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Pressing for progress on International Women's Day

Antony Perry

8 March 2018: Sporting a t-shirt with the catchphrase “Wonder Woman” emblazoned across its front, Virginia Haussegger proudly declares today her favourite on the calendar.

It's not her usual attire, but it's not a typical day for the Director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, a gender equality initiative launched last year at the University of Canberra.

It's International Women’s Day and Ms Haussegger is in her element. At a morning tea on campus to mark the occasion, she speaks passionately about gender equality and how she’s working to achieve it.

She's joined on stage by Care Australia Chief Executive Sally Moyle, University of Canberra Director of Sport Carrie Graf, and Hayley Teasdale, a PhD candidate working to revolutionise the lives of Australians who have suffered neural damage using neuroplasticity training. Each woman is inspiring.

The morning tea followed an ‘In Conversation’ event held on campus last night. Ms Haussegger hosted Australia’s first female Governor-General, the Honourable Dame Quentin Bryce, and former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick. Both women have played a pivotal role in changing Australia’s workplace culture and social attitudes around gender equality.

But despite International Women’s Day taking pride of place on her calendar of events, not all is as it seems.

“I’m not happy,” Ms Haussegger said. “I’m never happy.” She is referring to the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in Australia and the work still to be done in changing workplace culture and social attitudes around gender equality.

The University has long been committed to equality. For the last 11 years, it has been recognised for gender equality in the workplace and is currently only one of two organisations in the ACT to hold the accreditation.

In its new Strategic Plan, the University has outlined its intention to become the national sector leader in equity, diversity and inclusion.

Ms Haussegger insists that International Women’s Day is an important time to “stop, pause and reflect”.

“It’s a moment to grab the opportunity to make a bit of noise and acknowledge the progress we’ve made, particularly in a place like Australia, but we also have a lot of work yet to do,” she said.

The former ABC News presenter has used her position as a prominent media identity to campaign for women’s rights and their right to equality – often at her own peril.

“I was once a columnist for The Canberra Times and every Monday I was hauled into the boss’s office to hear complaints about what I had written in the weekend paper,” she recalled.

To have her voice heard, change was required. In her new role at the University, Ms Haussegger is immune to the law of impartiality that journalists are bound by. The potential, she says, it limitless.

“As an ABC employee, with a public persona as a presenter, there was an attitude that you were not to express personal opinions,” she said. “I got that, I accepted that, but it just became too difficult for me. Life’s too short.

“The reason I’m at the University of Canberra is because its Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis saw the potential to do some good work here. Not just talk, but influence policy. It could see the value in taking this issue, doing the research, and nudging policy reform.”

Ms Haussegger said there are many diverse aspects of gender equality and a myriad of challenges, constraints and constructs to overcome.

“Achieving progress is hard and this is why I congratulate Vice-Chancellor Professor Deep Saini and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis for setting up the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation,” she said.

“It’s a hard thing to do and no other university is doing this, taking evidence-based learnings and applying it to the practical realm.”

Ms Haussegger said she isn’t feeling like Wonder Woman yet, despite her chosen attire, but you can bet she won’t stop until she does.