The fight for gender equity has come a long way, from a time when women were effectively barred from participating in employment, politics, and most domains of influence.
Despite significant progress in some areas, in others it has been stagnant or even moved backwards.
Men’s violence against women, the fluctuating gender pay gap, and toxic messages from the beauty and diet industry continue to thwart the efforts of the feminist movement.
In addition to these long-persisting issues, homelessness and poverty have become even more prevalent among women. The fastest growing cohort of homeless in Australia is among women aged over 55, reflecting a 31 per cent increase in older homeless women over a five-year period.
This steep incline in homelessness also intersects with a rising number of female prisoners in Australia, a trend which is being driven by dwindling affordable housing, wealth inequities, and family violence.
Jo Westh, founder of 4 Voices, created her charity out of a desire to address some of the unjust hardships facing women and girls in Australia.
Having spent much of her career in male-dominated industries and experiencing the discrimination, dismissal and abuse women face in these environments firsthand, Westh wanted to create a safe space for women and girls to support one another, build self-esteem, and foster meaningful connection.
Westh uses her voice to empower other women
Westh didn’t set out on her career journey with the intention of starting a charity.
For most of her career, she had been a trailblazer in the private sector, having achieved Senior Partner status in an international management consultancy company.
One of the few women in a team of 1500 consultants, Westh recalls how she was expected to work harder for less money and less recognition than her male counterparts.
“I was the youngest manager in the company,” said Westh.
“At the time I thought I was promoted because it made the ‘boys’ feel modern. Others said I was talented and deserved it. Regardless, tokenistic appointments of women to management roles were the norm.”
Over the next few decades, Westh was kept busy with the ups and downs of life. She married, enjoyed steady career progression, and became a mother to four children.
One of her sons went on to be named Australian of the Year for his work in creating the charity Orange Sky, a service connecting people experiencing homelessness with essential services.
Things started to take a downward turn, with Westh struggling against the effects of the economic downturn in the late 90s and early 2000s, balancing international business travel with parenting, and a marriage that was breaking down, leading to an eventual split.
“It was a pretty awful time that is still tough to talk about. I became cocooned into my own private nightmare of debt, no money, no friends, no husband and a fractured family,” she said.
The fear of being alone illuminated for Westh why so many women stay in unhealthy or dysfunctional relationships, preferring the ‘devil they know’ over poverty, homelessness, and isolation.
This realisation, coupled with the experience she gained washing clothes for people experiencing homelessness through her son’s charity, helped Westh uncover her passion for helping others and creating connection.
In September 2019, 4 Voices was created with a vision to empower and protect vulnerable girls and women.
“The idea was to help people who were experiencing social or digital isolation due to domestic violence or homelessness,” said Westh.
“Who could have predicted that the pandemic would exacerbate both? Many struggled with enforced isolation, terrified because of closer scrutiny from a controlling partner, large numbers overwhelmed by the sudden push towards digital devices to avoid direct contact with others. Nobody should go through that period of vulnerability alone.”