Preventing Violence Against Women: An Interview With Girl Geek Academy’s Sarah Moran

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Geek Girl Academy’s Sarah Moran

Last year, 69 women were killed violently across Australia. This brings the murdered women death toll in this country since 2012 to 506, according to Counting the Dead Women Australia project researchers from gender equality group Destroy the Joint.

And in the overwhelming majority of these cases, the perpetrators were men who were known to their victims.

The total number of women murdered nationally in 2018 points to the crisis of gender-based violence that exists in the community. And yet, for the most part, the individual deaths go unnoticed and there’s nothing like the response one would see if the deaths were attributed to terrorism.

So, this very real homegrown terror continues behind closed doors in suburban neighbourhoods. In general, Australian police are called out to 5,000 domestic violence matters a week, which means officers are responding to one incident every two minutes.

And this violence pervades the entire community. One in three Australian women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15. One in five have experienced sexual violence. And one in six women have experienced one of these forms of violence at the hands of a current or former partner.

Gender equality

Our Watch recognises that the primary driver behind violence against women and family violence is gender inequality. This lack of equality leads to the condoning of such violence, men’s control of decision-making, rigid gender roles, disrespect towards women and aggressive male peer relations.

The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence made clear that family violence is a gendered crime and 75 percent of the victims are women. And the commissioners pointed to the importance of preventing gender inequality as a way of tackling this household violence.

In acknowledgement of the gender inequality underpinning this crisis, the Andrews government in December 2016 launched Safe and Strong: A Victorian Gender Equality Strategy, which seeks to redress inequality, sexism and violence against women in all forms.

The strategy includes reviewing gender-based hate speech laws, the creation of Respect Victoria – an agency charged with preventing family violence – gender audits across government and the public sector and the drafting of gender equality legislation, which is currently in the consultation process.

Private sector innovation

Girl Geek Academy is a private company that’s seeking to reduce gender inequality in STEM industries – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – as a way of combating family violence. It’s aiming to teach one million women and girls worldwide about technology by 2025.

Co-founder and chief executive of the company Sarah Moran has worked in the tech industry in both Australia and in the Silicon Valley, so she’s experienced the issues women are facing in the industry firsthand. And she’s also a member of the Victorian Ministerial Council on Women’s Equality.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke with Ms Moran about the impact the Royal Commission has had in her state, how the promotion of more women in the tech industry can reduce levels of gender-based violence, and how gender inequality needs to be tackled in the long-term.

Firstly, last year, 69 women were killed violently nationwide. Most of the perpetrators were men, who were known to their victims. Ms Moran, what would you say last year’s death toll tells us about violence against women in this country?

That’s more than one a week. What’s really challenging is those women become a statistic. By the time it reaches number 69, we can’t name all of them.

As a woman, it feels like a crisis. It’s like it even has a brand now: violence against women. It’s like, that’s right, that violence against women thing.

But actually, 69 people died and the gravitas that we give to that is little. If it was road deaths or something else, we would be giving it a lot more attention. And as a young woman, it’s one of the biggest crises that we’re facing.

The Royal Commission into Family Violence tabled its report in March 2016. By all accounts it was a break through inquiry. In your opinion, what has its impact been?

There’s the impact on the ground. And then there’s the emotional impact that I’ve felt in speaking to other women. All of the recommendations in the report were accepted.

I was there in 2016, when the then minister for prevention of family violence announced what would be the foundations of the gender equality strategy, and I cried. It was such an emotional expression for women to see that level of leadership taken by anyone in the country.

It was a defining moment that I remember at the Arts Centre. And I thought, what we are doing here is world leading, seeing the government explore what it actually means on the ground.

I mean a strategy is great, but the proof is in the pudding and what happens when the rubber hits the road.

What has been really interesting to see is the leadership taken by government resonate across the private sector, the not-for-profit sector, and as I said, with my friends.

That’s where you really see it, not in what government does, but what everyone does in response to the government calling it out.

Recommendation 187 of the Royal Commission was to implement a strategy to prevent family violence and all forms of violence against women.

This is to work in conjunction with the state government’s gender equality strategy. And the result was the Free From Violence strategy that the Andrews government launched last year.

What do both of these strategies involve?

It’s multi-dimensional. Basically, we have a gender equality strategy and the Free From Violence strategy.

The reason we have a gender equality strategy is when the policy makers were doing the research around what actually works to prevent family violence, they uncovered that countries that have higher levels of gender equality have lower levels of family violence.

So, its where we say how do we actually stop family violence, whereas what we’ve traditionally done is asked how do you fund the measures that respond to family violence. Because, it would be great if it just didn’t exist at all.

The gender equality part of it is really important to me because it focuses on the prevention measures.

It is about what government does, but also, setting targets for public service and what gender equality baseline would look like. Because, if we haven’t seen gender equality before, we don’t know what it looks like.

You’re the chief executive of Girl Geek Academy. It’s currently running Miss Makes Code workshops from January through to March.

These are in collaboration with Women’s Health East. And this is supported by the Victorian government as part of the Free From Violence strategy.

What do these workshops entail?

On a technical level, we’re teaching women and girls how to code. A lot of the schools are running coding classes, but no one is bringing the parents along on that journey.

At the moment, there is not a high representation of women in STEM, and particularly, technology. And if you think about all of the devices in our lives, most of the technology has been built by men.

That lack of inclusion does have its consequences in the workplace for men and women.

I have a lot friends who are male developers who say, “We all look the same and we’re not getting a broad range of ideas by only having people like us in the room when we’re trying to solve technical problems.”

We are definitely trying to address that in the long-term. To create a workforce that is solving the world’s problems with technology, but making sure that everyone is part of building that solution.

In the actual workshops, we teach women and girls coding. And then we’ve partnered with Women’s Health East, who are a health promotion agency that actually discuss gender equality. They do half hour workshops with the women, as role models for young girls in the home.

It deals with how they can be a great technology role model and why is it important that they do that.

We give them the tools to be able to go home and code together, much in the same way as when you’re teaching someone to read. How do you support them? You read along with them. We want to do the same thing for women and girls with coding.

And what’s the link between the courses and the violence prevention strategy?

In technology, we talk about having a pipeline problem with women. Not enough young girls are choosing to study technology, but then they’re also not choosing to stay in technology roles.

So, we can’t get to gender equality if we don’t have enough women and girls choosing the technology industry, and when they do choose being able to stay within it.

That’s what we’re hoping to shift with these workshops, teaching as many girls as possible how to code and making sure that they have support and role modelling from the women in their lives, then we’ll make sure they can be successful when times get tough.

As you’ve mentioned, the majority of people involved in STEM based industries are men. This means that most of these technologies have been designed by them.

Does that mean there’s a gender bias aspect to the technologies and products being produced?

I would say so. There’s a number of examples, and they’re not all Australian. There are two levels of bias. One is that it’s mostly men building our technologies. But, it’s also most of our tech products come from the US. And so, there’s two levels of bias that really happen there.

My co-founder worked in San Francisco and I have done so myself. We’ve experienced the absolute sexism that comes from the American technology industry. And I can tell you it’s way worse than Australia. I have had some appalling experiences in my time working in America in terms of sexism.

So, what happens with these products is that if we don’t have women engineers saying here is a problem that technology could solve, I’m going to put my hand up to build that, then the people who are building these technologies are solving problems that only they acknowledge and can identify.

There are definitely gender biases built into individual technology products, but also, with what products are being built. There are problems that technology could solve for women that we haven’t seen funded and being created yet, because we need more women engineers to be able to do that.

You’ve just mentioned that you used to work in the Silicon Valley. And you’ve worked in tech industries here in Australia. What are some of the issues women face in the industry?

As I mentioned, one of the issues is the pipeline problem, so there’s a lack of them coming into the industry. Again, this is different in Australia than it is in America.

In Australia, men are active learners, who know how to support women in the industry, by and large. If I was going to make a broad generalisation, I would say that men are welcoming to women in the industry and want to do everything they can do to support and retain women here.

In America, it is not entirely like that. One of my friends sued Uber for $10 million not long after one of their lead engineers left due to sexual harassment in the workplace.

So, their problems are far deeper and greater than what happens here. And a lot of our problems that exist in the technology industry are just because organically we have had an overrepresentation of men building tech. And most of the men that I’ve spoken to about that really want to change it.

We have a lot of men who help us with our programs. And that’s something we’re looking forward to seeing more of, because gender equality is a problem for men and women to be able to work together to solve.

And lastly, the Royal Commission is having a positive impact in Victoria, the gender equality legislation is in the consultation process and your company and others like it are making a difference, however gender-based violence is still rife in the community.

So, Ms Moran, how do you see this all developing from here?

It’s not a short-term fix. This is a problem that has been occurring for a long period of time that we need to be able to make improvements to in the short, medium and long-term.

The passage of family violence leave in Victoria – and the leadership that the government has taken with that – has been a great step for people who are experiencing violence now. That is something that will hopefully be accessible to allow them to escape a terrible situation.

But, in the long-term, wouldn’t it be great if family violence didn’t exist. And that’s the level that we’re working at – what needs to change at a societal level to reduce family violence, so we don’t even have to speak about that problem anymore.

One of the issues we’re thinking about long-term is that we won’t close the gender pay gap for many years. So, gender equality looks like it is one of those lofty dreams, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work towards achieving it.

Otherwise, the 69 women will occur year after year and they’re such unnecessary deaths that it would be wrong of us to not step up and try to be able to make that change, so we can prevent unnecessary deaths of women.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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