Champion of change

We speak with UOW alumna Carol Kiernan - Honour a Woman Cofounder

UOW alumna Carol Kiernan has been instrumental in achieving equality for women in the Australian Honours by co-founding 'Honour a Woman'.

Can you tell us about your work With Honour a Woman and the goals of the movement?

Three of us cofounded Honour a Woman movement and the main aim of the movement was to achieve gender equality in the order of Australia. So when we started four years ago, around 70 per cent of the awards were going to men and only 30 per cent of them going to women. A lot of the higher awards were definitely very skewed towards men.

Why do you believe women’s invaluable work in society, the economy and the community has traditionally not been recognised in the Australian Honours?

Women tend to just get on with the job, in the domestic sphere, in the professional sphere, with our children, with our parents, we tend to just work. And what's really interesting, even just when looking at the Order of Australia, what we found was that men were nominating men and women were nominating men and few people were nominating women. So the reality is that women are the quiet achievers and they bring all sorts of rich diversity into our society but they're often overlooked.

Do you think this underrepresentation is a symptom of gender inequality in general across Australia?

It is definitely, and it's in every sphere. I've been working for the last 40 years and everywhere I've worked, I've seen stellar women who have been overlooked, who have not been recognised, who have not been promoted whose pay wasn't the same as men in the same field and who were not being honoured in prestigious awards. So it's basically across the whole of our society. And this year, I think it's a very big year for the women to say enough's enough.

What led you, Elizabeth Hartnell-Young and Ruth McGowan OAM to found Honour a Woman in 2017?

I was reading the letters to the editor and there was one letter that actually turned out to be from Elizabeth and she was articulating exactly what I felt, how frustrating it was that we had these Order of Australia awards for Australia Day and there were 14 men and one woman getting the top award, and the one woman was Cate Blanchett and 14 men. And most of those men were being paid very, very well for the work that they were doing. I just thought that this is really enough and Australia has got caught in that in a paradigm that is really not a very equal one for women. And it was time to do something about it. I actually used my intelligence skills and sought out Elizabeth, I found her at Melbourne University and then we collected Ruth McGowan. So the three of us didn't know each other - that's another thing to realise that you can actually bring together a movement from very disparate people and really make an impact.

What progress have you made with the movement over the last four years?

We've really put the issue in the face of the public, and there's very few people who wouldn't be able to talk about gender inequality in Australia now. So we've really made it an issue to discuss. But we've also been able to meet with all the state governments, the federal government and the Governor-General. And so we've actually been able to recognise that there's a consciousness raising part of it, which we were able to do through social media, our website, Facebook and Twitter. But it was also really necessary that it wasn't just the community, there had been this tendency to blame the community for not nominating enough women and we recognise it was actually a structural issue and not just a community issue. And so it's really important to meet with all the leaders of government.

One of the challenges is to encourage all the leaders to recognise that gender targets are very important, that you can't just wish for something to happen. You actually have to measure it and have strategies to get there. And that's the challenge still. But we're still meeting with various levels of government to get them to agree to gender targets.

This year we saw female recipients across all four Australian of the Year award categories – is this the beginning of a shift in the way women are recognised in Australia?

I'd like to think so, and I hope so. I certainly think it has got a discussion going and that's a really, really good thing. But without structural change, it will go back. And I'm old enough to have seen a number of branches of movements similar to this year without the change happening. I'm hopeful in the fact that people are listening and there's a lot of anger and anger can be productive in the end. And I hope that it will be, it really is necessary for leaders to actually enact structural change. This is where social media is very, very helpful. And it's also helpful for people to talk about their experiences of injustice. And that's in some ways when I look at my career, I think that's been my driving light to work on injustice and give people a voice that don’t have that chance otherwise.

What are the current male to female ratios of recognition in the Australian Honours?

We haven't got 50 50. We argued that with gender targets, we were happy with 40 per cent men, 40 per cent women and 20 per cent either way. But the reality is it doesn't really matter the numbers yet if there isn't that structural change, because our argument is and I think it's very true, once we take the spotlight off the Order of Australia that Honour a Woman gender lens, it will go back. There's no agreement that states and territories need to ensure that there is gender equality within the nominations. There's no agreement that there has to be gender equality in the awards themselves. So nothing has been actually embedded yet. But that said, we are actually working with the Governor-General who happens to be a man from Wollongong - he is listening and he has recognised that things do need to change. So we're hopeful, but we're not there yet.

What should governments be doing to bridge the gap in the gender inequality in the Australian Honours?

We've been working with the Victorian Government and they have a program called Recognition Matters. They've appointed an officer within their Department of Premier and Cabinet, and that officer works to identify and ensure there’s enough nominations of women going forward to the council. So we're really encouraging each state and territory and a lot of them have been working with us and they're looking at different models. So we're not saying that every state needs to have the same model, but they need to have something generating nominations because it's not just the Order of Australia, it's all these awards that are around Australia. If there's no generation of nominations of women, they are just being forgotten. We really want to see more diversity in the Order of Australia as well.

What can people in the community do to make a difference?

If you have any influence on premiers and prime ministers, then you need to meet with them and you need to say, where is the organisation in your state and territory and what are you doing in terms of gender equality at the basic level? That is to actually nominate women for all sorts of awards. I've been really amazed at just how many awards there are in Australia. There are community awards, there are awards within industries, professional awards and sometimes I think we forget that we need to actually nominate women. We need to pay it forward.

Carol Kiernan
Bachelor of Arts (Honours), 1979