone.

By Frances Crimmins, published in the Canberra Times on 6 August

For one week every year, in the middle of the Australian winter, the issue of homelessness and housing stress features heavily in public conversation.

National Homelessness Week runs from 6-13 August and this year’s theme is ‘Ending Homelessness Together’. It is typically a week of campaigning by community stakeholders and legislators to bring attention to the plight of more than 116,000 people who are homeless in Australia and to maintain the momentum for change.

Canberrans are fortunate to live in an inclusive and tolerant city, with an educated workforce and high average incomes. Ours is a city that we can be proud of in many ways. But this standard of living masks very real inequalities that exist below the surface of our city.

To coincide with National Homelessness Week, YWCA Canberra is launching a mini-documentary titled Hidden Women that explores one such inequality; the experiences of single, older women who are homeless or in insecure housing.

These women are hidden, and their plight often goes unnoticed, even during National Homelessness Week, because they do not neatly fit into assumptions about homelessness.

After decades of wage and superannuation inequality, compounded by a disproportionate amount of time in unpaid caring roles, older women can often find it hard to manage when relationships go awry, when domestic violence forces them from their homes or when their spouses pass on.

Out of shame and fear their situation becomes hidden; shame that after a life of conventional housing tenure and caring for others they now find themselves dependent on others for shelter and fear for their safety when they are forced onto the street or into emergency shelters.

The confluence of these life events often mean single, older women are forced to “couch surf” or find shelter in their cars, away from public view.

Making an already terrible situation insurmountably worse, is the fact that common eligibility criteria for traditional public and social housing models often inadvertently exclude single, older women.

YWCA Canberra has a proud history of providing housing support through our supportive tenancy services. Our houses for older women, including those who feature in Hidden Women, provide an innovative solution to women who fall through the cracks in traditional housing models while providing them with an immediate support network.

The women who bravely feature in Hidden Women will be familiar to many of us; they could so easily be our grandmothers, mothers and neighbours. What I believe Canberrans will find most striking is how everyday their stories are.

Hidden Women is a timely reminder of how structural and institutional sexism can have consequences, most particularly toward the end of our lives. And it is also a reminder that deficits in housing policy and service design as well as generational inequalities around income and superannuation are all part of the complex web that can lead to homelessness amongst older women.

Ending homelessness together, as we are urged to do during this National Homelessness Week, requires consideration of all these factors as well as input from across the community and government.

Addressing older women’s homelessness and housing insecurity is a key priority outlined in YWCA Canberra’s Leading the Change report.

YWCA Canberra continues to call for a national action plan to address older women’s homelessness and housing stress as well as the underlying causes of their economic inequality.

Because until we identify and correct the fundamental causes of structural inequality, from childhood to retirement, we will continue to consign Canberra women to a life of financial and service based discrimination that catches up with them when they are most vulnerable.#NWH2018 #NWH2018 #NWH2018

This opinion piece was published in the Canberra Times on 7/8/18

By Frances Crimmins, published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 15 August

The release of the Human Rights Commission’s damning Change the Course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities, 2017 confirms that sexual assault and sexual harassment are occurring at unacceptable rates at Australian universities.

The Australian Human Rights Centre at UNSW subsequently launched a complementary report On Safe Ground: A Good Practice Guide for Australian Universities, with 18 recommendations relating to sexual harassment and assaults on campus.

The report also highlights the fact that addressing this issue is most successful against a backdrop of concerted, nation-wide government action.

In many cases, the starting point for such strategies is primary prevention, where young people are educated about respectful relationships, gender equality, and consent.

While the ACT government has not commented on the UNSW report, Chief Minister Andrew Barr has added the discussion of the report’s implications to the agenda of an upcoming vice-chancellor’s forum.

While our universities spur into action, the ACT government cannot abrogate its responsibility for ensuring that women have equal access to health, education, economic participation, and decision-making power.

For all its progressive intentions, the ACT government is limping behind other jurisdictions when it comes to creating a gender equal community.

The Victorian government has committed to establishing a “Gender Equality Act” as part of its Gender Equality Strategy. The legislation includes gender equality education from early childhood to tertiary settings, quotas and targets, parental support for work and life and anti-discrimination, violence and sexual harassment strategies.

These are the kinds of measures that we know are needed to make a real and lasting impact on issues like sexual assault and sexual harassment.

As the leader of a feminist, not-for-profit organisation that has served this community for more than 80 years, I cannot emphasise strongly enough the fact that gender equality will not just happen organically, or even with the best efforts of those running our educational institutions. It needs to be driven by strong leadership, legislative and regulatory reform, and appropriate resourcing.

Experience from Australia and overseas demonstrates that institutional location is critical to advancing gender equity, and that the agency or office supporting gender equity needs to be located in the chief coordinating department of government.

Recognition of this is expressed in the United Nations Beijing Platform for Action, which recommends that responsibility for driving gender equity should be located at the highest level of government.

Maximising the effectiveness of gender-equality agencies or institutions requires clearly defined mandates, authority, and mechanisms for key functions; adequate budget, resources and staff to implement the mandate; strong political commitment; and location at highest possible level of government.

Unfortunately at the ACT level, we are sorely lacking across the majority of those critical areas. YWCA Canberra has advocated strongly for our Office for Women to be relocated in the Policy and Cabinet Division of the Chief Minister Treasury and Economic Development Directorate, yet our calls have fallen on deaf ears.

This central location would seem to be a natural fit, given women represent half of the population in the ACT. The work of our Office for Women is also strongly aligned with that of the newly established Office for LGBTIQ Affairs, also located within the Chief Minister’s directorate.

We’ve long known that government policy and budgets have a powerful impact on social and economic inequalities in the ACT. Expenditure and revenue measures have different implications for, and impacts upon, women and men.

Gender policy analysis and gender budget analysis can reveal these differing impacts, which helps to improve the effectiveness, efficiency, accountability and transparency of government policy, as well as making significant contributions towards gender equality and the realisation of women’s rights.

Applying a gender analysis to ACT government policy must be routine, rather than an optional component of a broader analysis framework. Undertaking gender analysis must also be adequately resourced and carried out by people with appropriate skill sets.

The government, through its parliamentary agreement with the Greens, has promised to run programs in the city’s schools to help children and young people “to engage in respectful relationships, including to prevent violence and sexual assault”. While there was $615,000 funding – or $2500 for each school – allocated in 2015-16, the latest budget did little to shed light on how these commitments will actually be honoured.

Let’s hope that the renewed focus on the unacceptable state of sexual assault and sexual harassment on our university campuses shines a light on just how much more our government could be doing to prevent these cultural norms from being perpetuated. 

By Frances Crimmins, published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 16 March 2017

This Wednesday is International Women’s Day, which can be a day of mixed emotions for many people who believe in progressing gender equality. On the one hand, we want to celebrate the many achievements we’ve made; but on the other, the extent of gender inequality that still pervades our homes, workplaces, and communities is unacceptable.

Just last week we heard about the recent submission made to the Human Rights Commission on sexual assault on university campusesacross Australia, and the lack of action taken to appropriately hold perpetrators to account. The horrific incidents reported in this newspaper show we have a long way to go to see meaningful cultural change when it comes to gender equality.
This year, the International Women’s Day campaign urges us to “be bold for change”, and work together to drive better outcomes for women – a timely theme for us to consider here in the ACT.

Back in October last year, we saw a female majority elected to the Legislative Assembly, with women making up 13 of 25 members: 52 per cent. That’s the first time women have had an equal voice in government in the territory. While this milestone is a reason to celebrate, it’s important we don’t lose sight of the work that must still be done.

At the ripe old age of 87, YWCA Canberra is one of the longest-standing women’s organisations in the ACT. We’ve worked with women, men, boys and girls to advance gender equality and social inclusion through our community services, children’s services, training and education programs, and advocacy.

However, despite the best efforts of many individuals and organisations, current research paints an alarming picture of just how far we still need to go to improve outcomes for women and girls:

ACT women who work full-time hours still earn, on average, more than $300 less than men each week ($1,209 versus $1,536).
Women account for 65 per cent of the ACT Public Service, but only 42 per cent of senior executive positions.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s 2016 scorecard reported the gender pay gap in Australia to be 23.1 per cent, with men earning, on average, $26,853 a year more than women.

The social and economic case for gender equality is clear: women make up a half of the population and deserve equal access to health, education, economic participation, and decision-making power. Ensuring that we adequately use half of our “talent pool” improves economic growth, competitiveness and future-readiness.

Not taking action is costly, with research suggesting that failing to address gender inequality costs Australia $195 billion, or 13 per cent of gross domestic product.

So where to from here? At YWCA Canberra, we know that a gender equal society must be driven by strong leadership, legislative and regulatory reform, and appropriate resourcing.

As a former chairwoman of the Ministerial Advisory Council of Women, I oversaw the development of the ACT’s new women’s plan. The document articulates priority areas for action across health and well-being, housing, safety, economic security, leadership and domestic violence.

It’s now up to ACT government directorates to implement the plan by identifying meaningful and effective actions to deliver on these priorities.

However, as history has shown us, women’s rights can quickly be swept to the margins through the mainstreaming of issues and policies. Without a central agency with the oversight and resources to drive accountability, there is a real danger that the women’s plan will never see its intended changes.

That’s why we’re calling for the Office for Women to be moved from the Community Services Directorate to the Chief Minister’s Directorate. This will allow it to play a coordinating role in supporting all directorates to meaningfully progress gender equality.

We also urge decision-makers to show their commitment to gender equality by prioritising practical and evidence-based changes. If we take these first, critical steps, the ACT has the potential to be the leading jurisdiction in the country for gender equality, a change we would all be proud of. 

By Karen Hardy, published in The Canberra Times on 18 August 2016

One of Canberra’s leading advocacy groups for young women has called on the ACT Government to continue its support of school-based prevention programs to prevent violence against women in light of the most recent pornography ring scandal.

While YWCA Canberra welcomed the government’s 2015 election announcement of $615,000 to support learning programs in the ACT, Executive Director Frances Crimmins said the one-off funding was spread thinly over two years and across a range of prevention, early intervention and tertiary activities.

“Unfortunately, this is consistent with the fact that many programs in Australia have been one-off, ad hoc and lacking the gendered perspective and quality curriculum needed.” Ms Crimmins said.

“The fact is that early intervention and tertiary responses must have an ongoing and secure funding base.”

She said a recent study of ACT schools concluded that those who were teaching sexuality education tended to focus narrowly on anatomical and biological aspects, neglecting key issues such as relationships, gender, consent and communication, decision-making, and intimacy and desire.

“Sexuality education and social and emotional learning programs in the ACT also often neglect sexual and gender diversity, overlooking the needs of same-sex attracted and gender diverse youth, as well as issues such as homophobic and transphobic bullying.”

Ms Crimmins said she was disturbed by the latest story, particularly as it followed on from similar cases in Melbourne.

“It shows that misogynistic attitudes are still commonplace in Australia, as evidenced not only by this recent story, but by rape culture, everyday sexism, and entrenched biased attitudes,” she said.

“The users of this website are committing acts of violence against young women, and the root cause of this behavior is gender inequality.”

She said perhaps there was a need for such programs to be delivered in primary schools.

“The University of New South Wales and White Ribbon’s 2015 report into young people’s attitudes to domestic violence strongly supported the need for respectful relationships education for young people prior to reaching their teenage years,” she said.

She also drew attention to a recently released report from Our Watch into youth perceptions of respectful relationships. The report found that 1 in 3 young people don’t think that exerting control over someone else is a form of violence; 1 in 4 young people don’t think it’s serious if a guy, who’s normally gentle, sometimes slaps his girlfriend when he’s drunk and they’re arguing; and 1 in 4 young people think it’s pretty normal for guys to pressure girls into sex.

“These trends are deeply concerning, and strongly indicate that primary prevention programs that teach respectful relationships need to be targeted to young people prior to these attitudes becoming entrenched.”

By Frances Crimmins, YWCA Canberra Executive Director

This year, we’ve heard a lot of public commentary on the shocking prevalence of violence against women in our community. We’ve seen significant action from our governments, heightened awareness in the media, and a broader acknowledgement that this is an issue that affects us all.

We’ve seen funding announcements at the federal and state and territory levels, and our Australian of the Year is a woman known for her bravery, integrity and resilience in the face of truly destructive domestic violence. Research has been released, and a Senate inquiry was conducted.

But it’s still not enough.

As reported by the Destroy the Joint Counting Dead Women researchers, 77 women have died as a result of violence this year. That’s more than one a week. And even if the number was smaller, even if it was halved, it would still be utterly unacceptable because no woman should ever have to die from violence at the hands of her former or current partner. It just shouldn’t happen.

This week ACT Policing have been sharing how many call-outs for family violence incidents they have responded to each day, and the numbers are astounding. Twenty-three over last weekend alone – that’s 23 women in danger, 23 families experiencing trauma.

The organisation I lead, YWCA Canberra, is committed to a world free from violence. Ultimately, until we address the root cause of violence – gender inequality – I believe we won’t see change.

This year we will be participating in the annual global campaign, 16 Days of Action to End Violence Against Women.

Some of the facts we’ll be highlighting during this campaign are:

  • 59 per cent of women who experienced partner violence and had children said that their children had witnessed the violence
  • Women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who are victims of violence face not only cultural barriers, but a lack of access to interpreters when seeking to report their experience
  • 87 per cent of Australian women have experienced at least one form of verbal or physical street harassment
  • One in four young people don’t think it’s serious if a guy, who’s normally gentle, sometimes slaps his girlfriend when he’s drunk and they’re arguing.

On November 10, Our Watch released the world’s first framework for primary prevention of violence against women, and the key call to action is to “promote and normalise gender equality in public and private life”. Gender inequality is the root cause of violence against women, and acknowledging this is the first step to truly eliminating it.

Gender equality needs to be instilled from an early age through our schools, and also through numerous other avenues, including the media, arts and culture, workplaces – in every part of society. We need long-term, adequately resourced primary prevention, backed up by appropriately funded crisis and support services and effective law enforcement.

I believe it is possible to see a future free from violence against women in Australia within the next generation. But key to achieving this and ending gender inequality is ensuring that women’s voices are heard, that women’s lived experiences are acknowledged, and that ultimately, women are given space to champion the issues that affect them most.

This 16 Days of Action, I call on all Canberrans to actively listen to women. Seek out women who can share their experiences, read what you can online, ask the women you know about their views on gender equality and on preventing violence against women.

I know that ending gender inequality will eliminate violence against women, but it needs a whole-of-community approach and support from both men and women. The necessary first step is opening the door for women to advocate, educate and be heard.

For more information on all the activities for our 16 Days of Action, including a planned Day of Action on the lawns of Parliament House, visit ywca-canberra.org.au.

Frances Crimmins is the Executive Director of YWCA Canberra.

This opinion piece was published by The Canberra Times on 21 November 2015.

By Frances Crimmins, Executive Director of YWCA Canberra

NAIDOC Week is a time that I, as Executive Director of YWCA Canberra, reflect on our organisation’s reconciliation journey.

Our vision for reconciliation is that through progressing reconciliation and healing, we will improve the wellbeing of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the wider Australian community. Acknowledging the continuing custodianship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of land and culture, we embrace a grass roots approach involving the whole of the YWCA Canberra community – clients of our programs, external Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander partners, staff, members and Board in our reconciliation journey.

YWCA Canberra has been committed to reconciliation throughout its long history. For many years now we have worked to develop relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and organisations, build respect and identify and pursue opportunities for reconciliation.

YWCA Canberra’s first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), launched in 2009, provided us with a tool for identifying and articulating actions that the organisation could undertake to contribute to reconciliation. Our second RAP, launched in 2011, consolidated our achievements and learnings and helped embed reconciliation within the organisation.

We had many achievements and learnt a great deal during our 2011-2013 RAP. One notable achievement was that staff from across the organisation had access to opportunities to engage with reconciliation, whether it was through increasing their knowledge and building their understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and contemporary issues, or by participating and contributing firsthand in events and activities that foster reconciliation.

During NAIDOC Week in 2014 we launched our Stretch Reconciliation Action Plan, which continues until 2016, setting real tasks and targets for us to achieve across our organisation. We are pleased with the progress we have made on this reconciliation journey, but acknowledge there is still further to go.

A central part of this is our commitment to creating ‘safe spaces’.

YWCA Safe Spaces is a model for creating lasting change in the lives of women and girls. This model helps develop the leadership and collective power of women and girls around the world, by striving to maintain unique women-led spaces that foster strength through leadership.

Through our Mura Lanyon Youth and Community Centre in Tuggeranong, we have created a safe space for a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups who access the centre for meetings and activities, including the ‘Nannies’, a group of Ngunnawal women Elders.

Since 2011 we have facilitated a leadership conference for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Themes explored in the workshop, designed in consultation with Indigenous women, includes values-based leadership, finding mentors and identifying role models, complexity of women’s roles, and understanding advocacy and influencing change. The two-day workshop also provides participants with an opportunity to hear from women leaders and advocates from the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, providing examples of positive Indigenous role models.

I am acutely aware that in raising my voice to celebrate NAIDOC Week, I am speaking from the position of a white, feminist woman. I am aware that when I speak it is from my values and my framework. It is with this awareness, that I acknowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in our community have different frameworks.

Through many of our programs and experiences, we have been enriched by becoming more informed about styles of Aboriginal women’s leadership, which are intergenerational and emphasise the whole rather than the individual.

YWCA Canberra’s vision is ‘Women shaping our communities’. For me, it’s vital that this includes all women; this drives my passion to continue on this rewarding reconciliation journey.

By Frances Crimmins, YWCA Canberra Executive Director

A survey of political, media and social media commentary this week proves one thing: Australia’s attitudes to working women are stuck and need a good shove to get them moving again.

Yes, society says, it’s fine for women to work. But there has been a systemic failure to remove the barriers to women in work.

Working women are expected to bend their work and career aspirations around societies’ expectations, rather than society – and government – providing the means for women to engage meaningfully in work on an equal footing.

Look at the government rhetoric around changes to Paid Parental Leave this week that played into those negative attitudes to women combining parenthood with work, using words like “rorting” and “double-dipping”.

It has taken many years to move businesses to recognise and value the contribution of women. An employer that offers paid parental leave should have government policy that supports and encourages that, not detracts from it.

A negative dialogue around women accessing child care was also loud and clear, in the news and social media this week.

Women being in work is desirable and legitimate. It increases the tax base, boosts productivity and provides economic security.

Increasing female workplace participation by just four percentage points would increase Australia’s GDP by $25 billion every year.

Having children is also desirable and legitimate in Australia.

These sound objectives should be backed by government policies that recognise the contribution women make to our economy.

So why are we so quick to scapegoat working women in Australia? And what can we do to change it?

At YWCA Canberra, we believe parenting responsibilities are not defined by gender. We are working towards a future where responsibilities for parenting are shared equally as the norm, not the exception.

The Equilibrium Challenge, launched recently and endorsed by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, will follow men in different industries as they ask their employers for flexible work arrangements to support their parenting responsibilities.

The resulting micro-documentary will be fascinating, and highlight the discrepancies in how men and women are treated by employers.

There is a tolerance for women accessing part-time or flexible work arrangements to support parenting responsibilities. But there is a price paid for this ‘tolerance’. The price is lower pay, fewer opportunities for training and advancement, lower numbers of women in positions of power and influence, and a general perception that women are less desirable as employees due to caring responsibilities.

Women statistically earn less than men, with the current gender pay gap sitting at 18.8 per cent, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The female workforce participation rate is 68 per cent and has barely moved in the past decade.

Re-couching paid parental leave, child care and flexible work arrangements as issues for society as a whole, not just women, would begin to change those attitudes and inequalities.

We also need to introduce quotas for leadership positions. The need is clear and unequivocal: if we wait for organic change, progress will be excruciatingly slow. A recent ASX200 survey found there are more men named Peter running top 200 companies in Australia than there are women.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr ought to follow the lead of his Victorian counterpart, Daniel Andrews, in legislating that 50 per cent of all government board appointments must be women. The Victorian quota applies to all paid government board positions and all Victorian courts.

In making this change, Mr Andrews said, “I’m sick of walking into meetings and seeing a room full of blokes sitting around the table.

“Many of the boardrooms of our public bodies are lacking a balance of skills, a balance of views, a balance of experiences and a balance of knowledge.

“Because they’re lacking perhaps the most important balance of all – they’re lacking women.”

Next Tuesday, YWCA Canberra will be hosting the She Leads 2015 Conference, where women will have the opportunity to network, be inspired by an incredible array of speakers and panelists, and develop their leadership potential.

But we need society to back these aspiring women leaders.

Equal participation of women in the work force, and particularly in decision-making leadership roles across all sectors, is vital for Australia, as a progressive, innovative society, to move forward.

This opinion piece was published by Fairfax Media on 14 May 2015, and in the print edition of the Sunday Canberra Times on 17 May 2015.

By Frances Crimmins, YWCA Canberra Executive Director

After three weeks of consistent lobbying, it’s gratifying to see primary prevention of violence against women receiving the attention it deserves from the Federal Government inquiry into domestic violence.

In the interim report released last week, the Senate Committee responsible for the inquiry called for respectful relationships education to be implemented in all schools through the national curriculum, as a primary prevention measure to end violence against women in the long term.

This recommendation coincides with the release of a report from the University of NSW this week, that surveyed perceptions of domestic and dating violence among young people aged 16-25. The report was prepared for White Ribbon Australia and Youth Action NSW and contains some worrying trends.

For a start, 75.7 per cent of the survey respondents felt that domestic violence was common or very common in Australia. And 72.4 per cent felt that disrespectful attitudes towards women was a key cause of domestic violence.

Compounding this was the fact that male respondents were more likely to agree with gender stereotypes than females and younger respondents were more likely to agree with attitudes that support domestic violence than older respondents.

For example, 18.8 per cent of male respondents agreed with the statement, “men are supposed to be the head of the household and take control of the relationship”, compared with 3.8 per cent of females.

These findings highlight the need for respectful relationships programs that work with young people to address gender equality, respect, diversity and specifically work to dispel gender stereotypes – all things that are included in YWCA Canberra’s award-winning, evidence-based primary prevention program, Respect, Communicate, Choose.

Critically, Respect, Communicate, Choose works with young people aged 9-12, before these attitudes become entrenched. If delivered consistently, the program could help enact a cultural change to end domestic violence in the long term.

The recommendation to implement primary prevention programs through the national curriculum is an important step in the right direction – but I welcome it cautiously, acknowledging the potential for this issue to become trapped in funding responsibility limbo between state and territories and the Federal Government.

Already, since the adoption of the National Plan for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Their Children (the National Plan), we have seen responsibility for domestic and sexual violence prevention funding shuttled from the Federal Government to states and territories. In the ACT, this has resulted in a complete absence of primary violence prevention programs in primary schools.

Respect, Communicate, Choose was funded through the Department of Social Services from 2012-13, which saw us deliver it to more than 900 students across the ACT and South Australia. Following the end of that funding period, the ACT Government has discontinued its support for the program.

It is disappointing that it takes something as horrific as the deaths of two women in the space of three weeks as a result of domestic violence to see any action on this issue and we’re still waiting to see if primary prevention will rate a mention in the ACT Government’s response to this crisis, as well as in the next budget.

Last Sunday, YWCA Canberra members and staff joined the estimated 5000 people who attended the Walk in Honour of Tara Costigan. We spoke to hundreds of members of the public about our Respect NOW campaign, which is calling on the ACT Government to fund Respect, Communicate, Choose for delivery in all ACT public primary schools and we were overwhelmed by the response.

Our petition on Change.org has received more than 600 signatures and the comments from signatories are telling – one woman writes, “I’m a survivor of domestic violence; and I believe in the importance of universal education promoting equal, safe and respectful relationships.”

Another says, “I was a victim of domestic violence. As a survivor, I think this education is imperative.”

People are passionate about preventing domestic and sexual violence, and agree that respectful relationships programs for young people need to be an absolute priority in our community. The UNSW report just released certainly demonstrates that the need for education on respect and gender equality is still very high.

Inclusion of respectful relationships programs in the national curriculum would be an incredibly positive step for Australia and would demonstrate a visionary approach from our governments to ending violence in the long term.

If this were to occur, we would advise the Federal Government to work with local organisations in the roll-out of such programs, to ensure that they use existing expertise and knowledge in this area, and ensure that programs are tailored to local community needs.

We are glad to see that prevention of violence against women and children is becoming a priority for our governments, and to see the rallying of the community in addressing this issue.

What we need now is a consistent and clearly articulated approach from both the Territory and Federal Governments that translates directly into funding for primary prevention programs.

Published in The Canberra Times, March 25 2015.

By Frances Crimmins, YWCA Canberra Executive Director

When Julia Gillard was asked about feminism at YWCA Canberra’s event on Monday night at the National Portrait Gallery, she said simply, ‘Do the maths’.

‘When you look at any instance – in government, in the judiciary, in business – and you don’t see half-half, then you think “There are women of merit who aren’t there”. We need to have them there, it’s important.

‘That’s feminism.’

She went on to say that when a system of merit exists but women are not accessing it, you have to look at the barriers and remove them.

So let’s do some maths. Women make up more than 50 per cent of the Australian work force but the percentage of women on boards in ASX 200 companies is just 18.6 per cent (August 2014).

This is why initiatives like the recently announced Employer of Choice for Gender Equality (EOCGE) citations are important. Judged by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), one of the key criteria in 2014 was to demonstrate a formal board appointment policy that actively promotes gender equality.

WGEA Director Helen Conway said it was about removing the barriers to women achieving these positions of merit.

‘We know sustained and multi-faceted interventions are required to address the structural and cultural barriers that prevent women and men from equally participating at all levels of an organisation,’ Ms Conway said.

So how did companies measure up to this standard?

Again, let’s look at the figures. In 2012, 125 companies met all the requirements. This year, the requirements were more stringent and only 76 companies across the country were able to meet them.

Only 76 are demonstrating they are actively working to remove the barriers that prevent women from accessing board positions.

As one of those who did receive this award, YWCA Canberra knows that the standard required is demanding but not impossible.

We believe these policies should simply be inbuilt and embedded throughout organisations.

To not do that is to reinforce the barriers that keep women out.

We know that developing women’s leadership is fundamental to advancing gender equality. We also know that leadership should be transformational and intergenerational.

We support and develop women’s leadership both within our workplace and in the broader community through initiatives such as our Board Traineeship Program. This program provides our members under the age of 30 with the opportunity to actively participate on our board, without the financial or legal responsibilities of being directors.

The program is strengthened by our commitment to quotas, with 30 per cent of our board positions being filled by young women under 30 years of age.

This ensures that we maintain a culture of diversity on our board and foster an intergenerational dialogue, which guides the work we do.

In short, we know that diversity on our board makes us a better, stronger organisation.

And by helping to show the way, we aim to inspire other organisations to do the maths and then remove the barriers. It’s that simple.

YWCA Canberra hosted former PM Julia Gillard on her national book tour at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra on Monday 10 November.

By Paul Trezise, CEO of St Vincent de Paul Society Canberra-Goulburn, and Frances Crimmins, Executive Director of YWCA Canberra, co-chairs of Anti-Poverty Week ACT.

The word ‘poverty’ is rarely used in Canberra. We tend towards synonyms like ‘financial stress’ or ‘economic hardship’ that can somehow soften the reality.

But Anti-Poverty Week (October 12-18) provides an opportunity to strip all that away and focus on the stark realities. Advocates are given permission to speak plainly about poverty, for this one week at least.

So let’s be clear: despite our relative affluence, poverty exists here in Canberra, in all its inglorious variations.

As co-chairs of Anti-Poverty Week, we see the impacts first-hand through our organisations – when serving soup to those who don’t often get a regular feed, providing a place to sleep for those who’ve run out of options, giving someone a bus ticket who might otherwise not get to the doctor, and paying a family’s electricity bill in the middle of a freezing Canberra winter.

The relative affluence of Canberra makes the contrast with those living in poverty even greater. Some of our poorest live cheek by jowl with our most well off. Yet, those suffering can be invisible.

Unemployment, housing stress, and gender issues are particular indicators of poverty in the ACT. For example, the unemployment rate for those aged 15 to 24 is 11.3 per cent, and census data in 2011 showed Canberra had the second highest rate of homelessness nationally. Meanwhile, women – particularly older women – are over-represented in the housing vulnerability stakes.

A report by St Vincent de Paul (Housing Stress in Canberra Goulburn, 2012) showed an increasing number of Canberrans are just one or two missed pay days away from homelessness.
This is a new kind of poverty, in the sense that people are being pushed into poverty purely by economic circumstances. This has, until recently, been unusual and short term in Canberra.

In the ACT, a single parent could expect to pay 74 per cent of their weekly income on rent for a two bedroom unit, while an age pensioner would pay 68.8 per cent of their pension on a one bedroom unit. Those with part-time or casual work are similarly hard hit by high rent costs. This creates a domino-effect, leading to a lack of funds to pay for school supplies, medical expenses and basics like food and petrol – and vulnerability in the face of unexpected circumstances such as a higher-than-usual power bill.

As a result, people who would otherwise be able to manage on a low income without asking for assistance are turning to organisations like those involved in Anti-Poverty Week for assistance.
For YWCA Canberra, the issues facing older women and housing vulnerability are particularly searing.

ACT Shelter recently released a report into housing issues for older women (Home Truths: Older women’s housing vulnerability in the ACT), which points out women in this group have “travelled many different pathways to housing vulnerability”. Having led relatively conventional lives, life shocks, such as relationship breakdown, death of a partner, illness or job loss, has pushed them into tenuous living situations.

In a recent article in this newspaper, Matt Wade raised the issue of the gender wealth gap, pointing out that single women have 14.5 per cent less wealth, on average, than single men. In the 15-34 age range, the average wealth of single women was just 57 per cent of the average wealth of single men. The numbers only get worse for women as they age, with women’s superannuation taking a hit when they typically break or stop full-time work in their 30s or 40s, to care for young children.

As Wade pointed out, “… as the population ages, and life spans edge higher, disparity of wealth among older people is likely to become a major political challenge”.

These are the day-to-day realities of life for too many in Canberra, and many more teeter on the brink of poverty with job uncertainty hitting our city hard and youth unemployment on the rise.

We are asking Canberrans for one week to shine a spotlight on poverty in the Territory in order that increased awareness can lead to more action. We ask that each one of us rise to the challenge and respond to Anti-Poverty Week’s call to action, #DoSomething.

Events across Canberra during Anti-Poverty Week include a headline event at UC, ‘Pathways out of Poverty’, ‘Eat, Pay, Love’ dinners at three Canberra restaurants, the inaugural Social Determinants of Health Alliance oration by Julian Disney (National Chair of Anti-Poverty Week), a youth unemployment forum and research launch by Anglicare, a Vinnies Sleepout on the ANU campus, and lots of neighbourhood activities. A full calendar of events is published on www.antipovertyweek.org.au.

Published in the Sunday Canberra Times 12 October 2014.

By Frances Crimmins, YWCA Canberra Executive Director

There is a silence in our society when it comes to the continued gender biases that exist in our workplaces.

The strides that we have made towards gender equality have been bold, but the fact remains that women are hugely underrepresented in leadership positions in Australia. As at 2012, only 12 of the top 500 public companies in Australia had female CEOs, and our current Government has only 17 per cent of its ministry positions held by women.

Perhaps most alarming is the continuing gender wage gap – women still earn 17.5 per cent less than our male counterparts for the same work, and female graduates can expect to earn $5,000 less per annum than male graduates.

These statistics are real. They demonstrate an attitude and an unconscious gender bias that form a significant barrier to women participating in the workforce.

At the YWCA of Canberra, we speak to many young women who haven’t experienced gender discrimination in the workplace. That is, until they take that pivotal first step towards a leadership position, whether it’s applying for a management role within an organisation, or for a board position.

They are hit again with the realities of gender inequality when they reach what is considered to be child-bearing age. It is at this point that the differences between the treatment of men and women become a real barrier – despite having the same level of education, the same professional experience, and the same level of skill as their male counterparts. Young women are suddenly faced with new challenges based entirely on their gender.

These barriers are twofold, in both perceived notions of women’s capabilities when it comes to leadership, and on the real systemic barriers to women engaging in demanding executive positions while balancing parenting responsibilities outside of work.

Workplaces in Australia are not responsive to the needs of women when it comes to balancing both motherhood and their careers. We know that 28 per cent of the discrimination claims investigated by the Fair Work Ombudsman in 2012-13 were pregnancy related.

The YWCA of Australia conducted a pre and post-pregnancy survey with members in January this year, producing some alarming results. Women reported a decrease in their responsibilities at work following pregnancy, a lack of support to return to their positions post-pregnancy, and, in particular, an emphasis on the views of individual managers in determining working arrangements for pregnant women or recent mothers.

To make matters worse, a lack of affordable, quality childcare often prices women out of the workforce entirely. With women still more likely to be primary caregivers than men, this significantly impacts on women’s ability to fulfill their responsibilities as mothers as well as their career ambitions and goals.

More insidious than these systemic barriers, however, is the common perception that women lack the inherent skills and traits to hold leadership roles in our communities, governments and workplaces. The male-dominated image of what leadership is still prevails, and there is a dearth of women in leadership positions to hold up as an alternative.

In Australia, we don’t yet know what a sustained, gender-equal playing field looks like. For a brief period in our history, the sun shone on women leaders with both a female Prime Minister in Julia Gillard and a female Governor-General in Dame Quentin Bryce.

We have since returned to the ‘status quo’, however. And despite some hand-wringing in the public domain about the current lack of women in leadership roles, there has been little effort to make real and lasting change.

The YWCA of Canberra is a supporter of quotas, as they have proven to be successful mechanisms to create a pipeline of young women into leadership roles. Until young women feel empowered to pursue leadership opportunities and have role models to look to, we will continue to be underrepresented at the decision-making tables, be they in business, politics, education, or any other sector.

We need to celebrate and support our current women leaders, and encourage more women to take on executive and managerial roles. Unless this inequality is challenged, it will only become more entrenched and more difficult to break down.

That is why the YWCA of Canberra is hosting its inaugural She Leads Conference on Tuesday, building on our decades of work in developing leadership pathways for aspiring and established women.

The Conference will provide a forum for women to develop their management and leadership skills, while also connecting them with women leaders in fields stretching from public policy and advocacy to the media, arts and community services.

The speaker line up includes pioneering feminist Dr Anne Summers, Deputy Secretary (People Strategies and Policy) at the Department of Defence, Carmel McGregor, the Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Helen Conway and many others. These women have carved out their own pathways to leadership, and can now share their experiences and advice with others through the She Leads initiative.

As it currently stands, leadership in Australia is not equally accessible to men and women. The YWCA of Canberra recognises this through its leadership programs, which are focused on equipping women with the emotional resilience, skills and experience to excel as leaders, and to learn how to mitigate the impact of gender bias on their own leadership journeys.

Next Tuesday’s inaugural She Leads Conference is an important step towards addressing these issues, and ending the silence around gender barriers to leadership positions in Australia.

Published in the Sunday Canberra Times 11 May 2014.