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The positive impact of Women’s representation in public art and public space in Melbourne  – by Jocelyn Chiew and Ella Gauci-Seddon Melbourne City Council

 Action on gender equity and progress of commemorative justice has reached new strides in Melbourne and Victoria with concerted efforts now present at State Government, Local Government and community levels. Recent developments are summarised included below.  

  • The Gender Equality Act 2020 foregrounds equitable ways of designing and delivering programs and projects for Victorian and local government organisations and Statutory authorities, and the Victorian Women’s Public Art Program has funded six new statues across the state.  
  • The City of Melbourne introduced two council resolutions in 2022 promoting commemorative justice and gender equity within the city’s public realm, and approving the delivery of a further three statues of significant women.  
  • These initiatives are helping to profile underrepresented groups and close the respect gap across Victoria. They have largely been the result of community-led activism by the likes of A Monument of One’s Own and the Put Her Name on It campaign.  


Defining the Respect Gap 

Less than 2 percent of the approximately 580 statues in Metropolitan Melbourne represent real-life women. In the City of Melbourne Art Collection, only 2 of 25 full-bodied statues portray real-life women, representing 8 percent of the total. Of street names within the City of Melbourne, for which we know the origins, 13 percent are named after men, 8 percent after things, 1 percent after women, and 0.04 percent after Aboriginal people. 

These numbers are worrying and significant because place names and physical commemorations, such as statues, play a crucial role in shaping the city’s identity. They are a part of the fabric of place. They signal who is considered important and worthy of celebration in our societies and cities, and arguably represent who Australian cities are designed for.  

The current unequal representation in commemoration and place naming suggests, both consciously and subconsciously, that our cities are intended for white men, and not for people of other genders, cultures, races and identities. Research has demonstrated that when we can’t see our identities reflected in our environment, it can result in us feeling unwelcome and even unsafe. This in turn can lead to reduced participation in society, further undermining fundamental human rights and widening or perpetuating existing inequities.  


City of Melbourne action 

The City of Melbourne recognises the significance of these issues and is taking active steps to address inequalities of commemoration and representation in the public realm. This builds on the following key documents: 

  • The Statement of Commitment establishes the expectation that gender equality is considered and prioritised in all current and future Council planning, policy, service delivery and practice.  
  • Gender Equality Action Plan 2022-25 is our plan for continuing to embed gender equality in the workplace. The plan outlines key strategies and activities to support our commitment to being a leading organisation. The Plan was developed under the Gender Equality Act 2020 and in accordance with the guidance provided by the Commission for Gender Equality in the Public Sector. It builds on our progress in gender equality to date. 
  • The Creating Communities of Equality and Respect: Women’s Safety and Empowerment Action Plan was developed in consultation with City of Melbourne leaders, practice leaders in the prevention sector, community and business leaders and other stakeholders on opportunities for our external-facing work. 
  • The Inclusive Melbourne Strategy 2022-32 will help to realise our vision of a truly inclusive Melbourne over the next 10 years. It provides a framework for the City of Melbourne to advance inclusion and equality for all in our city and outlines how we will embrace the diversity of cultures, ages, genders, sexualities, backgrounds, religions and abilities of all who live, work, visit and study in the city. 


On 6 December 2022, City of Melbourne’s Future Melbourne Committee endorsed three key propositions:  

  1. The preparation of a Road Naming Policy prioritising “Aboriginal language names and the recognition of historically significant women” and the “formal role of Traditional Owners in proposing names for new streets”. The policy will seek to empower and enshrine a Council and community led process in City of Melbourne practice. See also Melbourne to raise at least three new statues of women to counter gender imbalance in public art | Melbourne | The Guardian. 
  1. The identification of new opportunities within City of Melbourne projects, programs and capital works to increase equality of gender, First Nations and cultural diversity in the public realm. This included the installation of statues and art held in storage with reference to the Public Art Framework 2021-31 and the Plaques and Memorials policy 2016, and the delivery of at least three new statues depicting women.  
  1. The naming of a new street in North Melbourne, named after Victoria’s first and only female Premier, Joan Kirner.  


The City of Melbourne is delivering on these ambitions in a number of other ways.  

  • Council provided design support to Victorian Trades Hall Council and A Monument of One’s Own on their successful bid to State Government for funding of the Zelda D’Aprano monument. D’Aprano was a lifelong activist for equal pay rights. A statue of D’Aprano by sculptor Jennifer Mann was unveiled by former prime minister Julia Gillard outside Trades Hall in May 2023.  
  • Council provided design coordination and project management services for the Victorian Family Violence Memorial at St Andrews Place. The memorial honours the lives of those lost and remembers the potential that those lives held. It is a space to stand in solidarity with victim-survivors and share in hope and healing. According to Our Watch (Australia’s leading organisation for the prevention of violence against women and children), on average, one woman a week is killed by a partner or former partner. One in four women has experienced violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, compared to one in 13 men. 
  • In its first year of operation, the Melbourne Design Review Panel (MDRP), which provides independent design advice on significant development proposals within the municipality, noted that only 12% of proponents presenting to the panel were women, despite the proportion of women architects in practice being equal to men. The ongoing program for MDRP includes updated Terms of Reference which request the equitable participation of women in proponent teams. The panel itself comprises of at least 50 percent women. 
  • The Gender Equality Act has introduced Gender Impact Assessments, requiring defined entities to apply a gender lens to all new or updated initiatives, including the design and delivery of open space. These assessments are providing us with the agency to reflect on our approach to community consultation and design. Concerted effort is being made to ensure that we are considering and designing for the needs of people of all genders and intersecting identities. In this process we are looking to the great work being done in Vienna and Barcelona.  
  • The Excellent City Series was launched in 2021 to enable greater public awareness and discourse of issues impacting design excellence. The series has delivered 11 events to date, prioritising diverse voices from community, industry and academia, through uniquely formatted events which invite diverse participants. Events which have specifically addressed gender equity include Intersectional Gender Equity in Practice with Melbourne Design Week and Designing Equity with MPavilion. The event, Build Your Own City, held at MPavilion, welcomed approximately 80 participants – primarily families ranging in age from 2 to 80-plus years, to develop their own 3-dimensional cardboard vision for an inclusive future Melbourne. The events are centred on building relationships, knowledge and advocacy, removed from specific project exchanges.  
  • Council holds two member positions on Gender Equity Victoria’s (GEN VIC) Put Her Name On It Reference Group. is designed to challenge and change Victorian public spaces to be more gender equal through collaborative action. As former CEO of GEN VIC Tanja Kovac has said “If we cannot see women and gender diverse people represented and remembered in our public places and street names, as well as public art and sculpture, we send the wrong message, especially to young people, that only men’s achievements are worth celebrating.”  


Creating positive impact 

Local Government has an important leadership role to play in achieving intersectional gender equality within the public realm. As primary naming authorities and land managers, the City of Melbourne is well placed to create change locally. As a capital city council, it is also looked to as a global role model for equitable design and development. Our roles as designers, and our connections to community, mean that we have a responsibility to ensure that the equitable representation of women – in processes and built outcomes for public space – exists for the benefit of current and future generations. This work is visible, measurable, meaningful and impactful. And each step helps to build awareness, capacity and agency, liberating participants and the public from business as usual to a more inclusive future for Melbourne. 


Other References 



Jocelyn Chiew is the Director of City Design at the City of Melbourne and a member of Gender Equity Victoria’s Put Her Name On It Reference Group 

Ella Gauci-Seddon is a Senior Landscape Architect in City Design at the City of Melbourne and a member of Gender Equity Victoria’s Put Her Name On It Reference Group