24 October 2019

 I would like to acknowledge that on 18 October the first all-female spacewalk was conducted by American NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir. This historic, seven-hour mission was to replace defective battery equipment on the International Space Station to ensure power capabilities for future missions to the moon and perhaps even Mars.

Understandably, this is a cause of significant celebration for all those who pursue gender equality in the world. But, the thing is, it should have happened six months earlier. In March this year, NASA abruptly cancelled the first all-female spacewalk. It would hardly come as a surprise to any women who visit or work in traditionally male dominated workplaces that NASA failed to pack and send into orbit a second medium-sized spacesuit, which would have enabled the first all-female crewed spacewalk in March. I'm pleased to see that this seemingly remarkable problem has now been rectified by NASA officials, but the slight remains.

Any woman working in mining and resources will tell you that the struggle is real to find appropriate workwear that actually fits the standard female form—whatever that might be—let alone the many varieties of that form. I know I'm not the only one to don a set of beautiful orange overalls, look down and see that the trouser legs are fully one foot longer than the legs they seek to cover. That's fine. We'll just roll them up, and maybe the shirt sleeves too. Then there are the boots. It doesn't matter how many times I seek to clarify whether the site I'm visiting is asking for women's or men's sizing in the safety boots they need me to wear because the difference between the two seems to have occurred to absolutely no-one—no-one except the women in the visiting delegation standing around in their rolled-up overalls and socks waiting for someone to rustle up some old boots that might fit. To be honest, it's not so important for me, because I only have to shuffle around on a worksite in ill-fitting safety boots for an hour or so. I can only imagine how difficult it is for the female workforce to get the workwear they work in all day sorted out to fit them properly. And there are things you wouldn't even think of—things you don't know until you ask. On a visit earlier this year to a major and very important manufacturing site in Western Australia, in Henderson, I spoke with a group of apprentices, all of whom were women. I asked them how they enjoyed their work, and they were all loving it and relishing the challenges and the opportunities. 'But if only I could find gloves that fit my small hands properly,' one of them said to me. 'It makes it harder to do the welding when you can't feel your fingers.' Of course it does, kind of like it makes it impossible to do a spacewalk if you don't have the right-sized spacesuit.

This young apprentice is adapting and getting on with it, but surely it can't be that hard for the massive workwear industry and those massive industries that buy from them to produce smaller gloves or, heaven forbid, more than two choices of leg length in overalls. Gloves and overalls and inclusion are surely not as challenging as NASA's spacesuit challenge—and it took them six months to get to that. Some say it's merely oversight, but it feels like wilful blindness to encourage women into non-traditional workplaces yet fail to provide them with the safety clothing that fits so they can do their job properly. This is just the clothes.

At production facility openings, sod-turnings and strategy announcements from Darwin to Kwinana to Kemerton, there'll be many women in attendance, but rarely are they included in the official party or in the set shots for the corporate promotions for the media. The women going to such events will be local mayors, local councillors, senior members of the diplomatic corps or government departments, members of parliament or senators as well as senior people of the workforce. There are many entirely capable women in positions where protocol shouldn't prevent their participation in these high-profile events celebrating the success and bright future of the minerals and resources industry that is at the heart of the success of the Australian economy. Yet women remain in the background, barely seen and rarely heard.

In my former position as the shadow minister assisting for resources, I went to many such occasions, and this predictable pattern is so tiresome. Don't even get me started on the curse of the 'manel', the all-male panel, which permeates conferences right around this country—around the globe, in fact. It's worth checking out the hashtag #manel. There is no excuse for conference organisers who spend a lot of money, and get paid a lot of money, to seek out speakers to not look to the women experts in all sorts of areas, whether it be international relations, engineering, science, or mining and resources. I see all the time that they continuously engage all-male panels, 'manels'. They might give a bit of a sop to the females in the room by having a female moderator. Well, it's just not the same thing. You need to go and find the women experts, because they are there and they deserve to be heard.

In conclusion, I just want to note that the gloves don't fit, the overalls don't fit, the spacesuits don't fit and the women don't fit, but it's about time that we did.