Sitting in the shade on the balcony of the Courtyard Café, two exceptional women are meeting for the first time.
Shivani Gopal, current MBA student at the University of Sydney, sits next to Law graduate Kellie Edwards, ostensibly gathered to discuss their up-coming appearance as panellists on the Outside the Square event, #MeToo: Male Privilege on Notice. But the conversation quickly turns from the event to their different upbringings and experiences as women.
“For me, seeing my parents work constantly showed me a strong work ethic, but importantly I saw my parents chip in equally. It showed me that that’s what a functioning household looks like - both parents work, both parents do the household duties, both parents cook.”
Shivani, founder of The Remarkable Woman, a social enterprise that supports women achieve their professional and financial goals, was born to Indian parents in Fiji. She moved to Australia as a young child and grew up in a household where both of her parents worked.
“I truly think that ‘seeing is believing’. When you see something enough, it becomes your reality, and you then become the architect of your own life.”
Shivani’s parents loved the opportunities Australia offered but often felt isolated, struggling to find an Indian community. “When you’re disjointed from your own community, you work even harder to maintain this connection with the motherland and the ‘old ways’. Because of that, I had a much stricter upbringing.
“There were certain things you were expected to do as an Indian woman - study really hard, get good grades, respect your elders... you’re also not allowed to have a boyfriend but are expected to magically get married at a certain point.”
For Shivani, attempting to reconcile these two realities was challenging and like many other teenage girls, she started seeing a ‘secret boyfriend’. Her parents soon discovered the relationship.
“Initially, all hell broke loose but then both families said, ‘Let’s get to know each other.’ When our parents met, they pretty much just discussed the marriage - when it was going to happen, how they were going to do the traditional ceremony, when the legal ceremony was going to happen...”
Although Shivani wasn’t explicitly forced into an arranged marriage, her cultural upbringing meant yielding to her parents’ wishes.
“For my parents, it came from a place of love. They wanted the best for me but I could have fought harder. I should have fought harder.
In Indian culture, you’re bonded together for seven lives. There’s this huge beautiful meaning to that but when you’re unhappy, there’s a huge weight attached to that. I found myself saying, ‘Life is really long when you’re unhappy.’
Shivani laughs but the pain of these years is clear. “I thought I’d lose my community and family and for a good 10-12 months, I did. In India, there’s an immense amount of shame for the woman in a divorce because she’s failed in her ability to be a dutiful wife.”
For Shivani though, ending her arranged marriage was the right decision and left the path open for a much happier second marriage.
There’s a momentary pause in the room as different lives are considered; Kellie reaches over to hold Shivani’s hand. “I think anyone who’s had a failed marriage knows there’s a grief you carry with you,” says Kellie as the two share a look.
Kellie Edwards, a University of Sydney Law graduate and now barrister and solicitor at Greenway Chambers, shares her own journey.
“Mine is more of a class story. My family was always very smart on both sides but very poor and with very limited opportunities for education. My dad was extremely intelligent but didn't perform well at school because he was terribly abused as a child and while my mum went to Fort Street and got a Commonwealth scholarship to become a teacher (which she didn’t take up) she also struggled, particularly when she was young, with having any confidence in her intellectual capacity."
Like Shivani, equality in the household was the norm for Kellie.
“My dad was a feminist. He stayed home for about eight years while my sister was growing up and my mother worked. He treated me like a son and expected me to conquer the world.
“On the other hand, my mum was a very influential second-wave feminist, giving me The Female Eunuch when I was a teenager. She was also adamant that women ought to have the same opportunities as men for work and education.
“So, I never had any example other than women could do whatever the hell they liked and men could make choices that were on the full spectrum of engaging with work and family. There are few things more powerful for a girl than having a mum and dad like that.”
When asked - have you ever been the victim of sexual harassment? a mental eye-roll is shared between the two women as both respond, almost in unison, “Of course”.
“I think every woman has experienced some form of sexual harassment or inequality in her lifetime,” says Shivani. “If there’s anything that the #metoo movement has done, it’s shown the magnitude of harassment. It’s also created a safe space for all women to acknowledge it.
I was at a Christmas lunch, talking to a group of men and one of them just licked me on the face. How does that happen? Why is that ok? What do you do after something like that?
“For me, I was annoyed at myself because I went into shock and disbelief. He laughed it off and his colleagues went really quiet but didn’t say anything. I was horrified that I didn’t know what to do and what to say so I just left.”
Kellie places a white cardboard box on the table and opens it to reveal a black lingerie set, emblazoned with red roses. “This belonged to one of my first clients. She was given this at a Christmas party by the CEO of the company. And nothing much has changed.
“From my perspective, #metoo is a social movement that has opened up the way for people to have a discussion which they hadn’t been having before.”
Kellie highlights that a 2014 survey conducted by the NSW Bar Association found that female barristers earned average gross fees of about half (i.e. 51.7 per cent) of what male barristers received. They also appeared far less than men in the Supreme Court and the Federal Court.
“I think the pay disparity across work of all kinds is one of the reasons it’s been so difficult for women. If you don’t have the same economic clout as a man, you don’t have the same level of power.”
So, what can women and men do to effect change?
For Shivani, who has over 12 years in the financial services industry, change comes from transparency and accountability. “To get that cultural shift, it genuinely takes a top-down approach and has to filter through the organisation.
“Leaders need to show that it’s ok to talk about things that challenge norms and show their own vulnerability. As you comfortably call out your misgivings, you start to create a safe workspace and you start to create that level of psychological safety in others.”
For Kellie, it’s about education. “The problem with sexism, and sexual harassment in particular, is that it’s is on the spectrum of violence. It’s everything from having a dig at someone because she’s a girl, to raping her.
“And people are not aware of their rights in general. They know in their heads that they shouldn’t be sexually harassed, but they don’t know that if they make a complaint, they have a right not to be victimised.
Know your rights. Know what the law says. And use what’s in the law to engage in a discussion to effect change.
“That’s the great gift of #metoo. It’s not that we should be prescribing how everyone should behave but that people should feel safe no matter where they are. And when you really get down to it, it’s not about good men or good women. It’s about how good people make social change possible.”
This article was authored by Theodora Chan (BA, MECO 2010; BA, HONS 2012), Co-Founder and Content Director at Pen and Pixel, for the University of Sydney Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ April edition of the Illuminate magazine.