The Changes We Need This International Women’s Day Are Bigger Than Traffic Lights

It’s time to go beyond nice gestures.

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When I think of gender equality, a pedestrian traffic light isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But today, on International Women’s Day, that is what we’re getting. After some lobbying from Melbourne community group, Committee for Melbourne, the state of Victoria is installing little green women on traffic lights as part of an initiative to support gender equality and reduce unconscious bias.

Instead of talking about the dismal lack of female politicians in power — who currently make up just 33 percent of the federal parliament — or the national domestic violence endemic, one of Australia’s most progressive cities is using this week to deal with the little green men on the traffic lights who tell you when it’s safe to cross the road and blink red when you need to start legging it. Yesterday, 10 pedestrian traffic lights showing what could be either a silhouette of a person wearing a dress, or a caped crusader (or both), were installed in Melbourne’s CBD as part of the new initiative. VicRoads has approved a 12-month trial of the female pedestrian light installations.

This isn’t a new idea. New Zealand’s little capital that could, Wellington, installed eight pedestrian traffic lights depicting the country’s most famous suffragette, Kate Sheppard, at crossings around the city in 2015. Last year, the city immortalised the late Carmen Rupe, a mayoral candidate, activist, and transgender woman, as a pedestrian crossing silhouette on Cuba Street. Melbourne City Council have also previously changed a pedestrian light to a figure in a long dress and hat to honour Victoria’s first female councillor Mary Rogers.

Speaking about this latest change Committee for Melbourne CEO, Martine Letts, told the ABC: “The idea is to install traffic lights with female representation, as well as male representation, to help reduce unconscious bias… Unconscious bias reinforces stereotypes and influences daily decisions and attitudes. The Equal Crossings initiative will draw our attention to these issues in a practical and positive way”.

It’s a move that’s been supported by Victoria’s Minister for Women and the Prevention of Family Violence, Fiona Richardson, who said in a statement that “there are many small — but symbolically significant — ways that women are excluded from public space. I’m thrilled to see pedestrian crossing lights use a woman’s figure. This is a wonderful way to make public space more inclusive of women.”

Others are not so excited.

The change has come at no cost to the taxpayer (Committee for Melbourne and traffic management company Camlex Electrical are coughing up for the $8,400 bill), but reactions on Twitter have been mixed, and media commentators have wasted no time in slamming the pedestrian lights as “political correctness gone mad”. 3AW host Neil Mitchell has gone a step further, saying “If you want to fight sexism, there are a million places to start before this”.

Neil Mitchell is not exactly the first at the picket line when it comes to campaigning for feminist issues, but on this point, I weirdly agree with him.

The female pedestrian traffic lights are a nice gesture. Somewhere along the line, someone thought it was an idea worth pursuing. But now is not the time for baby steps. On International Women’s Day in 2017, it’s time to go beyond nice gestures. We’re not going to see a reversal of the tampon tax, more funding directed to frontline community legal centres, or an improvement in the pay rates of women employees (especially in industries that are dominated by women and chronically undervalued — such as childcare), with the help of a little green person (who could be genderqueer, trans, non-binary, or just someone who likes wearing a dress) to help us cross the street.

Yesterday, the same day the traffic light initiative was announced, polling firm Ipsos released their findings from an international survey of 18,000 people’s attitudes to gender equality in 24 countries around the world. They found that two in 10 Australian respondents believe men are “more capable of working, earning money, being educated and teaching than women” and, more frightening, one in seven Australian respondents agreed with the statement “women are inferior to men”.

That’s a scary — albeit unsurprising — statistic. Scarier still, the Ipsos survey results were drowned out yesterday by the story of Melbourne’s new female pedestrian traffic lights. Feel-good gestures are fine; but not when they overshadow or come at the expense of things that are more important.

A push to promote gender equality could be better used in more pressing areas. Right now, the Women’s Legal Service Victoria (WLSV) — Victoria’s only specialist women’s family violence legal service and helpline — is looking at a $200,000 federal funding cut starting from July 1. It will mean the organisation will have to cut back vital family violence services, including a statewide advice line and duty lawyer services, affecting approximately 600 women each year. It might not sound like much, but I reckon the WLSV could really use a spare $8,400 right now.

Unfortunately, the truth is you can put a dress on a static green or red figure faster than anyone could ever hope to fix the gender pay gap, which remains at 23.1 per cent in Australia, according to the annual Gender Equity Insights report. And it’s easier to change traffic lights than it is to address the endemic rates of domestic and intimate-partner violence in Australia — Destroy the Joint counted 72 women who had been killed by violence last year. Not to mention the week of International Women’s Day seems to be the only chance women get at an all-female panel on Q&A.

Today is International Women’s Day and we need to do better than little green women at the corner of Swanston and Flinders streets.

Emma Nobel is a freelance journalist in Melbourne. Her work has been broadcast on ABC RN and All The Best on fBi Radio. She tweets at @emmanobel.