Gillian Triggs at the John XXIII Women of Note Speaking Series

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Imagine a time when the quality of a woman’s legs was the determining factor in obtaining membership into a Law society, or where only 10% of law students were women. This was the time in which Gillian Triggs attended university. When listening to Professor Triggs explain her university experience on Tuesday 20th, at the John XXIII Women of Note speaking series, I couldn’t help but draw incredibly close parallels to my own university experience. When Professor Triggs graduated, it was a time of hope and expectation for women – the expectation that things were going to change. It saddens me, therefore, that nearly fifty years later, not much has. A woman’s worth, personal and professional, is still too often based on appearances and a willingness to comply. We are still objectified and pitted against one another, and we are still getting left behind in the professional world.

Professor Triggs’ talk resonated with me because it highlighted the false sense of accomplishment our society holds. We think that because more women attend university, and are more represented in the workforce, that our work is done –  it is far from over. The fact is that one in three women experience some form of sexual violence at university, a statistic that the class of 1969 would likely have thought would drop significantly. It was confronting to hear about the optimism and confidence Gillian’s generation had in the futures of women, and the general feeling amongst them that they could change everything. This feeling is one we all know too well, but I can’t help but think, are we just as naive as they were? If the way young women are treated at university has not changed in the last fifty years, how can I remain so positive and confident that it will for our children? Even though we are not proving our worth in a Miss University Pageant – as Professor Triggs did in her time – we continue to fight the casual sexism and harassment that is still so widespread in our society. It is these microaggressions that create a mentality of dominance , which sexual assaults then stems from.

Professor Triggs and her colleagues at the Human Rights Commission are are working to change this. The Commission, along with the collaboration of 39 Vice Chancellors from around Australia and the National Union of Students, have generated a nation-wide survey to collect data on the extent of sexual assault and harassment prevalent at universities. The survey consists of a qualitative section and a quantitative one. 3000 randomly selected students at the ANU will receive the survey in the next month. It is strongly encouraged those who receive it do complete it, in order to obtain a clear idea of the extent of sexual harassment and assault on our ANU campus. For those who do not receive the survey and wish to tell their story, you can make submissions directly to the Commission. The Commission’s decision to compile two parts of data is very valuable, and once it is collected it will provide foundations on which to develop more effective and comprehensive policies. It is, however,  just as important to gather the stories of students who are not just statistics, in order to gain a deeper understanding of what is happening on our campus.

Although the statistics Professor Triggs shared were disheartening, it was reassuring to see a large, supportive and engaged audience, who shared a passion for equality, sitting behind me. They represent a cry for change that can no longer be ignored. The National survey, the first of its kind in the world, is a big step in the right direction. As Professor Triggs highlighted, this survey will finally publicise the substantial figures that account for the stories we all hear far too often.

The ground-breaking film, ‘The Hunting Ground’, had a large impact on Professor Triggs and the Commission, as it did to most who saw it. After such an outcry in the United States was followed by no Government response, it is encouraging to see positive action being taken here in Australia, as we are one of the first to investigate sexual assault on such a large scale. I hope that this movement will spark a change to policies at ANU. Unlike in Gillian’s year of graduation, ignorance is no longer an excuse for our universities to sweep sexual harassment under the rug.