Signs of hope for a more gender equal future

This is a narrative about the journey from apathy to activism in working towards gender equality. From the early 1990s to around 2009, the conversation on gender equality had stalled. Young women (incorrectly) thought they had equality and that they could relax into a newly equal world. Thankfully, that apathy has now shifted and the conversation has been reinvigorated, giving us new hope for a gender equal future.

Dr Linda Peach

At the recent (October 2017) Growth Faculty summit in Sydney, Women World Changers, renewed hope about where the conversation on gender equality is taking us as a society was firmly on the agenda.  Professor Cordelia Fine’s work on neurosexism, emphatically debunking the myth that women and men come from different planets; Richard Denniss’ willingness to tackle the male dominance of economic privilege and his clear advice to young women – with things the way they are, don’t have children if you want to have an equal chance at financial security as the men in your sphere; Elizabeth Broderick’s work on sexual harassment and sex discrimination in Australia’s universities and her continued work to change attitudes to women in our society; even just the fact that there was a reasonable sprinkling of men in attendance speaks of new conversations and new sources of hope for a gender equal future.

Back in the late noughties when I was researching and writing my Ph.D thesis, the conversation about gender equality had stalled.  I was constantly dismayed about how many young women would say “We don’t need feminism” and “We already have equality” with the silent addendum, “Silly old duck”.  My consternation turned to concern and eventually to anger at the ways that women had been cheated out of their own deserved sense of injustice by a world that was determined to protect the interests and privileges of the patriarchy.  When I had the opportunity to do a Ph.D, this was my burning interest – what was driving young women towards mute acceptance of an unequal future?

A Ph.D, by its nature, means burying yourself in literature and other people’s research.  Over those five years, I read roughly a thousand academic papers and books (possibly not every word, but certainly enough to get a really good grasp of the plot).  From Susan Faludi’s ‘Backlash’ to Alice Eagly’s Social Roles Theory to Bandura’s Social Learning Theory to Glick & Fiske’s Ambivalent Sexism Theory… taking side roads into Catherine Hakim’s rebuttal of feminist thought and looking into religious tenets that influence gender equality.  I began to understand – really understand – the nature of inequalities, of patriarchy and power, of feminism and femininity, and of traditional and emerging masculinities.

In my research, I ran focus groups with women of all ages from 18 onwards and listened to their stories of limitations, denigrations and denials, of wishful thinking and frustrating ignorance.  I sighed at their fundamental acceptance of the fate of being female, born of their understanding that fighting it was too hard.  I did online surveys with hundreds of young women and young men and despaired at their responses.  I wondered if it was futile to even try to change such a deeply entrenched system of inequality.

I went to feminist seminars and listened to women who had fought the battles of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  I heard weariness, defensiveness and despair.  I saw women who had fought all their lives for justice and who just kept trying, even when they were being told to shut up by younger women.  I presented at conferences in Australia and in Europe that were about academic research into women’s careers, mostly focused on work-life balance, motherhood and health.  Even at these conferences, the spectre of the patriarchy was not often directly challenged. Young women at some of these conferences said to me, “That may be what your research participants say, but it’s not what any of my friends expect to happen!”

Sometime in those first couple of years of my research, Elizabeth Broderick came to speak at the University of Queensland.  She had just finished her first listening tour around Australia and I had avidly read everything I could find about it.  I listened to this powerful woman who so clearly wanted to make a real difference, and I felt a glimmer of hope.

I finished my Ph.D in 2012 and around that time, a number of things happened that began to shift the conversation about gender equality forever.  Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn were becoming serious knowledge exchange platforms with clout and people started using them to talk about issues that the mainstream media preferred to ignore.  On those platforms, women’s rights and gender equality began to have a voice again.

Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female Prime Minister (I heard about it first on Facebook).  Malala Youfsazi was shot in the head on her way to school for the crime of being a woman who wanted to be educated (Facebook again).  Tony Abbott began to offend women all over Australia and the world with his attitudes and behaviour towards women in general and Julia Gillard in particular (discussed at length on every social media platform known to humankind).  The Misogyny Speech happened (have you heard the Australian Voices’ song about it?  If not, listen here:  https://youtu.be/tpavaM62Fgo).

Issues that had been buried for decades began to resurface – suddenly the gender pay gap was news; commentary about the lack of women in leadership roles had some statistics to back it up and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency was born under new legislation developed by the Gillard government.  Elizabeth Broderick’s Male Champions of Change took off, White Ribbon started making a noise, International Women’s Day gained global momentum. The conversation began to get louder and better informed, and it began to develop a sense of purpose.  The aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election saw the global Women’s Marches that sent shockwaves around the world.

And still, the conversation is too easily sidetracked and undermined by the male-led and largely neoliberal framework of our business and political worlds.  That framework rests on the premise that if you can’t get there without us having to change the way we do things round here, there is something wrong with you personally, so stop blaming structures that restrict your access to opportunity, OK? We let you in the door; if the lift is programmed to operate faster and more efficiently for men, that’s just something you will have to overcome by being patient and taking the stairs.  And from there we end up on the “fixing women” road that ultimately leads us nowhere.

We understand the impact of the problem – lack of women in senior roles; gender pay gaps across every industry and in every organisation; women facing financial hardship and homelessness in retirement; the loss of a huge pool of talented women as pipelines leak successful women who also want to be mothers.

The problem underlying all this – the factor that persistently plagues all attempts to improve gender equality – is that women still do most of the caring and men still largely think they are required only to ‘help’.  The young women in my research overwhelmingly wanted to have children, and they also wanted to work and have careers…. and they already knew at 18 years of age that the men in their lives were very unlikely to take up 50% of parenting duties.  They already knew, at 18 years old, that at some point they would give up part or all of their paid work and careers to be parents.  They knew it with sadness in their hearts and eyes, they knew it with wisdom well beyond 18 years on the planet, and they knew it regardless of what their own parents had done.

Despite so much progress, this is the major barrier to gender equality that just refuses to budge in any meaningful way.

And when Cordelia Fine’s research repeatedly tells us that women’s brains are not in fact hardwired to do caring work; and Richard Denniss looks us all in the eye and tells us the hard, clear, economic reality that women who have children lose out financially; and when we hear from Elizabeth Broderick about the impact of sex discrimination and harassment, and people are nodding their heads at all of this…. Well, that’s hope.

The conversation is no longer stalled.  It is alive and kicking and – despite players on the world stage who do pose a serious and not-to-be-underestimated threat to progress – the apathy and denial that characterised the landscape 10 years ago is no longer in control. New voices are being raised and heard, offering different perspectives and new insights, and those voices are the hope on which a more gender equal future can be built. Our job now is to keep the conversation alive, and face the realities that, when changed, can create those better futures.

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