The misrepresentation of Australia’s ‘gender wars’

From the way politicians and the media portrays Australia’s so-called ‘gender-wars’, any normal person would think feminists are out to crush men and take over the world with their supposedly exaggerated and equally-sexist views of men.

It’s not a war at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Julie Gillard addressing Tony Abbott in her world-famous speech, where she labelled him a 'misogynist' and sparked national debate about sexism in politics.
Julie Gillard addressing Tony Abbott in her world-famous speech, where she labelled him a ‘misogynist’ and sparked national debate about sexism in politics.

The majority of feminists are not looking to kick men out of power. They simply want their share, an equal playing field where men and women can both fairly achieve the same career and political goals.

Women genuinely want to have an equal input when it comes to making the tough decisions about the Australian economy, international affairs, health and education. After all, these issues affect women just as much as men and females bring just as many valid ideas to the table.

However, it seems as if we have suddenly reached a brick wall that relatively few women manage to conquer. While this barrier might only be half as high as the old wall that existed for women a century ago, women in general still have a harder time scaling it than men – not because females are physically or mentally incapable but because a range of external factors work to pull them back. The result is women left behind, a gender gap that isn’t closing and women who can only hope their daughters can one day reach ‘the other side’.

Sure we’ve had our first female prime minister and governor-general while the richest person in the country is currently a woman. Those who mock feminism will question when will it ever be good enough for these feminists? It won’t be enough until the number of seats in parliament accurately reflects the number of women who make up our society. It won’t be enough until such a number of women in high positions of power in politics and business is completely normalised.

Australian women have a lot to be grateful for. We have opportunities that some of the world’s poorest women in war-torn countries could only dream of. That is true, especially considering in other parts of the world women go hungry while their husbands still eat, young girls are plucked out of school and forced to marry while their brothers continue to learn.

But that doesn’t mean Australian women don’t deserve better.

There are obvious physical and genetic differences between the sexes. For example, various studies claim there are differences in each gender’s thought processes – all the more reason why both genders should be more equally represented in parliament. Different ideas and opinions is only a good thing for a healthy democracy.

Yet the percentage of women in Australian parliaments peaked in 2009 at an average of 31% in all houses. That figure has since dropped. Is that really as good as it gets for Australian women in the 21st Century?

Sure, there are cases where a male candidate is more suited to a job, just like there are times when a female is more suited to a particular role. However, every now and then someone tells me women ‘obviously don’t have the qualifications for the job’ or should just ‘suck it up’.

Few people realise how demeaning this argument can be to women.

Do politicians and journalists making this argument seriously mean to contend that out of Australia’s 28 prime ministers, every single time except on one occasion a male was more intelligent, hard-working, dedicated, passionate and more qualified than a female? It’s also worth noting that the Gillard Government only won the 2010 election with a minority government, through securing deals with the Greens and independents. Without this we may not have even had our first female prime minister.

Victoria hasn’t seen a female premier since Joan Kirner in 1992. Ironically, South Australia is yet to even elect its first female premier, despite being the first Australian state to allow women the right to stand for parliament. Meanwhile, there are only two current female leaders of Australia’s eight state and territories; Tasmania’s Lara Giddings and Katy Gallagher for the ACT.

On the business side of things, as of September 25th this year the percentage of women on ASX boards stands at 16.4 percent. Meanwhile, alongside youth and migrants, women make up the bulk of Australia’s lowest-paid workers, in jobs such as healthcare, childcare and retail. Even in industries dominated by women, men still make up a disproportionate share of top jobs and leadership roles.

Meanwhile, if we cast our eyes over to the US, women’s rights activists have warned that if female political representation only increases at its current rate, American women won’t achieve political parity for another 500 years.

Is this the standard women and men should simply accept?

Of course, there should be a more accurate representation of the several groups that make up Australian society, not just women. This includes all low income earners, asylum seekers, Muslims, atheists and those in the not-for-profit sector, to name a few.

But how do people expect to reach that goal without first adequately representing women, who make up half of the population?

There’s nothing wrong with the middle class/wealthy Anglo-Saxon male worldview that is often represented in politics, big business and on boards. It’s only a problem when that’s the predominant viewpoint being projected, to the detriment of other groups in society. That is what has always happened throughout Australian history and still is happening in our society.

I’m hesitant about introducing a quota for female representation on boards and political bodies. However, it would be worthwhile considering whether the benefits would outweigh the negatives. A quota system was used to increase the political representation of women in Rwanda and while the country experiences problems associated with this, in 2008 it became the first country in the world to have the highest percentage of female political representatives (56 percent). It was only after this milestone in 2008 that the parliament managed to pass bills to make domestic violence and marital rape illegal. Such laws are vital to the health, well-being and also economic productivity of women.

Solutions are never clear-cut. First we must consider questions including do fewer women reach the same career heights as men because they prefer to prioritise looking after their children as opposed to further strengthening their career, or do more women feel pressured to do so? Will implementing a paid parental scheme, whereby employers pay for women to have 26 weeks’ leave, result in companies not hiring women around child-bearing age? Would encouraging more men be stay-at-home dads cause employers to hire less women and men in their late twenties and early thirties?

These are all important questions that need considering when it comes to these issues and these issues are more likely to be a priority when there are more women in politics. Their ideas and opinions are crucial when shaping policy in these areas. Yet how is this achievable when there is only one woman Tony Abbott’s cabinet of 20 people? It’s a vicious cycle with complex solutions.

Promoting a society that gives equal opportunities to men and women has just as many benefits for males as it does for females. These are benefits that filter down through society. Achieving gender equality means men no longer have to be burdened with being the breadwinners and they can therefore pursue their true career goals. It means that women aren’t forced to stay in violent relationships that put their daughters and sons in danger, simply because she economically depends on his financial support.

By not doing enough, either intentionally or unintentionally, to help women overcome these barriers we are limiting half of the population – mothers, wives, sisters and daughters.

While the biggest changes to society have typically occurred thanks to democratic movements mobilised by ordinary people, sometimes to create positive change governments must step in. For the sake of Australian democracy the parliament should be a true reflection of the society we live in. There’s a long way to go, but women is where it starts.

Categories: opinion, politics, women's issuesTags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Brianna Piazza

Journalist and travel writer.

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