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With the #metoo movement, Harvey Weinstein’s conviction and subsequent sentencing – it finally seemed that gender equality issues were gaining traction, at least in the public’s mind. But what has the COVID-19 crisis taught us about gender, diversity and the very notion of citizenship? On this episode of Seriously Social journalist Ginger Gorman talks to legal scholar Professor Kim Rubenstein about gender and the pandemic, leadership, and what it means to be an active citizen


Ginger:     Hello there and thanks for joining us for Seriously Social. This is the podcast where we use the lens of the social sciences to help us consider how COVID-19 is impacting Australian society, our relationships, human connections and societal structures. We get experts to help us think about things in new ways.


With me now is Professor Kim Rubenstein. She’s a legal scholar, whose work focuses on active citizenship and gender. Kim is codirector of the 50/50 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra and a Fellow of both the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia and the Australian Academy of Law.Kim, thank you so much for joining me.

Kim Rubenstein:   My pleasure, Ginger.

Ginger:  Let’s start by talking about how the pandemic has personally impacted you.

Kim:        Well, I can actually put a specific moment and date. It was Monday the 16th of March. On that morning, my husband and I love to go walking up Red Hill in Canberra. We often count the numbers of kangaroos that we see on our walk and we were reflecting on how fortunate we were to be able to do that walk. And the context for thinking of that is that our kids, who are in their university years, they’re both at the University of Melbourne are based on Melbourne and we often spend time in Melbourne.

So, we were thinking of how lucky we were to be able to go up Red Hill in the morning and enjoy that natural environment. And we have to drive a few minutes to get to the base. Well, we don’t have to, but in order to make the walk about a 40‑minute walk, we drive to the base, walk up Red Hill and come back and then drive back.

And as we arrived back in our driveway, we got a call from my mum, who’s based in Melbourne. I’m originally from Melbourne. And she said the National Gallery of Victoria’s been shut, the State Library has been shut. “What would you do,” she said, “if they shut the borders and you weren’t able to come back to Melbourne?”

And my husband and I just looked at each other and thought, “There’s no way we would want to be caught here, not being able to be with our kids.” And so, essentially, we just had this compulsion, we had to go inside, have our showers, have a quick breakfast, pack up everything and we drove down to Melbourne. And I’m actually sitting here now, however many weeks after the 16th of March, talking to you from Melbourne. But it was just that intense feeling that we had no other choice, but to pack up and drive down.

Ginger:     And this is one of the strange things about the pandemic that it has just impacted our lives in so many ways and it’s changing all the time.

One of the things you’ve been thinking about, Kim, is a concept that you call active citizenship. I want to talk about it in the context of the pandemic, but tell me first what active citizenship means.

Kim:  Yes. My work has been largely looking at the relationship between the legal concepts of citizenships and the status of who is and isn’t a citizen, and broader normative notions of participation and membership and contribution in a sort of traditional sense that’s often thought of as a republican participatory democracy sense of citizenship.

And that work of mine is quite broad and we’ll come back to that in probably a range of ways in our discussion. But in essence, what I’m interested in is the way that we as individuals contribute to the public sphere in a way that we can be representatives in Parliament, but not only in that formal sense, although that’s really significant and important to my work, but also in the different ways in which, as members of society, we contribute to public discussion, public deliberation, that notion of active citizenship.

And now, and in more recent times, I’m focusing on that from the perspective of women’s active participation in the public sphere.

Ginger:   What have you noticed in respect to women and their active citizenship since the start of this pandemic?

Kim:     Well, this is an area that I’m really interested in from the perspective of women’s participation and capacity to be active citizens. And we already know that there are a disproportionate number of men as opposed to women in those leadership positions. And I think this pandemic has highlighted and emphasised that in a way that should make us feel very concerned.

If you just think back to those original images of those press conferences, there are images of the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, the Health Minister, Greg Hunt, and of course, the Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, four White men, who are the image of decision making and responsibility for the nation. Now, it’s not that they are not necessarily capable, but it just reminds us of the absence of women in that context.

And soon after, when parliament was drawn together to have that special meeting and there were photos in the paper of the reduced makeup of Parliament and again, the small numbers of women in the room. And it’s not just the imagery of that. It’s the reality that women’s life experiences are not being able to be significant in our thinking about decision making at this particular time.

Ginger:   And the interesting thing about that, Kim, is it’s almost a dichotomy of who’s actually doing the real frontline work versus who’s making the decisions because so many people on the frontline of the pandemic are healthcare workers, are teachers and so forth. I’m not suggesting men don’t do those jobs, but these caring professions are largely done by women. So, they’re doing this brute work and then you’ve got people making the decisions, who are not in that cohort.

Kim:  Yes, that’s right. So, it does really emphasise the gendered nature of work in society and how important it is to hear the voices of those individuals. And then, as you’ve just said, to recognise that the impact of COVID is going to be different on those different groups.

So, it’s not only a question of gender and I think this is really important, it’s gender plus. It’s gender plus your socioeconomic background. It’s gender plus your migrational citizenship background in that formal sense. It’s gender plus your ethnicity. It’s plus the social norms from your experience growing up. They are all different. It’s not that all women and all women experience this in the same way. And that’s an important point that you’ve helped me draw out, Ginger, here in terms of when we’re thinking about leadership, why do we want more women in those roles?

It’s not only an equity notion about that there are women who are capable who should be doing those roles and who are not being thought of because of what I call our existing affirmative action system for men in those areas. It is also about the fact that there are different experiences within those cohorts that need to be represented in parliament. And COVID, I think, has really emphasised and amplified that, as some other things that we will no doubt come back to.

Ginger:    Kim, though, we have seen some leaders, like Annastacia Palaszczuk and Gladys Berejiklian, and you pointed me to that amazing moving footage of Dr. Emily Landon, who’s the Chief Infectious Disease Epidemiologist at the University of Chicago in the US doing this incredibly passionate and well thought‑out, but heartfelt speech about why we needed to stay home.

Kim:     Yes. And I think that’s the other aspect that is important. It’s not that there aren’t women who are out there doing this. It’s just the proportion of them. But also, how interesting it is when we look at the women who are taking on those roles, and there are recent pieces saying that the countries that are doing the best at the moment are those countries that are led by women.

So, look at our neighbour. Look at Jacinda Ardern. She is continually being returned to as the absolutely excellent example of leadership that is different to the style of leadership. So, it’s not that we just want women doing what men have been doing before in the same way that men have, but it’s recognising that leadership is gendered as well in the sense that we need a diversity of people’s life experiences to enlarge our sense of thinking about what good leadership is.

Ginger:   I have to say there was one evening when I was feeling incredibly anxious, like many of us, we’re all experiencing these different levels of stress and anxiety depending on our circumstances and I watched Jacinda Ardern do a Facebook live really right before everyone went into lockdown.

And it was the most extraordinary piece of footage because she was so ordinary, if I can use that word. She was in a tracksuit. She said she had just put her child to bed. She was smiling. She was very confident, comfortable. There were no airs and graces and she was so believable. And I thought, “Wow. I really hadn’t seen leadership like that anywhere.” It was a very different style.

Kim:      That’s right. And I think it’s that connection to the lived experience of others that makes people trust their leaders that they get it, they understand, they’re in the same position. It actually reminds me, returning back to earlier policy decision making and so forth that very classic experience with John Hewson not being able to answer his GST question, which involved being someone who goes and does the shopping and knows the difference in prices. We need people in leadership, who understand the basics of life.

Or that image of Angela Merkel shopping during COVID. What was it that she was going to get before she went into lockdown? It’s that capacity to understand the impact of leadership on people’s day-to-day lives. If you feel it yourself and you’ve had that experience, you are going to be a better leader for it. And that’s why a diversity of people in parliament, which we’ll come back to, which I think is really important to address.

Ginger:  And just hit this nail on the head really hard for me, if you can. What happens to us as a community when we don’t see these images of women and other people from diverse backgrounds, people of colour, people with disabilities, LGBTIQ+ people? When those people are not in those roles and we can’t aspire to be them or we don’t get their wisdom and get their wisdom in decision making, how does it impact the community?

Kim:      Well, I think it’s twofold. I think it’s that level of trust from those people who are not represented, but it’s also about enabling all of those sectors of society who experience the consequences of that leadership to actually truly believe that they have the capacity to be leaders themselves at some point or be active citizens. It’s about enfranchisement in the most fullest sense.

So, those people might have the vote. And so, in that sense, the Suffragette Movement and the movement that enabled all classes to vote, it wasn’t just about land and property, they were significant in a formal sense. That’s the difference between formal citizenship, which all of those individuals who have a right to vote have, as opposed to active citizenship, which is that sense you have the capacity not only to vote, but be someone who can be open to being elected to make those decisions.

And you cannot be what you cannot see is one of those refrains that often hear. We need to empower all those. The true success of multiculturalism is when the next generation of migrants are actually thinking of themselves as being Members of Parliament, which was one of the ironies of the Section 44 debate in Parliament in terms of dual citizens in Parliament, Ginger. This is another area that I spoke a lot about and is not directly linked to COVID, but is linked to this question about active citizenship.

The different way of actually thinking about what happened when there were so many people who found themselves as dual citizens that didn’t realise it is that that shows the success of Australia’s multicultural story that within the next generation, those people, who have connections to other countries were already thinking of themselves as active citizens and were actually being elected to Parliament. It’s that notion of being conscious of the fact that you are able to be an active citizen in that fullest sense of being a Member of Parliament. And I don’t think we’ve got to that stage in the sense of women and representative democracy and I think COVID has amplified that acknowledgment.

Ginger:   We’ve been talking mostly about public life, but another unexpected impact of this has been that our homes have become our workplaces. And it’s not just women working from home, it’s men. It’s all of us. And so, how does this impact your thinking?

Kim:    Well, I think this is the other aspect that is so central to active citizenship. So, we’ve been discussing and we’ve just said about active citizenship and now my more even focused interest on women’s active citizenship and membership, not only in Parliament, but in all forms of leadership. And my role as codirector of the 50/50 Foundation is that we should be thinking very strategically about how we ensure by 2030 that women are in all of those places of leadership in equal numbers of men.

But in order for that to be structurally possible, for it to be a real and enhanced experience for those women who go into those leadership roles, we have to think what impact does that have on the private sphere? And the reality is at the moment that women have the disproportionate responsibility in the private sphere and that has a direct impact on their capacity to be equal in the public sphere.

I think that’s one of the other aspects about COVID that is so significant and I’m praying is a silver lining to the way forward to really changing our thinking about the links between our private sphere and the public sphere.

Now, as you’ve said, the home has become the workplace as well. In fact, one of my colleagues, Associate Professor Fiona Jenkins at the Australian National University wrote a great piece about how our homes have been requisitioned by Government. And I think that that’s a really interesting use of language to remind us that what have been our sort of private spheres and an area in which we’re free to be our personal private selves has now also become our public sphere.

So, we’re each sitting in our private spaces at the moment, recording this interview in a way that reminds us that our private sphere is so central to what happens in the public sphere.

And then, the sort of harrowing aspect at the moment that’s been coming out over the last couple of weeks is the anecdotes of the disproportionate burden on women even when men have been forced into their private sphere.

Ginger:                  Yes. A friend of mine told me a story about how basically her husband was so stressed by the pandemic and he’s quite a workaholic and he basically had shut himself in the bedroom with a laptop doing his work. And she was left to do her work in the kitchen with the kids. And I’ve been working at home with my kids for a couple of weeks and it is a nightmare. It is absolutely impossible. So, these are interesting things.

Kim:   Well, that’s right. And we can build into this recording that we’re doing this for the second time because the sound of my kids in the background on our first go meant that it was going to be too distracting for you, the listener. So, it has a real impact.

And what is, I think, important, and different women’s organisations are doing the work at this very minute on this. In fact, I was part of a meeting yesterday discussing strategies for different organisations in the sector is the gathering information and the data to show how amplified the data is of what we already know of women’s disproportionate load.

Ginger:      But there is something interesting happening too, which is workplaces that have really stuck to this 1950s model of the male worker going in at nine and coming home at five are suddenly realising we can work remotely. So, in fact, there’s a kind of international flexibility that’s been forced upon us.

Kim:      Well, that’s right. And I think that that’s the other aspect of the silver lining that for so many women and hopefully more and more men, and I’ll come back to this in a second. Many of us, myself included, who have been able to find a healthy balance between work and family responsibilities. For myself, before I even had my kids, I had set up a home space for work.

As a researcher, I knew that when I went into the university that I would be often interrupted in my office and happily interrupted in the sense that the interruptions were relevant to my work, but it stopped me from doing my research work that needed some uninterrupted time.

So, back in the 1990s, I had set up a home office so that I could have two days a week where I tried to just focus on my research. It was very enabling. I was able to use my home space to further my work objectives. And that setup then made it so smooth for when I did have my two kids to be able to create a framework where I worked from home. And that enabling framework meant that I was able to be both an active citizen in my public policy life work as well as being an active and central member of a family scenario.

Ginger:                  That phrase, ‘requisitioned by the Government’, makes it seem like perhaps something very personal has been taken from us. So, is it a negative that that’s happened, or is it a positive because it’s going to crack open our work lives forever?

Kim:     I think, with everything, there are positives and negatives. And we have to really think through how we protect against the negatives becoming too overwhelming for the positives. So, in that sense, the danger is that the workplace will expect too much from us because they can infiltrate in the private sphere. And people have been saying that for some time now, with the technology and our emails being on our phones and us being accessible at all times that in some ways, that has already started. So, isn’t there a danger that it can happen even further now that we can see that we can be working from home? I think that that’s one aspect. But I think that it is always about finding the right balance and knowing where the boundaries are.

And I think the other part of the puzzle here is about getting men onboard. So, this is not just a women’s issue. It’s a societal issue. It’s for men also. And one of the heartening aspects, I think, of the Male Champions of Change movement is the recognition that men have a role to be playing. And it’s not only that movement, of course. There are others within society, other men who have been saying, “This is an issue for me as much as it is for women.”

Organisations, like The Men’s Project through the Jesuit Services or Man Cave, who say, “Look at the incidents of male suicide, of violence being so heavily male‑situated in terms of being the aggressors and women, of course, as domestic violence victims being the subject of that male’s violence.” There are also issues that this unhealthy dynamic has an impact on men. And also, of course, for children growing up in that environment.

As I said earlier, I was able to create an environment where my partner has been an equal participant in the active engagement of parenting. And I believe our kids are beneficiaries from it. And I have a son and a daughter, so in that gendered sense, both of them have seen role models in parenting of equal participation, equal responsibilities in terms of working and private aspects. And I think it’s when men take that responsibility.

And that’s something, the other aspect that I think is worth bringing to our attention, the 50/50 Foundation has a media platform, called BroadAgenda. And every day, it’s been having blog posts that link into these sorts of issues. And the one that was yesterday, which was really inspiring, is a particular leader in the public sector, the Headd of Austrade in a particular region, who sent out an email to his male colleagues talking about this very fact that the COVID crisis has enlivened us to the disproportionate responsibilities in the private sphere and how his expectation was that all of his male colleagues would be carrying the weight in the domestic sense.

And just even bringing that to your colleagues as a leader, as a male leader, I think is that sort of silver lining of hope that if we can actually use this period to make sure that other workplaces are recognising openly that it is men’s responsibility as well to be shared carers not only in the home, but outside of the home that will be a positive step.

Ginger:      Kim, thank you so much for talking to me today.

Kim:           Thank you very much, Ginger.


[End of recorded material]