There is a spurious idea that’s held sway in all sorts of arenas for a very long time that when you are gender neutral it’s fair for everyone.
Thanks to feminism and its insistence we pay attention to the circumstances of women and girls, there is now a great deal of evidence, gathered over a very long time, that shows that gender neutral employment, promotion and remuneration policies disproportionately benefit those who are already advantaged in employment, promotion and pay; most often white men.
Unsurprisingly, there is also a growing body of evidence that when you have gender-neutral philanthropy the same problem exists, but with even more disturbing consequences. As NSW Governor Professor Marie Bashir put it yesterday as she launched the Strengthening Society by Investing in Women and Girls guidebook in Sydney, “gender neutral does not always end up with equal outcomes.”
NSW Governor Professor Marie Bashir
Drawing on her professional background as a child and adolescent psychologist, Governor Bashir pulled no punches as she listed the hard facts about the lives of many women in prosperous, modern Australia. In their lifetime, one in three Australian women will experience physical violence, one in five sexual violence and when they get old – just to add insult to injury – women are 2.5 times more likely than men to live in poverty. The Governor then pointed out just what living with chronic violence and insecurity does to women’s physical and mental health and, crucially, the ripple effect that then has on their children. “Investing in women,” she said, “means by extension investing in their children.” Experience overseas agrees with her and has been telling us for a long time that when you invest in women and girls the benefits accrue to the whole family and to the community in a way that they do not when you only invest in men.
Maybe this sounds like old news. After all, we’ve been hearing about The Girl Effect for some time now, yet as recently as 2011 only 12% of Australian philanthropy was going to programs specifically aimed at women and girls. Personally, I found this figure gobsmacking.
And I am not the only one. According to the Australian Women Donors Network, which published the Strengthening Society guidebook, the philanthropy sector in general is now much more aware of how powerful a force for positive change giving to women can be. As philanthropist and CEO of Greenhills, Peter Hunt, said at the launch, he aims to be as disciplined as possible with his money and that’s why the charities he supports focus on women. The problem is, argues AWD CEO Julie Reilly, that while many philanthropists have heard the message and are willing to focus on women, they have not known how to invest their funds effectively. The Strengthening Society guidebook aims to bridge that gap.
Kristi Mansfield, Catriona Wallace, Janine Garner and Pat Hall
Those who attended the launch (in the dreaming spires of PwC complete with glimpses of the harbour) heard about a number of successful examples of the change that can occur when philanthropists turn their attention to women and girls. Pat Hall from Warwick Farm (75% of people in Warwick Farm are from a non English speaking background) runs Peppers Café and a lawn-mowing business with the support of The Sydney Women’s Fund. After telling us how the lawn-mowing business burned through three male employees before a woman took over and made a success of it, Hall gave us a quick overview of how community members were able to work with police to map the crime hot spots in their community and so completely revise the previously inadequate local crime statistics. Together the police and community members then created an action plan and a steering committee to tackle some of the serious problems in the area. Hall stressed that people in local communities have to take ownership of any initiatives and that philanthropy imposed from above is seldom successful. She is now also involved with the Doorways Education program which has seen 150 disadvantaged women gain qualifications, including some who have gone on to university.
Peter Hunt shared his steep learning curve as he discovered that homelessness among women – while hidden – is actually higher than amongst men. As he pointed out, it is much more common to see homeless men on the street than women, due to their greater vulnerability they often stay out of sight. They literally become invisible and so does the problem.
Sydney launch of the guide at PwC Australia
While the percentage of mental health issues amongst the homeless are more or less the same across the genders (80% struggle with mental illness according to Hunt), 50% of women without a roof over their head are also escaping domestic violence. “What these women suffer and put up with is horrendous,” Hunt said. In response to this need, Hunt helped establish the Manly Women’s Refuge and Women’s Community Shelters with the aim to make sure there are no women in Australia who cannot find a bed. Like Governor Bashir, he is also passionate about addressing the root cause of so much homelessness among women – domestic violence itself.
Hunt also supports charities that focus on women and girls through education projects in Tanzania and microfinance for women living in the slums of Manilla. In keeping with his focus on disciplined philanthropy he pointed out that women are much more likely to pay back the money they are leant. This is not just commendable, he argued, but has the added bonus that the money is once again available to be lent out to others.
I have to say he completely won me over when he closed his presentation by saying that “entrenched social problems need to be tackled with a lack of patience.” A(wo)men to that.
Mind you, I also realised wearily we’re still in need of patience when one questioner from the audience asked about the difficulty of dealing with such a – and I quote – “narrow demographic”! Narrow demographic? I think she meant women and girls.