It's the Culture, Stupid!


As a feminist and researcher, numbers are obviously part of my advocacy and trade skills. Doing surveys, collecting data, showing that women are less represented at various levels of decision making and over-represented in low paid, low powered areas are often part of the core arguments about gender issues. But has this approach led us astray?

The present debate about Julia Gillard’s possible bid for the Labor leadership is a good illustration of problems and an interesting starting point for exploring other approaches.
A single woman as possible PM? The number of mentions of Gillard’s marital status, her clean kitchen, her lack of children could, and probably will, be matched by another woman’s pillorying because of a messy kitchen, marital problems and the time demands of children. So basically women are still being judged differently from men in similar circumstances, and on standards that still reflect sexist judgements.

The passions of seventies’ feminism were diverse but most of us were very clear that we wanted to change the ways the world worked, not just share the spoils of the powerful. When we started programs for greater representation of women in the workplace, the government and powerful institutions we thought that better representation, once the numbers passed the tipping point, would mean that things would change!

In Australia we used UN international Women’s Year, now thirty years ago, to set up programs to raise the proportions of women towards equal numbers in these organisations.
My question is did it work? Yes, that bit did. There are more women in these structures, some even in top oppositions but part two of the intention was forgotten and failed to eventuate. Work places still expect us to work long hours and live male lifestyles or move sideways into a family friendly track. So we become surrogate males but, like most parvenus, we are not really accepted and are still restricted to certain types of behaviours that are deemed to be suitable for us. This is so clearly illustrated in the Gillard case.
Julia Gillard will not win the leadership at this stage because she is from the left and hasn’t the numbers. Given the tribalised games of factions in the ALP, it is highly unlikely that any left winger will move across the divide, particularly not a relatively junior one. So her pitch for leadership is not a gender issue, but a factional one.
So why has the gender issue risen up? Because most institutions, like political parties, public bureaucracies, corporations and others are still operating in male modalities.

There are members of the Party who feel that putting the boot in on the gender issue might gain them a few more brownie points. The Australian quotes a deliberately anonymous Labor back bencher saying, ‘The Australian people won’t cop a left wing sheila’. So rather than the presumed Beazley victory, there are many that want to make Gillard’s defeat fatal by playing the gender card. There are elements of punishing her because she is a woman and that echoes so many other women in politics’ experience with the parties and the media.

Julia Baird recorded the tribulations of women in politics in her book, Media Tarts (Scribe 2004) speculating that the new breed would avoid the traps of playing up to the media and engaging in some possibly risky acts. Gillard has done this, playing the game in a very straight (male) manner: no dress-ups, no stunts, just dogged, and sometimes dour, commitment to the job of shadow Minister. But when she indicates her possible ambitions, it is her gender that gets used against her, because many people, both male and female, still see ambitious women as some form of abomination, while their male peers are welcomed.
This isn’t a problem of men but of masculinised structures and cultures.

There are now many men who do support change and, on the other side, many women who act as gatekeepers for the status quo. Many of the latter have successfully used the current system by conforming to its limiting stereotypes. They, therefore, vigorously defend the way things worked for them and are probably more comfortable in its maintenance. Like other parvenus, they fear that change may dislodge them.
Some younger women don’t view the gender issue through simplistic assumptions about patriarchal power.

Many see these issues as questions of individual choice. If they choose to have children, then they wear the disadvantages. If they choose to move up, they don’t procreate at the same time. They see this as a personal, not political problem and not rooted in conflict between men and women, per se. I can see their logic but think they under estimate the difficulties and fail to realise their structural aspects. On the other hand, we need to recognise the failure of our overly simplistic views about numbers, so I have started to rethink how we deal with it.

One option I’ve been exploring is to move out of an equality debate into an ethical one: is it fair to have hidden rules which make it harder for workers with children to be promoted? Is it good practice to limit the experiences of senior management and boards to those with very similar backgrounds and life experience? Why do senior men have lots of children while most women in senior positions are childless? Does this mean we still lack primary carer views in senior decision making? No wonder we haven’t achieved the culture changes we assumed were inevitable.

We have failed to change the cultures of the organisations concerned; as organisational theory suggests, these have proved extraordinarily resilient. They have absorbed diversity and created monotony. This puts all women who fail to conform to their allowed roles to be demonised.

Gillard is just the most recent example, and it’s hard to work out how much is media hype and how much Labor ossification. Whichever, the lesson for us is feminism has not won if the numbers increase, but the problem remains. So we have to find more complex ways of undermining the structures that create dysfunctional societies because of its limited meme pool.

Natasha Cica, founding editor of, in today’s Sydney Morning Herald also questions the reaction to Gillard’s lack of a nuclear family to call her own.

‘It’s the product of a political culture that is now sort of OK about women being around in public life in credibly high numbers, but is still really comfortable only when they’re functioning as lower to mid-level accessories to the game. As geisha girls, not geologists, to bastardise my favourite line from the movie Japanese Story. The problems seem to start when they actually want to steer the four-wheel-drive, make no apologies about it, and feel they are no less feminine for their feistiness.

At one level this is as simple as double standards. Most prominent Australians, competent in fields from politics to sport to business, are neither single nor childless.’

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