Gender Equity Week, In Name Only

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Words || Lydia Jupp

I’m sure most students could tell you that Friday the 8th of March was International Women’s Day, but you’d be hard pressed to find an undergrad who knew that the whole of that week was also Macquarie’s Gender Equity week, which included events such as MQ Women Shaping the Future, Women Who Change the World, and Macquarie’s 4th Gender Equity Summit. There is, however, a very simple reason as to why most students didn’t know about our university’s endeavours to bring gender equality to our campus- they didn’t want us there.

It appears that staff members were the only ones to receive emails inviting them to the events, and had the university wanted students to attend, it seems obvious that they would have engaged with some of the student groups. But on a week that the university claimed was to “celebrate our University’s progress towards gender equity and inspire the next steps on our journey to create a truly equitable and inclusive culture for all at Macquarie”, why would the university purposely exclude the people who make up the largest part of the Macquarie community?

As a third year gender studies and journalism student, the President of the Macquarie Women’s Collective, and the co-convenor of the Network of Women Students Australia 2019 Conference, I consider myself fairly well versed in gender politics at my university. I’ve received dozens of emails and listened to concerns in the women’s room, and gender inequities range from the inaccessible- like the lack of places to buy sanitary products and single gender neutral bathroom on campus- to the life changing.

Research has shown that Macquarie students experience higher rates of sexual assault and harassment on campus compared to the national average (Australian Human Rights Commission Change the Course Report, 2017). Over 2015 and 2016, 1.8% of students reported that they had been raped at university in 2015 and/or 2016. When you consider that about 40,000 students attend Macquarie each year, that means that hundreds of students have experienced sexual assault in only those two years alone. We also know that a big problem with this report was underreporting from survivors, which means there are countless more students who haven’t told their stories.

I’ve had multiple conversations with women who have come to me wanting help with a stalker, abusive ex-boyfriend, or rapist who’s enrolled at the uni with them, because they don’t know who else to turn to. I’ve helped students who reported their abusers and rapists to Macquarie, and still have to go to university with them, and I know people who have dropped out because it was too traumatic. This has become so common that I’ve had to seek out training in responding to trauma and I’ve been to psychologist to deal with my own vicarious trauma from disclosures. I am not a staff member. I am a student who has been doing this since I was 19 because if I don’t, I don’t know who will.

Rape isn’t the only thing we have on our minds. Women, along with Indigenous, queer, disabled, culturally and linguistically diverse, regional, and distance students lack a democratically elected voice on campus. While other representatives are able to be chosen by the students, “Equity and Diversity Officers” are chosen by a university board. 2017 saw this process critiqued when Georgie Slater, Women’s Officer nominee was told during her interview with university officials that she might be better suited for the Queer Officer position, despite the fact that she had not listed in her application that she was bisexual, nor had she signed the contract required for the position stating that she identified as LGBTQI+. As the interview continued, instead of being asked about how she would represent the concerns of women on campus, Slater was examined on how she’d encourage students to attend on-campus events. This selection panel was implemented in 2012 and has been designed to silence marginalised voices and ensure that no real change comes about. How can we trust a university board to speak for students in issues they have no lived experience of? Does the university even care?

These aren’t the only gendered issues students face at university. Macquarie has a pro-life group on campus, LifeChoice, that regularly attacks and vilifies women for seeking healthcare.  Last year, the Macquarie Liberals hosted an event with Mark Latham, a man who believes that domestic violence is a “coping mechanism” for men and who continually harassed domestic violence survivor and advocate Rosie Batty, whose son Luke was murdered by her ex-partner. The Liberals also hosted Bettina Arndt’s Fake Rape Crisis Campus tour, where she called rape “regret sex” and told the audience that “no doesn’t always mean no.” These groups are both university approved and supported, despite the fact that they regularly target and harass students on the basis of gender. The Macquarie Liberals even won an award at the Student Group Awards last year, and a prize of $1000.

The next time the university wants to tackle gender equality on campus, I would advise them to look to the students, and ask themselves how they can actually make a difference. Don’t waste time, energy, and money on a Gender Equity Week when your students, most barely adults themselves, have to comfort retraumatised peers as a result of blatant lack of care from the administration. We cannot focus on women in STEM or how to break glass ceilings when we have to drop out of class because the university wouldn’t expel our rapist. Students are exhausted, voiceless, and feel powerless, and if the university thinks they made steps towards a better campus last week, they left us behind.