Despite recent optimism, gender inequality persists in Australian society Essay

‘Despite recent optimism, gender inequality persists in Australian society.’ Evaluate the extent of gender inequality in Australia, citing examples from within politics, the law, workforce, the household and education.

Gender is not simply a case of dichotomous oraginisation. It is also used as a basis of inclusion and exclusion, of inequality of life chances, of restriction of choices, and for relationships which reflect power and powerlessness (Furze and Stafford, 1994: 247).

Women in general are in a socially inferior position to men, although both men and women have access to a range of positions. The ranking of women as inferior to men leads to the former having more restricted opportunities for social interaction. Inferiority of social position is manifested in the things that women do being valued less than the things men do. Women are expected to defer to men in social contexts. Men have greater access to means of coercion in order to enforce their will through both physical and symbolic violence. Women are permitted to compete in male arenas on masculine terms, and these terms inevitably define women as ‘second best (Furze and Stafford, 1994: 247).’

Stratification by gender was once legitimised by reference to the complementary roles of women and men. Women were responsible for the emotional or expressive side of life, and men were responsible for the breadwinning, or instrumental side of life. Like segregation of blacks from whites, the notion was ‘separate but equal (Furze and Stafford, 1994: 248).’

Gender is a fundamental condition of people’s participation in, and experience of work, as well as one of the fundamental organising conditions of the work place. Men’s identities are grounded in work, whereas women’s identities are grounded in family membership. For men, the family is a support, for women it is a competing responsibility (Newman, 2000: 447).

From the earliest phases of industrial society, the work place has come to be considered the men’s sphere, with the home belonging to the women and children. The physical separation of activities has been supported by the social separation of tasks according to gender, with men responsible for working and ‘breadwinning’ and women ‘relieved’ of the responsibility of supporting themselves through paid work (Newman, 2000: 446).

This myth of ‘separate but equal’ was destroyed by two associated social movements of the 1960’s. The first was the expanding women’s movement, which was highly critical of the ideal of ‘women’s place is the home’. The second social movement was the increased recruitment of married women, including mothers, in the paid workforce, partly to provide for the growing need for labour, and partly to solve the problem of female poverty (Furze and Stafford, 1994: 252).

The idea that women’s place was in the home and that married woman did not work had been an ideal of industrial society, although never a reality. There were many successive campaigns conducted by women in order to achieve equal pay and recognition of their work as ‘skilled’. Their account shows job segregation on the basis of sex has been a feature of all industrial societies, and this has not changed a great deal (Bilton and Bonnett, 1984: 109).

The institution of the living or ‘basic’ wage was set for male workers as a rate that would provide for a man, his wife and dependent children. The rate for women workers was set as a percentage of this, on the basis that women had no dependence. This principle remained part of wage-fixing procedures until the equal pay decision of 1969, and the introduction of legalisation to remove the sex difference in pay rates in 1972 (Newman, 2000: 461).

In 1972, the average weekly earnings of full-time female workers were 65 per cent of the average weekly earnings of full-time male workers. This was before equal pay legalisation was passed. In May 1991, the ratio had improved to 84.5 per cent for full-time ordinary earnings, but when overtime and other payments were included, average weekly earnings for women employed on a full-time basis were 81 per cent of average weekly earnings of full-time employed men (Furze and Stafford, 1994: 253). This indicates that introduction of the equal pay principle improved women’s earning capacity, but not to the point where it equaled men’s (Newman, 2000: 462).

The participation of women in the workforce is now accepted as a matter of course, with women making up 42 per cent of the labour force.

In Australia, as in other industrial countries, the workforce was highly segregated by sex, with women being concentrated in the ‘female’ areas of clerical sales and service work, and men dominating in administration, politics, trades, transport, technical, and primary industry work (Newman, 2000: 462). Recent analyses indicate that the lines between men’s and women’s work are blurred. While women are found in a much wider range of occupations then before, and men are found in the upper rankings of women’s work, the majority of work is still gender typed (Newman, 2000:463).

The education system is a major focus for attempting to change gender patterns. However, in the past the curriculum was based at least partly on the expectation that girls and boys would grow up to different adult roles; the curriculum reflected this. Boys were taught the skills that would take them into a career of some kind, and most girls were taught domestic skills (Spencer, 1979: 403).

Equal opportunity for girls in schools has been on the educational policy agenda since the publication in 1975 of the Schools Commission Report. The report drew attention to the ways in which the existing system disadvantaged girls, resulting in a waste of skill and talent for society, as well as frustration for individuals. It showed that there were disadvantages suffered by women because of a gender-divided curriculum, taking for granted that the interests and futures of girls and boys were different. The results for girls included less schooling, gender-determined jobs, economic disadvantage, and a double-bind where girls were expected to ‘do their best’- but not better than boys (Furze and Stafford, 1994: 249).

In the decade which followed various policies were suggested to remedy the disadvantages, and to encourage girls to broaden their career aspirations and take on traditionally ‘masculine’ areas, like science, mathematics, and technology. In this phase of change, equal opportunity was interpreted to mean not differentiating on the basis of sex, effectively treating girls just like boys, allowing or encouraging them to do ‘boys things’, and expecting that this would result in girls having the same kinds of outcomes as boys (Spencer, 1979: 405).

Even today, children at preschool level are already aware not only of preferred gender patterns, but also of the links between masculinity and power, and femininity and nurturance. Therefore, children recongnise gender at an early age, and are actively engaged in constructing their own positions in the ‘discourses of gender’ (Furze and Stafford, 1994: 252).

The law can be understood as a formal agreement among members of society as to what constitutes appropriate parameters for action. In most cases the law follows social change rather than leading it, although for some sections of society it represents an institution for change. Gender relations are in part regulated by the law, although they are also negotiated between individuals (Bilton and Bonnet, 1984: 129).

In earlier decades, marriage law supported the husband’s authority as head of the family, with the right to direct and correct his wife and children. Marriage was a biding contract which could only be broken through the fault of one partner, so divorce required fault to be established and blame to be borne (Bilton and Bonnet, 1984: 130). In the late 1960s in Australia, sexuality, marriage and family life became subjects for public debate, and changes were made. The Family Law Act of 1975 was a legal acknowledgment of changes in attitudes. It formalised equality between marriage partners and replaced the various grievances which provided grounds for divorce (Bilton and Bonnett, 1984: 130).

Industrial law has also had some impact on gender relations and life chances. Anti-Discrimination legilisation such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, has made it unlawful in most cases to select or reject an employee on the basis of sex. There remains, however, the interesting peculiarity of special protection for women under certain occupational health and safety regulations, which conflicts with the principle of equal access to the employment under the Sex Discrimination Act (Bilton and Bonnett, 1984: 131).

Restrictions on lifting heavy weights or working in hazardous conditions have been used as a rationale for denying women work in ‘dangerous’ occupations which carry higher rates of pay. Anti-discrimination legislation, for instance, provides the means for any woman who believes she has been the subject of unfair discrimination to take action and seek compensation (Furze and Stafford, 1994: 259). It has also been a means by which the principle of equal rights to employment, access to training and selection, and promotion of the basis of skill, not gender, has been publicised and debated (Bilton and Bonnett, 1984: 131).

Another area in which gender has had an impact on the law, with the legal system being involved in regulating gender relations, is the manifestation of patriarchal power in domestic violence and sexual assault. The incidence of these types of crimes is difficult to establish because, until recently, both have been considered ‘private’ relationships (Bilton and Bonnett, 1984: 132).

Masculine aggression has been socially approved, provided it is channeled through sport and war, where it is directed towards other men.

Changes in women towards greater independence and assertiveness have been met by men with some confusion and uncertainty. The protective response is no longer considered appropriate, but new forms of mutual respect are still being negotiated.

Older explanations of gender inequality drew on the concept of ‘natural difference.’ Masculinity and femininity were seen as naturally and desirably different and complementary. Boys and men were supposed to be ‘naturally’ more ambitious and aggressive, with protective instincts. Girls and women were ‘naturally’ more deferential, more concerned with being pleasant and attractive. These qualities were seen as desirable, if not innate.

It is now more acceptable for western women to have careers as well as children, and to be ambitious and compete with men on masculine terms. However, for most women this is still not possible.

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