On March 6, UNSW celebrated International Women’s Day by hosting an event featuring a keynote speech by Sally Rugg. Sally is the Executive Director of Change.org - Australia’s largest social change platform - and in her previous role with GetUp! she worked at the forefront of Australia’s campaign for marriage equality. Sally drew on her personal and professional experiences to reflect on the 2020 International Women’s Day theme “each for equal”, which points to the impact our individual actions, conversations, behaviours and mindsets can have on our larger society.

Sally’s fierce stance against discrimination stemmed from an uncomfortable period of self-loathing. She began her keynote by sharing an anecdote about the devastation she felt when she first realised she was a lesbian. Based on society’s heteronormative expectations, she thought it would be a serious barrier to success and tried to resist her own identity.

“It felt like discovering I had cancer. Because at 19 years old, I didn't want to be gay. I felt like my whole future was going to be different. I had these big dreams, and I suddenly felt like the world wasn't going to be as equal for me as it was for everybody else."

Sally knew that as a woman from the LGBTIQ+ community, any gender discrimination she faced would be compounded by hostility towards her sexual orientation. Sally’s process of self-acceptance began when she gradually unlearnt the societal constructs that position certain identities above others. She believes these damaging narratives have conditioned people to view their identity as the inherent problem – when it’s the discriminatory system that needs fixing.

"To believe in equality is actually quite radical. It's to reject what we have been implicitly or explicitly taught from birth, in a society that relentlessly tells these stories of male privilege, male heroics of white supremacy and of deities of wealth and health."

Yet Sally reminded the audience that the concept of gender equality is complicated – because every woman’s lived experiences and identities are different. There are interlocking systems of power that marginalise people from specific backgrounds and some women are disproportionately disadvantaged because their identities overlap with several discriminated groups. Communities that experience higher levels of discrimination, include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, trans and gender diverse, low socio-economic backgrounds and disability.

Sally believes that discriminatory beliefs are rooted in a lack of knowledge She encourages people to undertake thorough research before forming a concrete opinion. Sally points to the frequent denial of transgender women as ‘real women’ – to showcase how a lack of understanding can result in false assumptions.

“To be clear, there's no reputable dispute that transgender women are women. If you don't quite understand that, that's OK. But to deny the existence of women with transgender experience is akin to denying the womanhood of someone who doesn't look like you. So, go and learn.”

“When I think about what it means to be each for equal, I can't help but think of Audrey Lord who says "I am not free while any woman is unfree. Even when her shackles are different to my own.""

"We don't think of the Aboriginal mother in the Western Australian prison cell, because we got the raise. We don't think of the transwoman mocked once more as she just walks down the street, because we are learning to be #bodypositive and happy with our curves. We don't think about the woman who clings to her dignity as the last thing she has left, as she decides between buying a small amount of food or her medicine this week."

Sally highlighted a historical example that speaks to the emancipation of one group of women, whilst neglecting to fight for the rights of another.

“In America suffragettes celebrated winning the right to vote, but those rights weren't for all women. At a women’s rights rally in Ohio, a black woman - a former slave who was fighting for the abolition of slavery confronted the crowd and asked them, "Ain't I a woman?"”

For Sally these examples showcase the importance of building an inclusive coalition that does not become complacent once certain successes are achieved. She urges us to look out for those who are left behind, even in the face of progress.

While gender equality is often seen as a business issue: equal pay, equal boardroom, equal media coverage - Sally believes there are other issues that can be overlooked. The traditional expectations of women to be homemakers and caregivers usually leaves them financially dependent and vulnerable when a relationship falls apart. Instead of merely fighting for future ideals, Sally passionately spoke of the need to proactively address the current real-life economic consequences of these gender roles.

 “The demographic of people most at risk of becoming homeless are women over the age of 55. These are women who have worked their wholes lives to raise children to become workers, and supporting their husband as he goes off to the office, only to be left with no superannuation, no job prospects, and sometimes no share of the house after the divorce.”

But for real change to occur, Sally emphasises the importance of reaching across the aisle and working in tandem with people who may have different values to you. She credits the success of the marriage equality campaign with uniting people across the board.

“In order to change everything, you need activism that speaks to all different kinds of people. We need to not retreat to our ideological corners and tear each other down. In marriage equality, I worked very, very closely with politicians who I disagree with on pretty much every other thing, but I still worked together with them.”

One of the key misconceptions of feminism is the notion that it’s a movement solely seeking special privileges for women and maligning men. “When we talk about smashing the patriarchy, we're not talking about smashing men. We’re talking about freeing men from the patriarchy that oppresses them too, and the purpose of feminism isn't about putting women or non-binary people above men; it's about approaching society with the values of fairness and compassion and inclusion.”

In speaking out against injustices, Sally says she often faces backlash. She’s received vitriolic comments, hate mail and death threats but the verbal abuse won’t stop her determination to fight for marginalised groups in society.

"People reach out to me, particularly young women, young queer people, who are grateful for having their voices amplified, and it's a really good feeling if you speak up for those who perhaps don't have a voice in these sorts of debates."

To champion gender equality and ratify your commitment to the cause, EDI encourages you to sign the #BETTERTOGETHER pledge. Join the UNSW community that will challenge gender stereotypes, gender bias and discrimination each day, through individual actions.